Climate Change is a Double Blow for People with Disabilities
Pratyush Nalam, a software professional in Hyderabad, India

HYDERABAD – Pratyush Nalam, a software professional in this south-central Indian city that has become a global tech outpost for Silicon Valley, moves around his house in his wheelchair. He has spinal muscular atrophy and cannot walk, so his family members help him. 

Though the monsoon season in Hyderabad brings lots of precipitation from the end of June to early October, scientists say the rains are getting even heavier due to climate change. And that, says Nalam, is making life tougher for people than summer heat or winter’s chills.

“Getting to a dry place quickly is a challenge,” Nalam says of the growing challenge he faces in just getting around. “Bus stops don’t have shelters and are far to get to – and accessible transport is not available in most cases.”

The combined detrimental effects from a lack of inclusive planning or early warning systems, less information and transportation options, and overall discriminatory attitudes has driven the global mortality rate for people with disabilities who experience natural disasters up to four times higher than it is for people without disabilities, according to a Lancet report.

Nalam said that during heavy rains “we cannot see the bumps on the roads or sidewalks, which make it riskier to drive our wheelchairs.”

Hotter and hotter norms

Summer in India has temperatures that regularly climb into the high 30C.

Europe has suffered wildfires, evacuations and heat-related deaths this summer, as heat waves force temperatures above 40 degrees C in places like Portugal and France – only slightly hotter than the warmest season in Hyderabad, where temperatures regularly climb into the high 30s C during the pre-monsoon summer from late March to early June.

Still, a devastating heat wave that scientists say was made more likely by climate change has baked India and Pakistan in recent months, with some cities in the two neighboring countries reaching around 45 to 50 C.

Across Europe and Asia, record temperatures have challenged daily lives, posing serious health risks to families, students, businesspeople and travelers. As with most other natural and manmade disasters, the people that suffer the most often are those that are the most marginalized.

“Extreme heat is the root cause of all of the catastrophic events that we are experiencing, from wildfires to drought, hurricanes, storm surges, and flooding,” said Wendy Nystrom, an environmental and pollution risk management consultant in Los Angeles.

Among those most affected by climate change

Aunia Kahn

Persons with disabilities are frequently among the worst affected by climate change, similar to the disproportionately higher rates of morbidity and mortality they suffer in emergencies while also being among the least able to get emergency assistance.

“It feels that I am always living in a bubble. I am allergic to heat and cold and this makes me very vulnerable to climate change,” said Aunia Kahn, a disabled U.S. business owner in Eugene, Oregon, who struggles with rare chronic illnesses such as Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, and Dysautonomia.

Certain conditions of disability are disproportionately affected by global warming. For example, people with spinal cord injuries cannot cool themselves during excessive heat while people with multiple sclerosis feel more pain and fatigue during hot weather conditions.

Some 15% of the world’s population have a disability, the World Bank reported. Many people with them also live in extreme poverty, exacerbating their vulnerability to climate change due to a general lack of proper sanitation, health care, nutrition or safe drinking water.

“Earth is warming and global warming is the main reason for the extreme heat waves. Heat intensity is increasing and reducing the quality of our lives,” said Dr. Roxy Mathew Koll of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, India. “The vulnerable are the ones who are the most impacted.”

Dr Roxy Mathew Koll

An increasing human rights issue

But the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment should be the same for all irrespective of differences such as caste and creed, the UN General Assembly determined in a landmark resolution approved in late July.

The assembly’s 161-0 vote with eight abstentions by Belarus, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Syria gives momentum to the work of activists and citizens seeking greater legal and regulatory protections.

It followed a 43-0 vote on a similar resolution last October in the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council – with China, India, Japan and Russia abstaining.

Lack of mobility in emergencies is life-threatening 

People with disabilities and women and children in South Asia and Africa are more vulnerable to severe weather events like heat waves, floods, cyclones and storm surges, according to experts.

This is because they have less access to information on climate adaptation, rarely benefit from government aid and have fewer economic privileges than men.

And extreme weather events like cyclones and floods are intensifying in a very short time, giving disabled people little time to move to safety, according to Koll.

“People with disabilities, particularly with mobility issues, have limited capacity to respond to emergency situations during an extreme weather event,” he said.

But only 10% of people with disabilities believe their local government has emergency, disaster management, or risk reduction plans that address their access and functional needs, according to a UN report. And just 20.6% said they could self-evacuate without difficulty in the event of a sudden disaster, a UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction online survey found.

climate change
A hot day in Hyderabad

For the old and young, climate change presents difficulties. Vishnu Kumar, a 75 year old man from Hyderabad, suffered a paralytic stroke three years ago and has been confined to a bed and wheelchair since then. As with many elderly, the excessive heat zaps his energy and the frequent power cuts only increase his discomfort, adding to friction in his family.

And for student Rohit Reddy, eczema and allergies worsened during summers in the coastal city of Mumbai, costing him time needed for his studies. “I had to shift to Hyderabad because of the flare ups due to extreme humidity, now I may lose an academic year,” Reddy said.

-Updated 16.08.2022 with correction to the name of Pratyush Nalam’s condition as spinal muscular atrophy, not muscular dystrophy.

Image Credits: Skymet , Pratyush Nalam, Aunia Kahn, Roxy Koll, Gulf News.

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