Weathering the Storm: Disability, Climate Change, Mental Health - MHI




Weathering the Storm:
Disability, Climate Change,
Mental Health

Highlighting the Unique Vulnerabilities
of Persons with Disabilities and the
Layered Impact of Climate Change

Candice D’souza


illustrator’s bio

Amreeta Banerjee

Alice A. Barwa completed her MA in Education from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Univerity, Delhi (AUD), in 2022, and is from the Oraon Adivasi community, a native of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Chhattisgarh. She has been an advocate for Adivasi rights and voices as a member of an Adivasi youth collective @TheAdivasiPost, and has been an Adivasi youth representative at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Her research interests include education, culture, sociology, and linguistics.

The consequences of climate change 

In November 2021, Israeli minister Karine Elharrar was unable to attend the COP26 summit in Glasgow because, as someone who lives with muscular dystrophy, she couldn’t access it with her wheelchair. Her concerns served as a metaphor for the historical exclusion of disabled individuals’ access needs in the conversations surrounding climate change and disaster relief.

The increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, rising sea levels, floods, heat waves, deforestation, droughts, desertification, and water shortages are some of the adverse impacts of climate change. Climate change affects food production, access to safe drinking water, shelter, livelihood, and the destruction of health infrastructure, among others. Invariably, the most vulnerable, marginalised sections of society are the first to have their lives and basic rights to food, water, and shelter undone by these changes. 

The unique impact of climate change on PwDs and human rights

Disabled individuals constitute the world’s largest minority – with an astounding 15 percent of the global population, i.e., 30 million people, living with an intellectual or physical disability. Yet, the unique challenges of PwDs (Persons with Disabilities) are as invisible in discourses surrounding climate change as they are in conversations surrounding consequent mental health challenges. In India, the multi-layered impact of climate change on the disabled is also exacerbated by the attitudinal and other barriers they face, including access to a historically exclusionary public education and health infrastructure, illiteracy, and consequent unemployment.

The cyclical reasons why PwDs are especially at risk due to major climate change

India is home to almost 3 crore persons with disabilities, of which close to 1.3 crore people are employable; but only 34 lakh among them are actually engaged in formal or informal employment. This is because disabled people are often stuck in a cycle wherein societal structures and systems render most public life inaccessible to them. Thus, children born with disabilities may or may not have access to the necessary health and educational infrastructure, depending on other factors such as socio-economic status, geographical location, etc. Therefore, disabled individuals live with the risk of remaining uneducated, living below the poverty line, and being cut off from access to the health infrastructure and medical care they would need at different points in their lives. 

When natural disasters make resources scarce and we work with a ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset, PwDs will be the first people in need of help and yet the last to receive it, if at all. Moreover, the dearth of accessible housing and sanitation facilities, and a healthcare system that is focussed on pathologising and ‛treatingʼ symptoms of a disability rather than helping with adaptation and improving quality of life, along with barriers such as prejudice, social stigma, and exclusionary public policy, only worsen the existing vulnerabilities of disabled and mentally ill persons, especially women. Reports by IDMC, South Asia  on the relief camps in Bangladesh after Cyclone Amphan include narratives of disabled women who were unable to use the makeshift washrooms/bathing areas due to fear of harassment and abuse from men, which respondents attributed to as being fuelled by frustration due to unemployment and substance abuse.

Image: Grills et al., 2017. 

Climate change and mental health of PwDs 
The issues of climate change, mental health, and disability have been historically viewed as mutually exclusive, unrelated concerns. However, advocacy to consider climate change as fundamentally being a human rights issue is incomplete unless interlinked with disability rights and mental health. 

Limited mobility and self-preservation skills during climate change-related emergencies can adversely impact the mental health of those living with psychosocial and physical disabilities. Research demonstrates that the rising temperatures, deforestation, increasing number of natural disasters, and the consequent losses incurred — both material and emotional — are resulting in mental health concerns such as depression, PTSD and suicidality, violence, and more. Climate change-related impacts can also lead to job loss, force people to move, or lead to a loss of social support and community resources — all of which have mental health consequences. 

