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Disability and Climate Change: My Proposed Framework by Alex Ghenis

Updated: May 15


One of SOA’s major focus areas covers how climate change will affect people with disabilities (PWDs). We use a multi-layer framework that allows us to understand broad connections between climate change and disability, then dig deeper to analyze more detailed issues. We also do this differently than most groups by taking a community-based approach. Digging deeper to the specifics recognizes that climate change is complex and that disability, both as a set of physiological and health-related characteristics and as a social construct, is also complex. Because of this complexity, there are many potential focus areas for research, policy development, on-the-ground actions, and activism. While stakeholders have begun to address some of these areas, many stakeholders miss their connections to climate and disability justice. For example, disability advocates may push for more affordable, accessible housing – but don’t note that new housing usually has good insulation and HVAC, which provides PWDs a safer home during warming-fueled heat waves.

At the macro level, the connections between disability and climate change are relatively simple. Climate change creates environmental and weather-related hazards that immediately endanger human health and well-being; these hazards also have knock-on effects, such as damaging infrastructure and government services, that endanger health and well-being even further. Climate hazards and their knock-on effects are more likely to harm PWDs’ health and well-being, and harm them at a greater level, compared to able-bodied people for a variety of reasons (which we’ll break down later). People with disabilities are generally considered a “vulnerable population” because of this disproportionate risk and harm, putting them in the company of other “vulnerable populations” such as women, children, seniors, racial minorities and other groups.* Climate impacts, though, affect PWDs in ways that no other group experiences. Because of this unique situation, climate-related efforts should put extra focus on understanding and meeting the needs of PWDs in a way that safeguards their health, safety, and well-being – and so they are in no more danger than their able-bodied peers.

*Some disability advocates dislike the “vulnerable” label because it suggests our problem is a medical one and downplays government or societal failures. However, “vulnerable” is a widely used research and policy term that includes other groups that also face extra danger at least partly due to government or societal failures. We believe it is reasonable to use this term and plan to address why in more detail in another blog.

Unfortunately, climate-related efforts are not achieving that goal. Most climate research and policy work lists PWDs as a “vulnerable population” but don’t address the unique natures of that vulnerability. “People with disabilities” are usually just added to a list of other vulnerable populations – so a news article or research paper may state “increased flooding disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, such as women, children, people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, and non-native speakers…” A surprising number even leave PWDs off their list entirely. This dynamic applies to research, activism, and government policy – and shows that PWDs are one of the most forgotten and under-addressed “vulnerable groups” in the face of climate change.

Sustain Our Abilities believes we need to build bridges between many stakeholders and communities to optimize the future of all people and the future of PWDs with respect to climate change and to ensure PWDs are part of the solution to climate change. Of course, we absolutely must bring attention to the issues associated with disability and climate change and create a better system. Climate stakeholders that are ignoring PWDs must start addressing our vulnerabilities and needs.

Still, Stakeholders that toss “people with disabilities” into a list of vulnerable groups must also go into more detail, given the complex and unique relationship between climate and disability. (We cover this complexity below). For instance, the climate-related impacts and needs of someone with a neurologic disability that causes paralysis and sensory loss from the neck down are significantly different than those of someone with diabetes who is losing their eyesight due to diabetic retinopathy.

Disability stakeholders who have not yet addressed climate justice in their work should explore doing so – or at least consider how their existing work connects to climate change. We also believe that everyone involved will benefit from having a conceptual framework for disability climate justice. The following is what we propose.

The Basics: Broad Connections

The first step toward understanding climate change and disability is to understand that both climate change and disability are complicated. If we want to draw connections between climate change and disability, we often need to draw connections between each of their sub-categories and details. The result is a web of connections: we can label the entire web as the climate-disability nexus, while recognizing each strand is a piece of the larger puzzle.

Let’s consider the details. The causes of climate change are relatively straightforward: humanity is pumping out greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere; we are harming systems that pull carbon out of the atmosphere (e.g., deforestation eliminating carbon-sequestering trees); and some feedback loops make the atmosphere even warmer. A warmer atmosphere then leads to all sorts of climactic changes, ranging from more severe drought to intense heat waves to stronger storms.

Disability is both a social framework and a set of physiological and health-related conditions. Historically, society has painted a picture of a perfectly healthy, able-bodied person, and compared everyone to that model human. People with disabilities have medical or health-related deviations from that able-bodied “norm,” which lead to different levels of mobility, sensation, learning abilities and styles, and so on. Finally, social structures create some sort of disadvantage or limitation for people who deviate from the able-bodied norm. The combination of medical deviations (“conditions”), direct physiological and health-related impacts thereof, and social structures (including explicit and implicit social discrimination) combine to create disability. Disability community stakeholders often reference the “medical model” and “social model” of disability as if they are dichotomous – but we believe that we must understand all factors when considering disability and climate change.

