An orange, hazy sun sits in the dead center of a purply pink sky.

Photograph by Yaorusheng / Getty Images

Society Leaves Disabled Communities Sweltering

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

As temperatures break records across the globe, disabled people face unique risks and challenges.

Stephanie Wills has been legally blind since birth. She was born with chorioretinal coloboma, a condition where a person’s retina does not fully develop in utero. The affliction, which Wills has in both eyes, makes sunlight painful. She often keeps her eyes closed and sleeps during the day to capitalize on the night’s sunless hours. 

 

In Panama, the tropical Central American country where Wills lives, sunlight is inescapable. “It never goes away,” she said. Neither does the heat. And you can’t have heat without light. They make her life as a disabled person exponentially harder. The climate crisis is only making her situation worse.

 

Wills is not alone: she is one of 1.3 billion disabled people across the globe. Despite making up 16% of the population, disabled people remain an overlooked and ignored group—in research, policy, and emergency response. Their marginalization is especially troubling given the Earth’s rapidly rising temperatures. Across the globe, heat records have been breaking left and right this year—from Spain to the American Southwest. Disabled people face acute risks from extreme heat and sun exposure, but they’re often left behind when disaster strikes. 

 

“It’s irresponsible not to include the world’s largest minority group when we’re talking about a worldwide phenomenon like climate change,” said Michael Stein, a wheelchair user and executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. 

 

The climate movement would benefit from the disabled community’s expertise—every movement would—but that requires a society that values their wisdom in the first place.

***

Every disability looks different. Even something like blindness fluctuates from person to person. Wills’s condition, for instance, doesn’t affect only her vision; it also affects the appearance of her eyes. Her pupils are smaller than average, so she often receives nasty comments like, What’s wrong with your eyes? “This is how they treat me,” she said.

 

The rifts widen as you consider the gamut of disabilities that people experience. The United Nations defines disabled people as those who have “long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments.” They can include those living with blindness, deafness, paralysis, Down syndrome, limited mobility, limb loss, autism, and mental illness, to name a few. 

 

Despite their differences, most (if not all) disabled people can attest to society’s unkind treatment toward them. The U.N. highlights that disabilities aren’t determined only by a person’s body. “Attitudinal and environmental barriers” that prevent them from participating fully and equally in society make them disabled, too. 

 

“That’s really important,” said Emina Ćerimović, a senior researcher on climate and disabilities for the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “It’s not just the condition you have but also the barriers in the community that people with disabilities experience that hinders their full participation in society.”

 

Essentially, disabled people exist because those who shape and build the world around them pretend they don’t exist. By ignoring their needs, world leaders are exacerbating their vulnerability. Extreme heat only adds fuel to the fire.

“It’s irresponsible not to include the world’s largest minority group when we’re talking about a worldwide phenomenon like climate change.”

Michael Stein
Wheelchair User and Executive Director, Harvard Law School Project on Disability

The exact level of impact remains a question because no government collects sufficient data to study the impact of extreme weather on disabled people, Ćerimović explained. The data out there suggests that disabled people in the U.S. are two to four times more likely to be injured or die during disaster. (That number also includes older adults because roughly 36% of people 65 or older in the U.S. have at least one disability.)

 

When the historic Pacific Northwest heat wave struck British Columbia, Canada in 2021, 91% of the 619 people who died were disabled or chronically ill. During Spain’s catastrophic heat wave last year, some 4,600 people died, 98% of whom were 65 or older. Many were likely disabled, too, per Human Rights Watch

 

In the Canadian extreme heat event, the highest temperature recorded was 121 degrees Fahrenheit. In the Spanish one, the mercury soared past 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Such temperatures can turn homes without access to cooling into furnaces. Indeed, that’s what ended most lives in Canada.

 

Extreme temperatures can kill anyone, but for disabled people, societal inequities—like income, housing, information access, and isolation—leave them even more susceptible. 

 

“When all these factors come together, that is what is putting these people at higher risk during extreme heat,” Ćerimović said. 

 

Human bodies like to stay around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Once internal temperatures rise past that happy medium, a network of nerves and temperature receptors send a signal for the body to sweat and cool down. “We don’t think of this as something we have conscious control over,” said David W. McMillan, the director of education and outreach at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis with the University of Miami. 

 

Many disabled people, however, can’t sweat. That’s because certain ailments, like spinal cord injury, disrupt the thermoregulatory system. Some medications also impact a person’s ability to sweat—including antidepressants and antipsychotics. Daphne Frias, a climate justice organizer working on disability, climate change, and gun violence prevention, was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. She also takes medication for her anxiety and depression. Because her disability is neurological, she can’t sweat. Her medicine only worsens her heat intolerance. 

 

“I can be hot, but I actually won’t perspire,” Frias said. She has to rely on cold water and wet towels to cool down her body, instead. 

 

Frias lived without air conditioning in her bedroom until last year after she began cancer treatment. (Frias is also a cancer survivor). Growing up, her family kept the air conditioner in the living room only. Summertime air conditioning use in New York City can drive up a household’s energy bill—Frias’s family couldn’t afford it.

 

Meanwhile, in Panama, Wills can’t afford cooling at all. She relies on only a ceiling fan. She believes she has undiagnosed chronic illnesses alongside her blindness because she can’t sweat, either. Unfortunately, she has no support system; no one will take her to the doctor to address her health concerns. “I cannot do it alone,” Wills said. “I need a car to get there. Who’s going to take me?”

