Disability and Climate Mental Health
A disability is a physical, emotional, sensory, or mental condition that limits a person’s functioning and makes it more difficult to perform certain tasks
Every disability presents a unique set of challenges. For example, some people have disabilities that interfere with mental functions such as thinking, remembering things, or paying attention. Other people with disabilities might struggle with emotions, unique sensory needs, or physical movement.
While each person’s experience of a disability can vary widely, all people with disabilities encounter diverse obstacles to functioning in a world designed for non-disabled people.
Some of the most common barriers people with disabilities experience include:
- Prejudice and discrimination
- Physical and transportation barriers
- Social and communication barriers
- Systemic barriers and a reduced ability to access essential programs and services
Disability in a climate emergency
According to the United Nations, people with disabilities are “among those most adversely affected in an emergency”.
In a world of changing climate, people with disabilities are more likely to experience additional stressors when managing crises or navigating significant transitions, such as the aftermath of climate-related disasters. Some groups of people with disabilities have difficulties with planning, organizing, adaptive living, or coping skills, meaning that dealing with climate impacts will be even more challenging.
Extreme climate-related events can impact a differently-abled person’s mobility, their ability to meet basic needs, or access essentials like medication, clean water, sufficient accommodations, appropriate healthcare, emergency support, or mental health services.
Extreme heat, which research shows has negative health impacts on all of us, can add even more layers of difficulty to the challenges people with disabilities already face. For example, although our bodies can handle a certain amount of stress, excessive heat puts the body under additional strain, which can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions. In addition, emergency visits related to anxiety, self-harm, schizophrenia, and substance abuse increase in proportion to the rise in temperatures.
Ableism may also increase in climate disasters. Research has shown that in times of crisis, policies involving the rationing of medical care can increase discriminatory attitudes towards people with disabilities.
Unequal mental health impacts
Climate change is often called a threat multiplier because it exacerbates existing vulnerabilities and reinforces social inequalities.
Mental health problems, including disabilities, can be worsened by extreme events like heat waves, flooding, or hurricanes, as well as by the trauma caused by these events or other climate-related issues.
People with disabilities are at a higher risk of:
- Experiencing depression, anxiety, or other co-occurring mental health conditions
- Living in low-income housing or areas with less access to essential services
- Experiencing abuse or neglect
- Experiencing employment discrimination
- Having less access to supportive social networks
All these risk factors can directly influence the mental health and well-being of people with disabilities by increasing psychological distress, worsening existing mental health conditions, and limiting access to adequate mental health services and specialized support.
Moreover, disabilities not only affect people with disabilities, but also their families and caregivers. Individuals with disabilities, along with their families and caregivers, can face greater challenges than families of people without disabilities.
For example, parents of children with disabilities can have difficulties finding adequate childcare or schooling, which can interfere with their ability to be fully employed and make a living. Similarly, people with disabilities who are also parents often require additional support to raise their children.
Consequences if we don’t reduce carbon emissions drastically
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that people with disabilities make up about 15% of the world’s population, which is close to over 1 billion people. That means that 15% of the population is at increased risk for all kinds of mental health impacts from climate change, due to disability.
If we fail to cut carbon emissions drastically, the aftermath will be a global mental health crisis alongside other effects of worldwide increases in climate-related disasters, like destruction of homes, crops, and city infrastructures. With poor mental health already costing the global economy trillions of dollars each year, a mental health crisis due to climate change would have enormous costs – perhaps greater than the cost of preventing it.
There is not, currently, much formal research on the intersection of climate change and its mental health impacts on people with disabilities.
The United Nations Flagship Report on Disability and Development Report released in 2019, however, indicated that people with disabilities are at a disadvantage regarding most Sustainable Development Goals, such as poverty, zero hunger, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, and affordable clean energy, among others. Given the unequal mental health and economic impacts on people with disabilities, urgent funding is needed to begin research in this critical area, as well as education about the unique needs and strengths of individuals with disabilities.
What more might we need to know?
Individuals with disabilities are a diverse group of people with incredible potential. Some disabilities are invisible, and some people prefer not to disclose information about their challenges. In addition, some people with disabilities experience multiple conditions, making them particularly vulnerable to unique emotional and mental health challenges. For example, the term twice-exceptional (2e) refers to individuals who have exceptional ability in one or more areas and simultaneously experience one or more challenges that significantly impact their learning or functioning.
People with disabilities want to belong. Inclusion is not enough; people with disabilities need to be celebrated and honored for the diversity they bring to our world. We need to build a just and welcoming society that creates conditions to cultivate their strengths so they can feel embraced by society.
Neurodivergent individuals can contribute significantly to climate solutions. This is especially true when our interests and passions are nurtured, and our strengths are connected with actionable initiatives. One individual is Greta Thunberg, a leading, powerful, and passionate voice of climate activism, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 11. Many people with autism have intense or highly specialized interests, a feature that Greta views positively. As Greta has expressed, “Autism can be something that holds you back, but if you get to the right circumstance, if you are around the right people, if you get the adaptations that you need and you feel you have a purpose, then it can be something you can use for good. And I think that I’m doing that now.”