In addition, disabled individuals may lack access to the necessary resources not only to survive emergencies but also be cut off from larger systems of social support and rehabilitation resources that may be available to the larger mainstream, able-bodied community. In a study on Tropical Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu in 2015, 60 percent of people with disabilities reported a lack of safety information on what to do in an emergency before the cyclone, compared to 47 percent of people without. After Cyclone Amphan struck Bangladesh in May 2020, 71 percent of people with auditory or hearing disabilities said that early warning systems were not accessible, while 90 percent of people reported challenges related to walking or climbing stairs, and said evacuation centres and/or their toilet facilities were inaccessible. People with disabilities also face a greater risk of being separated from their usual carers and assistive devices while fleeing, which could exacerbate their vulnerabilities during displacement. Following the 2004 tsunami, conservative estimates by Human Rights Watch show that many people with disabilities in India, including several hundreds of children with intellectual disabilities, were left destitute after being separated from or even abandoned by family members, who had hitherto provided financial support and care.

There is increasing evidence that disabled individuals face a higher risk of experiencing mental health concerns such as depression and PTSD as well as a higher risk of suicidality when left in such a vulnerable position. The perceived burdensomeness and general stigma surrounding disability and disabled individuals mean that a lot of them hesitate to seek help for their concerns, knowing that their caregivers are already grappling with the more pragmatic concerns surrounding their care, particularly in times when resources are scarce and supportive infrastructure is missing.

Mental health professionals need to be sensitised in their gaze towards people with disabilities – to view them as not being mere hapless victims of fate and help in cultivating agency and hope for the individuals, while becoming an active part of relief interventions and advocacy. Mental health and provision of therapy and psychiatric care for persons with disabilities are often not independent of advocacy for their rights. 

…PwDs will be the first people in need of help and yet the last to receive it, if at all.

…PwDs will be the first people in need of help and yet the last to receive it, if at all.

The need for inclusive disaster risk management and relief 

The unique challenges of living with a disability – whether physical, intellectual, or psychosocial – are best understood by those with lived experience. Given the unique and often vastly diverse support needs of people with different disabilities, it would only be pertinent to include disabled individuals in the discourse surrounding inclusive disaster risk management policies. 

Inclusive climate change policy may be accomplished through a ‘twin-track’ approach, which promotes both ‘specialist disability initiatives’ designed to include and empower persons with disabilities and the ‘mainstreaming’ of disability inclusion into all policies, strategies, and activities. Effective and accessible early warning systems and evacuation procedures are crucial, especially for someone who may have difficulty getting out of harm’s way quickly or independently. 

Emergency relief workers could benefit from sensitisation and training as well as necessary technical support for inclusive relief planning. For example, wheelchair users may be unable to hide under tables/chairs during an earthquake. Evacuation of these individuals when electric outages might render elevators defunct would need to be conducted using special equipment that allows a wheelchair to be lifted out and lowered from heights. 

It is also important to create awareness among mental health professionals and other stakeholders in disability affirmative intervention. The scarcity of sign-language interpreters is a consistent challenge across India, as is the lack of signs for disaster-related terms in Indian sign language. Educative resources and creating awareness regarding climate change-related consequences on mental health and safety planning in formats accessible to disabled individuals (including manuals in Braille or training in sign language) are essential to fostering agency and self-efficacy in individuals with disabilities.

Collaboration between multiple stakeholders, including local panchayats, rural authorities, municipal authorities, disability rights organisations, as well as emergency relief professionals and medical staff is imperative to ensure that they meet the short as well as long-term goals towards inclusion and rehabilitation of persons with disabilities in emergencies.

Therefore, we need to cultivate active sensitisation among mental health professionals, emergency relief workers, and all other stakeholders for the mainstreaming and integration of disabled individuals, as these form the first step in any major inclusive climate action or advocacy.  However, truly ending this vicious cycle involves educating people and addressing the stigma and prejudice that is at the root of their exclusion, and the conscious mainstreaming of disability in public life.

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