October 14, 2022 Hurricane Ian Highlighted Why Climate Plans Must Consider Disabled People

Madeline Thayer is helped off a rescue vehicle as she evacuates the island on Oct. 2, 2022 in Pine Island, Florida. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Madeline Thayer is helped off a rescue vehicle as she evacuates the island on Oct. 2, 2022 in Pine Island, Florida. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

At least 127 people have died in Florida because of Hurricane Ian, officials said, with another five deaths in North Carolina—a stark reminder of the consequences for society’s slow reaction to an increasingly dire climate crisis. But as stories from individual survivors continue to emerge, Ian has also become the latest symbol to highlight how governments are failing to protect one of the most vulnerable populations to global warming’s impacts: disabled people.

As Florida continues to piece itself back together after Ian devastated the state last month, some survivors are offering a glimpse into the difficult and dangerous reality those with physical and mental disabilities often face when disasters strike.

For Darcy Bishop, who takes care of her two adult brothers with cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s disease, that meant physically dragging one of her brothers, who weighs nearly 170 pounds and can’t bend his knees, up a flight of stairs as flood waters quickly filled their home. Though she and her brothers were eventually rescued by a family member with a canoe, Bishop recalled in an interview with the New York Times the dramatic moment she thought they were going to die.

“I’m sorry but I don’t think we’re going to make it,” Bishop told her mother on the phone, crying—after an hour, she had helped her brother climb just eight steps and the water was still rising. “I love you guys. I did all I could. I just wanted to call and tell you.”

For others, like Roy Key, Ian’s impact meant losing access to essential medications. The 87-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran suffers chronic pain from a recent accident that broke his hip and femur, as well as a shoulder injury he received while serving. When the storm knocked out nearby hospitals and clinics, leaving Key no way to get his prescriptions, he was forced to suffer through morphine withdrawal and intense nerve pain. A handful of Floridians even died because they couldn’t reach emergency medical services, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.

Experts say those kinds of situations will only become more common as climate change accelerates, driving more intense storms, heat waves, wildfires and other natural disasters. The World Health Organization estimates that about 15 percent of the global population lives with a disability, and a growing chorus of health professionals and human rights activists are calling on their governments to do a better job of protecting that population from climate-related threats in the coming years.

Roughly 1.2 million Floridians with disabilities are believed to have been impacted by Hurricane Ian, according to one disability advocacy nonprofit. And that number may not fully reflect the millions of other Floridians with disabilities who are institutionalized in the state’s numerous nursing homes, many of which are located in counties where flooding and tropical storms are an increasingly common threat.

In the United States, some 41 million adults live with a disability that makes them more vulnerable to climate change than the general population, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That can be for a variety of reasons, the agency said, including policymakers failing to consider the needs of disabled people in their plans and emergency planners failing to design their warning systems to accommodate those who are blind, deaf or have some other communication impairment. People with disabilities are also more likely to need ongoing medical care that can be disrupted by a disaster, like Ian, and they’re more likely to have socioeconomic factors, such as unemployment, compounding those risks.

Besides storms, extreme heat and drought can also pose a serious threat to people with disabilities. For example, people with spinal cord injuries can have a far harder time regulating their body temperature and keeping cool. The same goes for people who take certain medications, such as antipsychotics, which can inadvertently increase the risk of heatstroke and dehydration. And people with multiple sclerosis also tend to feel more pain in hot weather conditions.

When a 2018 heat wave in Montreal, Canada, sent temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit and killed 61 people, researchers pointed out that a quarter of the deaths occurred among people diagnosed with schizophrenia—a serious mental condition that is typically treated with antipsychotics. “That’s 500 times their share of the population,” Sébastien Jodoin, a professor at McGill University who studies how climate change affects people with disabilities, told BBC News.

But Jodoin, who has multiple sclerosis himself and is a leading researcher in the field, is among a relatively small number of scientists who are exploring that intersection. Many in the science community have said people with disabilities are drastically understudied when it comes to climate research. But that’s starting to change, and the findings so far paint a pretty bleak picture.

Not only do people with disabilities face a mortality rate up to four times higher than their able-bodied counterparts during natural disasters, but pre-existing psychosocial disabilities—such as schizophrenia or depression—appear to triple the risk of death during heat waves, two Harvard University researchers pointed out in an article published last year in the medical journal Lancet

To make matters worse, world leaders don’t appear to be taking the matter seriously, according to Jodoin’s most recent study. That research, which was published this summer, concluded that people with disabilities are being “systematically ignored” by governments around the world when it comes to the climate crisis. That’s despite 185 countries ratifying the 2006 United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, under which they pledged to take “all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities” during “humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters.”

The Paris Agreement requires its signatory countries to consider people with disabilities in their plans to address climate change. But just 35 of the 192 member nations even mentioned disabled people in the plans they submitted under the accord, Jodoin’s study found. In fact, among the developed countries with wealthy economies, only Canada mentioned people with disabilities in its adaptation plan.“We are still failing people with disabilities, especially multiply-marginalized people, before, during and after disasters,” Marcie Roth, CEO of the World Institute on Disability, told Congress during a July hearing. “We need your help to address urgent, immediate, lifesaving steps (government agencies) can take to serve disaster-impacted people and communities being left out and left behind.”

Today’s Indicator

15

In the U.S., that’s the number of natural disasters so far this year that have caused at least $1 billion in damage. Hurricane Ian, the most recent disaster to fall under this category, is estimated to have caused between $53 billion and $74 billion in damages.