Climate Change and People with Disabilities

Elizabeth Lockwood.
Author:Elizabeth Lockwood
Posted on: Monday, 29th September, 2014

On Sunday 21 September, more than 300,000 marchers flooded the streets of New York City making it the largest climate change march in history and putting this important issue on the top of the global agenda. In addition, in conjunction to the opening of the 69th UN General Assembly, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted the UN Climate Summit on Tuesday, 23 September. It was lovely timing since it was also the Fall Equinox (Spring Equinox for my friends in the Southern Hemisphere – !Hola Uruguay!)

Due to this high-level event, climate change has been a pervasive topic at the UN and in NYC and this theme will continue to be important as the post-2015 development agenda progresses. One example is that the newly appointed President of General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, will hold a High-level Event on Combating Climate Change in June 2015.

With this increased emphasis on climate change and related disaster risk reduction (DRR) – in the post-2015 process, it is crucial that persons with disabilities are included in these conversations, debates and initiatives. Why is this important?

It is important because weather-related disasters are increasing in number and severity and the number of people affected by them has risen. Disasters and their aftermath have a huge impact on persons with disabilities who are among the most vulnerable in an emergency, sustaining disproportionately higher rates of morbidity and mortality, and at the same time being among those least able to access emergency support. For example, research indicates that the mortality rate among persons with disabilities was twice that of the rest of the population during the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami (UN, 2013). Moreover, for every person that dies during a disaster, it is estimated that three people sustain an injury, many causing long-term disabilities, such as the case in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake in which approximately 200,000 people are expected to live with long-term disabilities as a result of injuries (UN Enable, 2013).

Persons with disabilities are often forgotten, and most likely to be abandoned during disasters (DiDRRN, 2013)as well as more likely to be invisible and overlooked in emergency relief operations (Choy, 2009). When the emergency hits they may have difficulty reaching safe areas, become separated from family and friends which is a key to survival and coping, have trouble accessing vital emergency information, or lose assistive devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, prostheses, white canes or hearing aids. In addition, moving and transferring persons with disabilities requires handling techniques to avoid injury or further injury. Yet, the first-ever UN global survey of persons living with disabilities and how they cope with disasters indicates that the percentage of those with disabilities who could evacuate with no difficulty almost doubles if they were given sufficient time. This underlines the importance of early warning systems and ensuring that warnings reach all members of the community regardless of any mobility or communication barriers (UNISDR, 2013).

For the few who are evacuated, shelters are not accessible and consequently survivors with disabilities are also excluded from the emergency responses: including food, basic needs and health support. In addition, in the aftermath of a disaster, the damage to infrastructure caused by extreme weather events can reduce or completely remove access and safe mobility. Inclusive practice in all relief operations is needed to ensure that response and service delivery is not fragmented but mindful of all sources of vulnerability (Kett & Scherrer, 2009).


  • Strong advocacy by and with persons with disabilities is needed to ensure disability inclusion is a key criterion in all emergency relief operations
  • The evidence base concerning the vulnerability of persons with disabilities in weather-related emergencies, and key factors, which create resilience, need to be greatly strengthened, with key messages disseminated.
  • Evaluations of both emergency and development programmes, in areas affected by a changing climate, need to clearly include disability in their terms of reference.
  • Early warning systems need to ensure that warnings reach all members of the community, including persons with disabilities regardless of mobility or communication barriers.
  • In the reconstruction phase following severe weather and other emergencies, it is essential that universal accessibility standards are applied in all public buildings and spaces, water and sanitation points and for the homes where people with mobility disabilities live.


Choy, R. (2009). Disasters are always inclusive: Vulnerability in humanitarian crises, Development Bulletin, Special Issue No. 73, April 2009, Development Studies Network, ANU, Canberra.

DiDRRN. (2013) Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Simulation Exercise. From: www.

Kett, M and Scherrer, V. (2009). The Impact of Climate Change on People with Disabilities. Report of e-discussion hosted by The Global Partnership for Disability & Development (GPDD) and The World Bank (Human Development Network – Social Protection/Disability & Development Team).

UN. (2013). Panel Discussion on Disaster resilience and disability: ensuring equality and inclusion. United Nations Headquarters on October 10, 2013.

Enable. (2013). Disability, natural disasters and emergency situations: A need to include persons with disabilities. From:

UNISDR. (2013, October 10). UN Global Survey Explains Why So Many People Living with Disabilities Die in Disasters. [Press release 2013/29].

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