Neglecting the Ones Most Affected: Climate Change & Disability

Persons with Disabilities are important stakeholders in the climate movement. 

Health News
5 min read
Climate change disproportionately affects Persons with Disabilities. Where are they in the climate movement?

(International Day of Persons With Disabilities is observed every year on 3 December to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society. FIT is reposting this story from its archive in that light.)

“As I speak to you right now, I’m having my tea with a plastic straw. How am I supposed to drink anything without it?” — Nipun Malhotra

The plastic ban came amidst wild uproar from climate change activists and policy-makers. Its objective? To undo decades of damages caused to the environment. The move was widely welcomed, appreciated, and enforced with full swing (well, almost).

This had been implemented for the well-being of all. That is, if our ‘all’ excludes Persons with Disabilities.


Nipun Malhotra was diagnosed with a condition called arthryogryposis. The muscles in his arms and legs are underdeveloped and will remain so all his life. He is unable to lift his hands. A plastic straw is indispensable to him. The alternatives (paper straws) are dissoluble and not as efficient.

“When you come up with a scheme, how can you exclude an entire section of society? Plastic bottles are still widely sold, but plastic straws are disappearing.”
Nipun Malhotra

Nipun doesn’t know how he is supposed to drink without straws. An activity as basic as drinking will become a struggle for him. Did we think of him? Or millions other like him?

Climate Change Is Real, But Does It Affect All Equally?

The straw-ban is just one instance where a universally-acclaimed measure is implemented without accounting for the ways it could seriously affect the day-to-day lives of Persons with Disabilities. In another example, Nipun brings up the 2016 odd-even scheme by the Delhi government — introduced to combat pollution.

“They didn’t consider the transportation challenges faced by the Persons with Disabilities and forgot to add them in the exemptions list. Eventually, the Delhi High Court reversed the orders after my petition.”
Nipun Malhotra

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) acknowledged this neglect when it adopted a resolution for countries to make the climate change discourse more disability-inclusive.

To understand why this is so pertinent, a look at some of the consequences of climate change would be enough.

Natural disasters, global warming or weather extremities, diseases, displacement and rehabilitation — each of these effects of climate change would put the disabled at a greater disadvantage than others.

Let’s envision a disaster. The streets are flooded with knee-deep water. People, children, animals and vehicles are stuck. Trees and temporary establishments have succumbed to the winds and the rains. Everybody’s trying to escape for their lives as they strenuously pull their legs against the force of water and navigate through fallen trees using their two eyes.

Everybody, except the person who sits on a wheelchair. Or another, who cannot see.

This short film by ‘Rooted in Rights’ captures the trauma and horror of what happened to the disabled during Hurricane Katrina that hit the US in 2005. But is it any better today? That too in India?

FIT spoke with Shivani Gupta, who was only 22 when she got paralysis on all four limbs. Today, she champions the cause of inclusivity through the cross-disability consultancy she founded in 2006, called ‘AccessAbility’.


“A disaster involves steps and procedures. The information and warning before it arrives, timely evacuation, temporary safe settlements and rehabilitation. In each of these, Persons with Disabilities and their needs are not addressed.”

“Start with the training manuals, camps and alarming systems. They need to be made available in accessible formats. Then the additional needs and assistive devices. During evacuation, these need to be picked up as well because PWDs could become totally immobile in their absence. Then follows the struggle for food and basic amenities in settlement camps. It’s not possible for us to stand in line and hurdle up for food.”
Shivani Gupta

Shivani also discusses the vulnerability of individuals with psychological disabilities, often living in institutions, mental asylums or kept tied to beds. What happens to them in times of disaster?

They are left behind.

“It’s truly horrific. They are left without food, water and caretakers for days. There isn’t much information about what happens to these people.”
Shivani Gupta

Moreover, rehabilitation for Persons with Difficulties requires complete restoration of their ‘spaces’. They had adapted themselves to a particular system and set-up, making it most difficult for them to adjust to a new one, which may not be that considerate of their special needs.

The Weather, Diseases, Poverty & More

How does global warming affect Persons with Disabilities?
How does global warming affect Persons with Disabilities?
(Photo: iStockphoto)

One of the most apparent consequences of climate change is global warming — bringing with it extreme temperatures. Some of its effects, like the melting glaciers or species at the brink of extinction, are getting their share of global attention and recourse. But are we talking about the specific and exclusive ways in which Persons with Disabilities are suffering due to this global phenomenon?

“My arms and legs are not fully developed. I can’t do physical exercises. In extremely cold environments, this becomes difficult because my body doesn’t heat up. In extreme weathers of all kinds, I am immobile. So global warming genuinely worries me.”
Nipun Malhotra

Then there are people with spinal cord injuries who are unable to sweat — which means they can’t cool themselves down during extreme heat. Certain conditions (like multiple sclerosis, for instance) make individuals feel more fatigue and pain than others in hot weather.


The situation becomes further complicated when you take into consideration the intricate link between poverty and disability.

An extensive report by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation of the Government of India, states, “The Census 2011 showed that 8.3 percent (207.8 lakhs) of the total households in the country have disabled persons of which 71 percent are in rural areas.”

71 percent of India’s Persons with Disabilities live in rural areas.
71 percent of India’s Persons with Disabilities live in rural areas.
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Living in rural areas, most of these people are denied access to literacy, education, information and employment, inadvertently obstructing their chances of survival in dire situations.

As Nipun puts it, persons with disabilities who are also living in poverty, are essentially at a ‘double disadvantage’.

“The cost of living for a disabled person is already higher than completely healthy and able individuals. There are running medical costs, and for those with progressive disabilities, it’s an endless expense. Caretakers, medicines, transport, assistive devices, doctor visits, therapies and more.”

Now in times of natural calamities like floods or droughts, the situation becomes worse. There’s a scarcity of food and water, and naturally, the most privileged sections are the first ones to avail these basics — leaving only the remains for the poor (and among them, the disabled fare the worst).

Therefore, discussions on disability rights, he explains, are centred around three A’s — attitude, accessibility, and affordability. These need to be imbibed in the climate movement as well, at every step of the way.

The restricted revolution needs to turn into an accessible revolution, wherein Persons with Disabilities are represented and heard in policy discussions or decisions regarding further courses of action. Let’s not repeat our blunders from the past.

This is literally all that they ask for — Nothing About Us, Without Us.

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