The climate movement would benefit from the disabled community’s expertise, but that requires a society that values their wisdom in the first place.

Isolation and lack of support are major themes in the disabled community. Blind people like Wills can’t just walk down the street or hop on a bus to see a doctor, especially without safe sidewalks or beeping traffic lights to help them navigate. Having someone to depend on could be the difference between life and death when heat waves strike. 

 

For Frias, her family’s support has meant everything: “Familia siempre,” she said in Spanish. “Family always.”

 

Wills’s family won’t support her, and she’s unable to get a job. At least with a steady income, she could hire and construct her own support system. In the U.S., disabled people face an unemployment rate about twice as high as able-bodied people. In India, over a million disabled people lived alone in 2014. A single heat wave in the country last month killed nearly 100 people. 

 

How many of these lives lost were disabled? How many deaths could’ve been prevented?

 

Physical disability itself creates some risks, but society heightens them: the employers who refuse to hire disabled people, the families that abandon their disabled members, the governments that ignore them entirely.

 

The U.S. government admits, “Many emergency warning systems are not accessible for people with disabilities.” During an evacuation, disabled people require their service animals, wheelchair lifts, and proper accommodations in shelters or cooling centers. If a bathroom can only be reached by stairs, for instance, that location isn’t accessible. 

 

These inequities always tower over disabled people. Even in a so-called accessible city, a blind person has no way of knowing where there is shade. A wheelchair user is more likely to become dehydrated while out in the heat because drinking too much water will require them to find a bathroom. Locating a public bathroom in any city is a challenge—imagine adding accessibility requirements on top of that. Disabled people are also more likely to be unhoused. How do they stay out of the heat, then?

 

“You can never separate the impairment from the social determinants of health and from what’s going on in the environment around them,” said Stein of Harvard. “It’s both a straight-up biomedical issue, and it’s also very much a social issue.”

 

A disabled person’s race, gender, age, sexuality, country of residence, and immigration status also compound their vulnerability. Áine Kelly-Costello is a disability advocate and journalist based in New Zealand. Despite being blind, chronically ill, and neurodivergent, they’re hyperaware of their privilege as a white person with supporting parents and a stable income. One dangerous summer while living in Norway was enough for their parents to install a heat pump. They can’t sweat, so this cooling technology was life-saving.

 

“I remember the day that that heat pump went in and the palpable sense of relief,” Kelly-Costello said.

“Disability is a masterclass in adaptation…”

Julia Watts Belser
Wheelchair User and Director, Georgetown University’s Disability and Climate Change: Public Archive Project

Of course, not every family can afford to install cooling from one year to the next. And not every disabled person even has a family to lean on. Eventually, Kelly-Costello returned back to their native New Zealand, a country one analysis deemed one of the world’s most climate-resilient. Not every disabled person has the option to migrate somewhere safer.

 

“Some people can move to get away from the heat, and some people can’t,” Kelly-Costello said. “I wouldn’t underestimate the privilege of having multiple citizenships and parents who are able to support you in different ways and being able to access income security.” 

 

When asked if leaders are doing enough to protect the disabled community from climate change, they answered: “Of course not. It’s the same for any group fighting for climate justice… For disabled people who are also marginalized or people of color or from the Global South or [LGBTQ] or Indigenous or in rural communities, that’s only exacerbated.”

***

Today, 195 parties have signed the Paris Agreement, a marker of their oath to cut global carbon pollution. Ostensibly, the landmark climate treaty also asks signatories to consider the human rights of disabled people when building their response to climate change. 

 

“But none of the decisions since 2015 include persons with disabilities,” said Elham Youssefian, a blind woman who serves as a senior adviser on humanitarian disaster risk reduction and climate action for the International Disability Alliance. “What happened?”

 

The alliance, in partnership with McGill University, found in a 2022 report that only 35 parties to the agreement even referred to disabled people in their most recent national climate action plans (known formally as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs). Two parties even lost mention of disabled people from earlier plans to their most updated.

 

Since 2021, Youssefian has been attending the international climate negotiations known as COP, which she said is not designed accessibly. COP26 was the first to include a statement from an informal disability caucus, which the U.N. has not yet recognized. Still, the negotiations have created only limited opportunities for disabled people to speak, Youssefian said. 

 

She not only wants to see disabled people’s needs centered in these conversations; she also wants to see disabled people lead and contribute to them. “We want to be part of the solution,” she said. “This is our planet, too, and we want to help protect it.” 

 

Living with a disability requires a level of ingenuity and innovation, explained Julia Watts Belser, a wheelchair user and director of Georgetown University’s Disability and Climate Change: Public Archive Project. As part of her project, Watts Belser interviews other disabled people to celebrate their knowledge. She hopes to show readers how multidimensional disabled people are—and that their lived experiences deserve space. 

 

“Disability can be a resource for thinking more creatively,” Watts Belser said. “Disabled people often develop skills and expertise for navigating complexity and adapting to challenging circumstances. Disability is a masterclass in adaptation, and adaptation is something that is increasingly going to become the order of the day to respond to a climate disrupted world.”

 

Until the world adapts, disabled people are endangered every time a heat wave descends. That’s why Wills can’t stay in Panama. She knows living in year-round heat can kill her. She’s working to migrate to a colder and darker country with more resources for blind people. 

 

“I can’t wait,” she said. “I’m counting the minutes to find the miracle to leave.”

 

Migrating won’t be easy—it may be impossible—but she is wishing for that chance. That’s all she really wants: a chance to enjoy a full life.

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