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Climate Change & Disability

July 2023 by Katherine Warburton-Gibb

Photo by Yomex Owo on Unsplash

The month of July is International Disability Pride month, where we celebrate the achievements and experiences of disabled people. Disabled people are routinely left out of climate change conversations. Currently, 20% of people in the UK and 16% of people globally have a disability or long-term health condition that makes them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Without disability justice, there is no climate justice.

Definition of Disability

In the UK, disability is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. This is based on the outdated medical model of disability. This model is no longer used by the disabled community due to the emphasis on cures and treatments as opposed to removing barriers to inclusion. The World Health Organisation defines disability as the interaction between individuals with a health condition with personal and environmental factors. These factors include negative attitudes, inaccessible transportation, and public buildings, as well as limited social support. This social model of disability is widely accepted by the disabled community as it puts the responsibility on organisations to make spaces accessible.

Disability Exclusion in Emergency Planning

As climate change worsens, we are seeing more extreme weather events. In 2022 we saw devastating floods in Pakistan as well as extreme summer temperatures in the UK. Unfortunately, emergency evacuation plans rarely include provisions for disabled people. A UN survey into this issue revealed that only 14% of disabled people had been consulted as part of the evacuation planning process. Additionally, it was found that shelters and evacuation routes were often inaccessible to wheelchair users and people with physical disabilities.

The 2022 floods in Pakistan affected 5 million disabled people. The International Disability Alliance found that the flood response was inadequate for disabled people who were displaced or harmed by the floods, as evacuation plans had not considered the needs of disabled people.

“People with disabilities and older people will face more obstacles crossing flooded areas and reaching humanitarian aid. It is paramount that emergency response efforts are inclusive and accessible to everyone.”  Caroline Duconseille, Director of Humanity & Inclusion Pakistan.

In the UK, we have started to experience the effects of climate change on our weather. The summer of 2022 saw temperatures recorded at 40˚C for the first time and a red warning issued from the Met Office. High temperatures can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and even death, with an increased risk for disabled people. Last year, 3,271 excess deaths were recorded during the summer heatwaves in England and Wales. As the Met Office predicts that 40˚C summer temperatures will become more common in the future, provisions to help people keep cool must be accessible to disabled people within our communities.

Active Travel and Disabled People

Active travel initiatives are currently being adopted by many local councils in the UK to encourage walking and cycling in place of travelling by car. However, many of these programs assume a certain level of physical fitness or ability to ride a bike which may lead to further isolation of disabled people within that community. The inclusion of disabled people at the consultation stage of active travel projects is essential to ensure that they are accessible to everyone.

“Transforming the pedestrian environment to be accessible to disabled people would have a dramatic impact, enabling so many to enjoy positive impacts to mental and physical health, feeling a part of one’s community, and perhaps stumbling across a new favourite spot.” Katie, Transport for All.

Breda, Netherlands is currently regarded as Europe’s most accessible city due to its commitment to making its streets wheelchair accessible. Breda is an old European town with many cobbled streets. Cobbled pavements are a common access issue for wheelchair users due to their rounded shape. To combat this, the cobbled streets in Breda have been flattened to allow for wheelchair access. The original cobbles were repurposed to maintain the cobbled aesthetic whilst creating a flat surface. This means that disabled people are now able to travel around the city without having to rely on a car.


Eco-ableism refers to disabled people being left out of environmental preservation or climate change actions such as single-use plastic bans and low emissions zones in cities.

The bendy plastic straw was first designed as a disability device and is still an essential tool for many disabled people. Straw bans have now been implemented in many countries, despite single-use plastic straws making up only 0.025% of plastic waste in the ocean. The reusable alternatives to the single-use bendy plastic straw are not suitable for many disabled people to use due to their material or shape. Since the ban came into force in the UK, single-use plastic straws have become more difficult to access as they are no longer sold in supermarkets or available in restaurants.

“Climate action must go hand in hand with climate justice, otherwise all that will happen is that it will increase poverty and inequality for people who are already most impacted.” Kush Kanodia, Disability Rights UK.

Plans to widen London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) met with criticism from Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) as disabled people had not been considered as part of the planned expansion. ULEZ was first introduced in 2019 to cover central London and was expanded to inner London in 2021. The daily charge of £12.50 was thought to be too high for disabled people, especially those who travel daily by car within London. In December 2022, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced changes to include disabled people in ULEZ. These changes included exemption from the daily charge for those who receive the standard and enhanced rate of the PIP mobility component, the higher mobility rate of disability living allowance, and other disability benefits, as well as all those with wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

Improving Inclusion at The Carbon Literacy Project

If you are from the disabled community and would like to share a story in relation to climate justice, please contact us at info@carbonliteracy.com. We would be honoured to help amplify your voice, and share your experiences and thoughts.

We are working to increase the diversity and inclusion of our team. If you are a disabled person or from another group within society that needs stronger representation within the environmental sector and are interested in working with our team, please keep an eye out for job openings, or apply for a volunteer role. If you feel you have something to add to our organisation, we would love your insight and to hear your voice.

Find further insights and information about how climate change affects disabled people via the Disability & Philanthropy Forum.

Katherine (she/them) is a disabled climate activist and freelance writer based in Manchester, UK. For over five years, Katherine has been improving disability inclusion in climate action. They have produced an accessible online climate resource hub as well as articles for disabled people’s organisations and other media outlets. Katherine has an MSc in Environmental Management and currently works in the Certification Team at The Carbon Literacy Project.

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