Climate Change Plans Don’t Address Disability. They Need To.

By: Linzy Rosen

When Jessica Gutierrez talks about her five young children, the recent behavioral changes she notes aren’t the result of the pandemic or the technology age. The difficulty in school and the sudden slip to incontinence seemed unexplainable. But, it mirrored the dramatic shift Nikiya Wakes saw in her own son, Jaylon. The two share the same zip code as Gutierrez. In a single school year, Jaylon fell into hysteria, racking up 30 suspensions and 70 unexcused absences. Initially, the two mothers did not obtain a diagnosis for their children. They received one for their city.

It was lead. The Flint, Michigan water crisis exposed over 30,000 school-aged children to elevated levels of the heavy metal for over a year without their knowledge. The city had switched over from the Detroit water system to save money. But, the corrosive water from the Flint River had quickly exposed the lead in the pipes.

Since the water crisis began in 2014, Flint’s rate of special education students has risen steadily. The need for disability services nearly doubled that year, growing to 28% from 15%. The national average is 13%. While health professionals cannot definitively blame the contamination for the heightened eligibility for disability services, the detrimental effects on youth learning, memory, and overall cognitive function from this neurotoxin are well documented. Since December 2018, nearly 70% of the students evaluated in Flint have required school accommodations for ADHD, dyslexia, or mild intellectual impairment.

The tragedy in Flint, Michigan is not the result of climate change. But, it’s indicative of environmental injustice and the racism that infiltrates broader pollution problems bound to worsen in the climate crisis. It’s an alarm for what is to come when more environmental disasters wreak havoc.

LeeAnne Walters displays tap water samples at a public meeting in January 2015. Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press/ZUMA. Source: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/01/mother-exposed-flint-lead-contamination-water-crisis/

Pollution is more than just what flows through the pipes. It’s the memory issues that haunt star and sticker lined classrooms, the turned over desks in response to the lead-induced impulsivity, the vacancies in the special education program, and the lack of equitable pay for teachers. What we are really talking about in Flint are symptoms of crumbling social infrastructure. Symptoms both caused and worsened by climate-altering pollutants.

Wakes and Gutierrez are not navigating the disability world alone. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 26% of adults in the United States live with a disability. This is over 61 million people and does not even factor in children or infants.

U.S. CDC Disability Demographics:

  • 1 in 4 women in the U.S. has a disability.

Disabilities and chronic illnesses develop and become magnified by our daily cocktail of air pollutants. Such pollutants can result from greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide or the fine particulate matter from wildfires. Transportation also feeds into poor air quality through the proliferation of “bad”, or ground level, ozone. This is formed in the atmosphere after nitrogen-oxide (NOx) and volatile organic compounds from vehicle emissions come into contact with intense sunlight. The strong heat breaks the oxygen away from nitrogen, which is bonded in the form of nitric oxide (NO) or nitrogen-dioxide (NO2). The lone oxygen then bonds with the naturally occurring oxygen (O2) in the air, resulting in O3, or ozone. Sucking up ozone irritates our lungs and hinders our ability to take deep breaths. Over time, it can both worsen and lead to asthma.

More prevalent and serious allergies are another consequence of the longer spring we’re getting from climate change. Greater pollen also heightens the risk of asthma. As the need for respiratory health care grows, so do costs. A GoodRx analysis found a 35% increase in the price of inhalers without insurance from 2013 to 2018, rising to more than $380. Even with coverage, popular inhalers often come with high co-pays or are excluded from the more affordable plans entirely.

Child uses inhaler. Wavebreakmedia/iStock. Source: https://www.dallasobserver.com/news/dallas-black-children-more-likely-to-have-asthma-poverty-and-pollution-partly-to-blame-11240623

GoodRx also cited a report from the U.S. CDC, which found that in some states, more than 20% of people with asthma do not have insurance. This is directly linked to race and economics. Though over 25 million Americans have asthma, it’s killing Black people at disproportionate rates. And the highest rates of asthma occur in low-income areas, which are places where people are more likely to be uninsured. The predisposition for asthma is being consistently met with the inability to pay for it.

Climate change is also altering extreme weather events. It’s redefining flood zones, hurricane season, and magnifying the effects of natural disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is responsible for national and state-level coordination of disaster planning, aftermath management, and much more. This agency is going to become more crucial as climate change worsens. But recently, it’s been under fire.

