How heat waves, climate change put people with disabilities at risk

(NEW YORK) — It was more than 90 degrees in Moranda Rasmussen’s Portland, Oregon, apartment during a historic heat wave late last month when the 27-year-old began to panic. They have cerebral palsy and depression and rely on Supplemental Security Income while they work on their degree.

They said they couldn’t afford an air conditioner and couldn’t charge their electric wheelchair battery because it could easily overheat. Taking antidepressants also wasn’t an option, because it makes it difficult to regulate their body temperature.

Rasmussen said they were left scrambling for a solution to escape the searing heat, which reached a high of 115 degrees. In Portland, the average high temperature in June is around 74 degrees.

“We don’t get temperatures like that in the Pacific Northwest,” Rasmussen said. “I was just really frantic. What if we have more days like this? When am I going to be able to take my medication again? When am I going to be able to charge my wheelchair again?”

With heat waves battering the Northwest and Northeast and heatwave season extending and intensifying, people with disabilities like Rasmussen are preparing for the worst. Though climate change is impacting communities across the globe, experts say disabled people will likely be adversely affected by global weather extremes, including events where evacuation is needed.

It is unclear how many of the 106 people who are believed to have died due to the heat wave in Oregon were disabled. In Multnomah County, many of those who died were found alone and without air conditioning or a fan, according to the county medical examiner. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of the people who die from hyperthermia-related causes, when the body is unable to cool itself, had an underlying cardiovascular condition.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury has since demanded that local agencies work to open three 24-hour cooling centers and nine cooling spaces, reach out to seniors, people with disabilities and pregnant women directly, and coordinate with 60 outreach groups focused on people without housing or shelter.

Rasmussen, along with climate and disability activists, is calling on policymakers to not only remember disabled residents in their emergency plans but to turn the tide on climate change in an effort to mitigate the plights of people with disabilities in the future.

“Disabled people are the first people to be set aside,” Rasmussen said. “A lot of policy around disabled folks needs to change.”

1 in 4 adults in the US

In a study by the United Nations, the organization affirmed that climate change will continue to have direct and indirect impacts on the human rights of people with disabilities. In climate emergencies, disabled people disproportionately experience higher rates of morbidity and mortality, and are typically the least able to access emergency support, the study said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a disability as any mental or physical condition that makes it “more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities” or “interact with the world around them.” Some 61 million adults, or 1 in 4, have a disability in the United States, and roughly one billion people across the globe have some kind of disability.

The diverse population includes people with mental illnesses, chronic health conditions, physical or visual impairments and others.

“I cannot sweat to cool down my body — if it’s a very hot day, I don’t have that thermoregulation,” said Alex Ghenis, a disability and climate activist who founded Accessible Climate Strategies, a disability consulting organization, who has a severe spinal cord injury and lives in Oakland, California. “Anybody really with a cardiovascular or chronic health condition is going to be disproportionately affected by extreme heat events on the physiological level.”

However, the way that climate change affects people with disabilities is as diverse as the population.

“With folks experiencing the effects of wildfire smoke, a lot of disabilities have respiratory components to them,” Ghenis said. “Someone with asthma is going to have a hard time with smoke, and someone who uses a ventilator is going to have a hard time with the smoke.”

Director of the Disability Mobility Initiative Anna Zivarts said her organization aims to help people who don’t have transportation or accessible forms of public transportation to get around.

Transportation is vital to escaping wildfires, heading to a cooling shelter, stockpiling goods during an emergency, or getting to a health professional. Even when they arrive, many public facilities are inaccessible to people with mobility impairments, service animals and more.

Almost 14% of disabled people have a mobility disability, with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs, according to the CDC.

Disabled people are also more likely to be impoverished and experience high unemployment rates, according to the National Council on Disability, an independent U.S. agency.

“Many folks in the disability community are poor,” Zivarts said. “So they can’t afford to flee, to relocate, to get air conditioners, to have a car, to hire an Uber. There’s so many reasons that people get trapped or stuck in situations that are really, really harmful.”

This often gives them a disadvantage when it comes to fighting, escaping, or living with the consequences of climate change.

A way forward

Climate activists, in agreement with the United Nations’ findings, recommend collaborations with leaders of the disability rights movement to create accessible and disability-inclusive solutions to climate change and emergency events.

“We are constantly having to move and live in a world that doesn’t exist for us,” Marlena Chertock said. “People are forced to create workarounds and build things that work for themselves and come up with creative solutions. So, there’s a lot that people could learn from people with disabilities.”

Columbia University’s Climate Adaptation Initiative states that protections for people with disabilities are essential in emergency planning and that as long as much of the country’s infrastructure remains inaccessible, it prioritizes the non-disabled and puts disabled people at risk.

Ghenis said that the solutions range from simple fixes — like, making emergency shelters accessible and providing quality public transportation — to structural changes that could lift disabled people out of poverty and ensure that they’re protected in an emergency.

Rasmussen went online to vent about their poor living conditions — and after their plea for help went viral, they were able to crowd-fund an air conditioner. They want lawmakers to know that disabled activists are prepared to hold them accountable.

“One of the biggest things that lawmakers and policymakers can do is really put pressure on these corporations to do better,” Rasmussen said. “Things definitely need to change.”

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