5 Ways to Protect the Planet Without Disenfranchising People With Disabilities

Despite their vulnerability to climate change, people with disabilities often are omitted from relevant policy making.
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A disabled man travels through a flooded area of Chittagong, Bangladesh. The city is facing unprecedented flooding due to rising sea levels.

Photo by K M Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images

People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by disasters, which are worsening and increasing because of climate change. The National Council on Disability estimated that a “disproportionate number of the fatalities” amid Hurricane Katrina were people with disabilities. Typical evacuation routes and disaster plans are often not accessible to this vulnerable group, while interruptions to electricity are deadlier for those who require machines to treat medical conditions.

And it isn’t just disasters like fires, superstorms, and floods. Extreme heat, which up to 75 percent of humanity may be at risk of experiencing by 2100, has adverse physical and mental health effects in healthy individuals. But people with neurological conditions who cannot sweat or regulate body temperature are even more vulnerable to extreme heat.

And those are just a few examples.

The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change’s report released late last year identified poor—and those with disabilities of any kind are more likely to be poor than able-bodied people—and vulnerable (including those with health or physical conditions) people as those who will be affected first and hardest by a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature.

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Despite their vulnerability to climate change, people with disabilities often aren’t involved with climate change-related policy making. That’s what happened with last year’s controversial straw bans, put into effect by Seattle and later implemented by Starbucks and Alaska Airlines. Policies like these—when they don’t adequately include consultation with affected groups or reflect their needs during implementation—can make already vulnerable populations even more vulnerable. In the worst cases, these campaigns can even pit people with vulnerabilities against environmental progress.

Actions that protect the environment don’t have to disenfranchise the disability community. In fact, the needs of people with disabilities are not an impediment to good planet care. They’re essential to it. When we pursue the inclusion of people with disabilities, caring about nature can come naturally. Here are five initiatives that can safeguard people with disabilities and the planet, too.

1. Universal health care

Fixing our health care system is something we all need. Our current health care system is the most expensive in the world and ranks lowest among high-income nations in terms of access, equity, and outcomes. And while we all pay too much for access to care, people with disabilities receive less adequate care than able-bodied people and are more likely to struggle to afford what care they can access. What’s more, the kind of medical supplies insurance companies cover is up to individual insurers—Premera’s policy differs from Medicare’s, and Kaiser has its own approval process. This makes coverage decisions inconsistent, not guaranteed, and often in favor of traditional methods and products, whether they’re the best choice environmentally or medically or not.

Going green, especially when it comes to areas like health care and medicine, has a reputation for being seen as both more expensive and less effective, even by environmentalists themselves, but that’s partly because it continues to be an alternative rather than established practice. Universal health care would standardize coverage and could help make environmentally conscious changes in medical care easier to implement on a large scale without skyrocketing prices, making improved technologies more affordable to people who need them.

2. Disaster planning

As Hurricane Florence’s death toll increased, the idea that people who did not evacuate were “defiant” or “stubborn” made the rounds on social media. But migrating, even temporarily, is both expensive and physically impossible for many people. Civic leaders regularly issue evacuation orders or strong recommendations without backup plans or alternative options for people with disabilities, in large part because people with disabilities are left out of extreme-event planning.

Limited mobility, vision, and hearing are difficult enough when navigating a society that does not regularly consider the needs of all its members; hurricanes, fires, and other extreme events exacerbate these issues. During Hurricane Harvey, a woman with muscular dystrophy had to rely on a friend, after six hours of phone calls, social media posts, and texts, and her former-Marine partner to rescue her. This is not a one-off. A documentary made a year after Hurricane Katrina, called The Right to Be Rescued, explains how people with disabilities have a harder time evacuating and often can’t because they are dependent on medical care in or near the home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created guidelines and resources for disaster planning that incorporates the needs of people with disabilities. Connecticut and other states are beginning to put forth similar manuals as well. Incorporating and even centering the voices of people with disabilities in disaster planning would increase communities’ resilience by making them more aware of the diverse needs among them and thus better able to respond to and protect all members—including the most vulnerable—when climate change-fueled disasters occur.

3. Corporate accountability

Efforts like banning plastic straws can put the burden of the environmental crisis on individuals rather than on the companies producing plastic in the first place. People with disabilities would use straws made out of other material if such utensils met their needs (paper is too flimsy, metal cannot control for temperature and can injure people who experience shakiness or tremors). And ultimately, the reason we have these products is because oil and gas companies are creating and pushing them.

We have the ability to create products and services that can be used more than once, meet the needs of people with disabilities better than what exists, and keep plastic out of landfills; we just need the political will to direct funding and research in that direction. And we need to hold the companies accountable that are actually responsible for things like plastic waste. Corporate Accountability is an organization that organizes a growing campaign to hold transnational corporations accountable when they harm people and the planet. Their focus areas are water, climate, food, tobacco, and democracy, all of which overlap with disability and health issues.

4. Universal design

The principles of universal design aim to move beyond accessibility and accommodation toward inclusivity in architectural design and development. These principles make environments more inclusive, often while conserving more energy and materials than conventional design. Installing ramps, for example, especially in single-family homes, can be less energy-intensive and more cost-effective than stairs, while meeting diverse needs. Installing power doors with motion sensors eases entry into grocery stores and office buildings while cutting down on energy by preventing doors from being left open, savings which can add up.

The Global Universal Design Commission promotes universal design with standards that are modeled after the LEED protocol established by the Green Building Council. GUDC standards aim to promote the development of inclusive environments that meet accessibility codes without energy- and material-intensive retrofitting, adaptation, and construction costs. The Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, Michigan, received GUDC certification in December 2015, making it the first universal design-certified building in the world. While there is not yet data on the environmental impacts of this newly certified building, now the opportunity exists to begin collecting data on the connection between inclusive design and a healthy planet.

5. Stronger environmental regulations

Environmental pollutants harm all of us, but especially the most vulnerable. While those with asthma or more severe breathing disorders such as COPD may be particularly affected by smoke from California’s wildfires and other air pollution, for example, we all need clean air to breathe. According to data collected in 2013 from MIT, air pollution causes 200,000 early deaths a year in the United States. The Clean Air Act, from 1990 to 2020, will have saved 230,000 lives and contributed to 130,000 fewer heart attacks and 1.7 million fewer asthma attacks.

In 2016, disability advocates joined with medical and children’s health supporters to create a coalition pushing to reduce environmental pollutants—primarily toxic chemicals—by increasing regulations on the companies that produce them. The coalition, called Project TENDR, gathers scientific research on the harms of commonly used chemicals, organizes experts in various fields to take action, and has even stood up to chemical companies in court, such as when it moved to ban many household uses of flame retardants in 2017. Members of this coalition have spoken to Congress and other governing bodies in their efforts to reduce preventable birth defects caused by unnecessary use of toxic chemicals and, in the process, safeguard our environment for the future.

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