Creating spaces and resources for climate education and engagement is essential to cultivate the strengths of people with disabilities. People with disabilities have competing pressures that often limit their ability to meet basic needs; this might prevent them from joining climate action. Yet, people with disabilities have strong needs for inner growth, purpose, and creativity, which can be nurtured if they are connected to the proper adaptations, resources, and people. Education, exposure, training, and mentoring would allow people with disabilities to explore their interests within the climate movement and connect their strengths to specific causes they care about. In addition, connecting people with disabilities to mentors, funding, and resources to join or develop initiatives focused on climate solutions could be a powerful and empowering way to engage them in action.
Diversity in thinking and creativity are important for diverse climate solutions. A growing body of research highlights a strong correlation between neurodiversity and creativity. Neurodivergent individuals are wired differently and have natural tendencies to perceive and process the world in unique ways. As American journalist Harvey Blume wrote in 1998, “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.”
What can we do to address these impacts?
In order to avoid a climate change-related global mental health crisis, disability-inclusive climate action and disaster planning should include the voices of people with all kinds of learning abilities and neurodiversity.
Disability-inclusive climate action should involve creative ways to engage people with disabilities in existing climate solutions so they can build their self-confidence, emotional resilience, sense of purpose, and hope for the possibility of a brighter future.
Stakeholders, policymakers, and concerned authorities should prioritize addressing the inequalities that already exist for people with disabilities and invest in building strong disaster preparedness and emergency response plans. These systems should include:
- Free access to education on all kinds of disabilities, including how to cope with different disabilities, and how others can be allies to people with disabilities
- Assistance for mobility-impaired people to manage acute disasters; for example, evacuating people from high-rise apartments due to floods or fires, especially if electricity outages prevent elevator use
- Free access to mental health services and support for people with disabilities and their caregivers
- Planning and delivery of wellness interventions and programs for people with disabilities
- Expanded funding to increase climate and psychological resilience in people with disabilities
- Funding for programs that provide education about climate change solutions, and offer ways to engage and inspire people with disabilities to identify their unique talents and ways to contribute
- Expanded funding and support for grassroots programs and community initiatives that include the use of art, creative storytelling, and imagination activism to support individuals with all kinds of minds to engage in sustainable climate activism
Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change by Leslie Davenport, published in 2017 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Articles and Online Sources
Autistic Brain Excels at Recognizing Patterns, published in Live Science on May 30, 2013, by Amanda Chan.
Climate Change and People with Disabilities, published on August 21, 2022, by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Creative Differences Handbook, published on January 17, 2020, by Universal Music UK.
Emily has Tourette’s. She Needs you to Hear This, published in Humans of XR on February 10, 2020, by Rei Takver.
EPA Report Shows Disproportionate Impacts of Climate Change on Socially Vulnerable Populations in the United States published on September 2, 2021, by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Executive Functions and LDs, published in 2020, by the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario.
Greta Thunberg on her Autism Diagnosis and Climate Activism, published in Teen Vogue on September 26, 2021, by De Elizabeth.
How Heat Waves Take a Toll on Mental Health, published in The New York Times on August 19, 2022, by Hanna Seo.
Neurodiversity, published in The Atlantic in September, 1998, by Harvey Blume.
The U.N. is Calling for the Inclusion of People with Disabilities in the Climate Change Debate, published in Pacific Standard on July 25, 2019, by Isabela Dias.
Analytical study on the promotion and protection of the rights of persons with disabilities in the context of climate change, published on April 22, 2022, by The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations.
Disability, published on November 24, 2021, by the World Health Organization.
Disability and Development Report: Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals by, for and with persons with disabilities, published in 2018, by the United Nations
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Best, C., Arora, S., Porter, F., & Doherty., M. (2015). The Relationship Between Subthreshold Autistic Traits, Ambiguous Figure Perception and Divergent Thinking, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 45, 4064-4073. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2518-2
Cancer et al., (2016). The Alleged Link between Creativity and Dyslexia: Identifying the Specific Process in which Dyslexic Students Excel, Cogent Psychology. 3: 1190309. DOI:10.1080/23311908.2016.1190309
Priestley, M., & Hemingway, L. (2007). Disability and disaster recovery, Journal of Social Work in Disability & Rehabilitation, 5:3-4, 23-42, DOI:10.1300/J198v05n03_02
Thwala, S., Ntinda, K., & Hlanze, B. (2015). Lived Experiences of Parents’ of Children with Disabilities Swaziland, Journal of Education and Training Studies. 3: 4, 902, DOI: https://doi.org/10.11114/jets.v3i4.902
December 16, 2022
Author: Day Sanchez, M.S./Ed.S. School Psychologist
Editor: Colleen Rollins and Rei Takver