Two years ago, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a statement accusing FEMA of erasing a quarter of the nation’s population in its 2019 National Preparedness Report. “While the report is created to assess risk and gaps in preparedness for disasters for people living across the country, FEMA did not mention the word ‘disability’ once in the report”, wrote Valerie Novack, Portlight Fellow with the Disability Justice Initiative at CAP. “In 2017, the term ‘disability’ was used 22 times in the report, and it was used 8 times in 2018.”

“Senior Airman John J. Kosequat, a pararescueman with the 103rd Rescue Squadron of the 106th Rescue Wing assigned to the New York Air National Guard, pushes an elderly man toward the HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter in Houston area, August 30, 2017. U.S. Air National Guard photo by Daniel H. Farrell.” Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thenationalguard/36246859493/in/photolist-Xe1Cvk-29dQc8-29dWsg-6k1Sae-5iiydJ

According to the Federal Times, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also found that FEMA stopped offering its two day disability-integration course to its non federal partners in 2017. A year later, FEMA mandated a 30-minute training on basic disability integration practices to all its staff. Yet, the number of disability specialists was shrinking. “The agency went from sending an average of 55 disability integration advisers to help after a disaster to sending an average of five, according to Representative Donald Payne from New Jersey,” the Federal Times reported.

In an interview with the Federal Times, Elizabeth Curda, a director at GAO, said that FEMA is attempting to train all deployed staff to handle disability integration, rather than sending specialists. But the training is far from enough. The actual accessibility of FEMA guidelines is another issue.

In 2017, for example, HuffPost exposed the dangerously slim hurricane information actually accessible to deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Rebuilding and recovering after disasters is also disproportionately harder for people with disabilities, who earn significantly less than their able-bodied counterparts. According to Forbes, over 420,000 disabled people make just $2.15 an hour — all legal under a loophole in the 1938 Fair Labors Standards Act.

Barbara Alper/Getty Images. Source: https://rewirenewsgroup.com/article/2019/11/20/for-the-first-time-disability-rights-are-a-major-campaign-issue/

Climate change isn’t about the ice caps or the polar bears anymore; it’s about affording inhalers, investing in disability services, disability green job training, and ensuring disaster plans (and recovery) are accessible.

What Do Existing Climate Proposals Say?

According to the official website of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the Green New Deal, which failed to garner votes in Congress in 2019 (even amongst the Democrats), factors in disability by ensuring accessible public transportation, weatherized homes, equitable hiring standards, and by creating the Office of Climate Resiliency for People with Disabilities. The summary of the legislation mentions disability 12 times. This is a start. But, we need plans that are going to pass. This means that the Green New Deal can’t be our only hope. We need serious investments in disability training for classrooms and government offices alike.

Activists from the Sunrise Movement hold signs and banners for the Green New Deal. Pacific Press / Contributor / Getty Images. Source: https://www.heritage.org/government-regulation/commentary/the-green-new-deal-less-about-climate-more-about-control

We need local and state leaders to advocate for climate change legislation in new ways, fostering novel alliances. Aside from the storms, floods, and fires ravaging homes, climate change is impacting education, health care, and job-training. It’s putting a strain on infrastructure at every level.

The ongoing water crisis in Flint will not be solved once the city finally replaces its corroding pipes. A generation of children will grow up with too much lead in their bodies. The educational and occupational needs will struggle to be met, exacerbating existing economic problems.

Neither our legislation nor our language around climate change accounts for its widespread effects. We often classify pollutants as if they are stagnant: existing solely in the air or the water. Yet, we are not just polluting distinct areas of Earth when we dump, spill, or abandon chemicals. We are polluting minds, bodies, and futures.

“The worst types of behavioral issues are the ones where you can see that your child realizes that what they’re doing is not normal,” Jessica Gutierrez, the mother from Flint, said.

We’re polluting our children — and they’re catching on. Our climate and pollution policies must extend their voices and their stories. It’s our only hope.

What else does climate legislation need? To chat, find me in the trees, the library, or more simply, @Linzy_Rosen on Twitter. I’m passionate about connecting the dots and creating new ones. Thank you for reading!

Writer, activist, and student. Interested in politics, climate, and equity. Bylines include Teen Vogue.

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