The key to our framework is to identify details of both climate change and disability, then draw connections between them. Climate change impacts can be broken up into groups of primary consequences, such as extreme weather, and secondary consequences, such as an economy that is increasingly harmed by weather events: a list of categories could include natural disasters; longer-term weather changes (e.g., frequent drought or higher average temperature); damaged infrastructure; slowing or shrinking economies and government revenues; and mass migration. There are also many aspects of disability, including disability categories (e.g., mobility or psychological or neurological or musculoskeletal); socioeconomic differences compared to able-bodied people (e.g., lower average income and assets); independent living considerations (e.g. any need for personal care attendants); accessible transit options and needs (e.g. availability of local, accessible public transit and one’s ability to use it with or without assistance); and legal systems and remedies (e.g., through the Americans with Disabilities Act and other mechanisms). Each of these aspects of disability and climate change could be broken down into even more detail: for example, one could list all the different types of mobility disabilities or extreme weather events, then connect specific disabilities to specific weather.

The following graphic broadly outlines the connections between climate change and disability. There are two columns with eight topics each. The left-hand column shows eight topics relating to climate change impacts and the right column shows eight factors related to disability. There is a line between each climate impact and each disability factor, for 64 lines in total – each of which is one connection in the web of climate and disability.

Figure 1: Climate-disability framework with broad connections

Two columns with nine boxes each, side-by-side. The left column, titled "climate change impacts," includes: more extreme weather; specific extreme weather, e.g. heat waves; damaged infrastructure (with time frames); economic & budgetary consequences; effectively uninhabitable areas; dislocation & finding new homes; proactive migration; and location: domestic & international. The right-hand column, "disability factors," includes: broad categories, e.g. mobility or IDD; specific disabilities, e.g. multiple sclerosis; location: country/state/locality; use of/need for government services; use of medical care, attendants, etc.; housing needs; personal & community preparedness; and intersectional factors: race, income, etc. There are lines between the boxes in each column, with 64 lines in total.

In analyzing how climate change impacts people with disabilities, we can focus on the totality of these connections – basically, saying that climate change disrupts almost everything in society and PWDs are especially hard-hit by that disruption. We could also focus on the connections between any one category of climate impact and any one type of disability factor. For example, take “economic & budgetary consequences,” where climate change harms the economy and strains government budgets, and connect it to “use of/need for government services,” where PWDs disproportionately rely on government services for their well-being and survival. The connection is simple: climate change will strain the ability of government to pay for the services that PWDs use, thus threatening their well-being and survival. You could also look at how economic and budgetary consequences affect multiple factors in the right-hand column, or look at how multiple climate impacts will affect PWDs’ use of and need for government services. There are countless areas of overlap between categories, as well.

Digging Deeper into Details

We can also dig deeper into the details of these connections. So, by zooming in to “specific extreme weather,” we can look at everything from flash flooding to extreme heat events. Zooming into “broad categories, e.g. mobility or IDD” brings up mobility, blind/low vision, chronic pain and/or fatigue, and more.

Figure 2: Detailed example with extreme weather & disability categories

Two columns with nine boxes each, side-by-side. The left column, titled "specific extreme weather," includes: heavy rain & flooding; tropical cyclones (hurricanes & typhoons); thunderstorms (including with tornadoes); extreme heat; "fire weather" (hot, dry, and windy); windstorms; cold snaps; and blizzards & heavy snow. The right-hand column, "broad categories," includes: mobility; blind or low vision; deaf or hard-of-hearing; chronic pain and/or fatigue; immunocompromised; psychological; intellectual and developmental (IDD); and learning disability. There are lines between the boxes in each column, with 64 lines in total.

We can examine these connections individually or in groups, as with the original set of columns. We could also add in a third broad category, or a specific segment thereof, and consider multiple connections that way. For example, in the right-hand column of “disability factors,” the category “intersectional factors: race, income, etc.,” presents a perfect opportunity to examine deeper connections. So, if a team is working on how cold snaps impact people with chronic pain and fatigue, it could also ask how race or income might adjust that impact. This kind of research, education or policy could easily be done without explicitly connecting it to disability climate justice; however, we must recognize it is a part of the puzzle and should weave it into our broader understanding of climate and disability.

It’s also possible to add other columns to the equation. For example, one could create a column about climate mitigation: its categories could include renewable energy, electric grids, transforming transportation, sustainable regional planning, reducing point-source pollution; employment in mitigation industries, greening healthcare and more. This could then explain how each mitigation category relates to categories of “disability factors”– for example, evaluating employment in green tech for people with IDD or how greening healthcare can safeguard treatments for people who are immunocompromised. This demonstrates a clear connection between climate and disability, and again is a piece of the larger puzzle.

We hope that this framework is useful for researchers, educators, policymakers, advocates and more. It can help people who want to learn about climate and disability understand the broader picture; give direction to those who want to work on climate and disability efforts (including on specific topics); and help people working on climate, health, or disability topics identify how their efforts fit into the broader climate & disability picture. Two things are certain about this framework and our collective efforts moving into the future. First, there are always nuances still to be discovered and to be addressed and second, that persons with and without disabilities need to work together, building common ground to solve this existential problem.

As we start this blog, which will alternate between my posts and that of other SOA team members, I’ll sign off on the first post with an invitation to build bridges to the future. Feel free to reach out if you have any comments or questions, or would like to work together on climate and disability efforts.

Alex Ghenis, Sustain Our Abilities



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