Climate change and (im)mobility of persons with disabilities


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Art by Poulami Banerjee, courtesy of the author.

In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that human mobility would be the most noticeable impact of climate change. Extreme weather events (storms, floods, heat waves) and changes in mean temperatures, precipitation, and sea-level rise will enhance human mobility. Both short-distance and short-term movements are likely to increase, with the most vulnerable experiencing considerable difficulty or inability to move. It is estimated that by 2050 the extent of climate-related displacement could reach nearly 200 million people, of whom 18 million would be persons with disabilities (PWDs). Among the most vulnerable groups, PWDs are likely to experience increased hardships adapting to climate change impacts. They are likely to be left behind when others move on, with the consequent loss of crucial social and support networks. PWDs are also typically among the poorest within their communities due to poor education, lack of income, and social exclusion, conditioning their ability to move to areas less affected by climate change. PWDs are not a homogenous group and experience these challenges to varying degrees. People with Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) demand particular attention due to their intense mobility challenges, sensory dysfunction, and their need for external devices and support for their activities in daily living (ADL). These conditions render this group one of the most vulnerable during extreme climate events. However, in these hardships lie their resilience. Perceiving PWDs as people with agency and building inclusive practices in climate change adaptation (CCA) measures is the key to building resilience to climate change.


A lot has been discussed on the discriminative impact of climate change. Evidently, an interplay of multiple socio-economic factors such as levels of wealth and education, disability, health status, gender, age, class, and other social and cultural characteristics influences the severity of its impact. The inequality laden within these characteristics entails that specific communities are disproportionately affected and require more nuanced support to cope with or adapt to climate change. As a key adaptation strategy, climate change triggers human mobility in several ways. Under climate change, people may move to seek alternative livelihood options, in response to increased drought or desertification, sea-level rise and frequent flooding, or the sustained warming of atmospheric temperature and increased soil salinity that decreases agricultural production. Frequently occurring disasters associated with climate extremes influence mass population mobility and relocation as some areas are rendered unsuitable for living and maintaining livelihoods


Mobility playing a vital role in adaptation to climate change, PWDs experience considerable challenges, more specifically in the aftermath of extreme climate events. Although disasters like hurricanes, floods, and cyclones adversely impact the whole population, PWDs are disproportionately affected, sustaining higher morbidity and mortality rates. According to UNDESA, because of their impaired mobility or senses, PWDs are more likely to be left behind or abandoned during evacuation in disasters due to a lack of preparation and planning, as well as inaccessible facilities and services and transportation systems. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina disproportionately impacted 155,000 people with disabilities ranging from visual and physical impairments to learning disabilities. Elderly individuals drowned in their wheelchairs and beds inside St Rita’s Nursing Home as floodwaters rose. The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 witnessed an exceptionally high mortality rate among PWDs, which more than doubled that of the entire population (2.06% among PWDs against 1.03%). Emergency evacuation shelters did not appropriately respond to the functional needs of PWDs. The Japanese Society for Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities argues that the tsunami has ‘left a deep and extensive scar in the disability sector, amongst other domains’. Similar fatalities were observed in Haiti, where an estimated 1 million people with disabilities were affected during the 2010 earthquake. Falling buildings and other hazards caused spinal cord injuries and amputations that created new disabilities.



Mobility challenges for people with spinal cord injury in extreme climate events

Increased flooding, hurricanes, and potential fires all could adversely impact people with SCIs. Their distinctive mobility challenges and inability to perform activities of daily living (ADL) without being dependent on assistive devices and carer services are critical issues for consideration in climate risk mitigation and adaptation. When a hurricane strikes, this group encounters multiple mobility-linked challenges, including power outages that render assistive devices and elevators dysfunctional, difficulty in wheelchair navigation due to low visibility, flooding, debris heightening the risk of injuries and drowning, or the unavailability of professional assistance to help them escape the disaster site. In addition, some may experience damage or complete loss of homes and equipment and require relocation. As these disasters also reduce and restrict access to healthcare services, people with SCI, being dependent on others, face further challenges with mobility and ADL


The policies that support mobility are vital for climate adaptation. However, in the international normative framework on mobility, an absence of specialised attention to the subgroups within PWDs is conspicuous and a matter of concern. It is imperative that discussions of climate change and disability include the unique issues of persons with SCI. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 provides guidelines for a disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction strategy. However, it is most pertinent to perceive people with SCI with agency and utilise their experience at every stage of disaster preparedness, risk mitigation, and adaptation. Scholars suggest adopting the slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ while planning Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) strategies for PWDs. With a rich lived experience of navigating through a largely inaccessible environment in their daily life, they can make a vital contribution to overcoming mobility and other barriers and to better design the assistance needed in CCA. With their expert knowledge and skill, people with SCI can plan and build their resilience to extreme climate impacts in collaboration with healthcare professionals and environmental scientists.

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Saradamoyee Chatterjee

Dr Saradamoyee Chatterjee is an Affiliated Lecturer at the Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge. At the Centre, Saradamoyee co-ordinates and lectures a course on migration and human trafficking for MPhil students. She is also a Bye-Fellow and Director of Studies in Land Economy at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. Prior to this, she was a postdoctoral researcher at the Von Hügel Institute (VHI), St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge. Her research focused on the illegal trade in organs in India. Before coming to Cambridge, Saradamoyee completed a PhD in Social Work from the University of Delhi, studying the social adjustment of parents of children with cerebral palsy in India.


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