What's being done to help disabled people in heatwaves?
The entire country struggled with the unprecedented heat of the July 2022 heatwave, but for disabled Brits, the heat hit even harder. So what's being done?
The climate crisis is a threat to everyone’s health, but people with disabilities are at increased risk of being vulnerable to the extreme weather events and natural disasters that result from the climate crisis.
Heatwaves pose a particular risk to people with disabilities. But what is being done to help them?
“Milestone in UK climate history”
The UK Met Office described July 2022 as a “milestone in UK climate history”. The country experienced a record-breaking heatwave, with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all reporting the hottest temperatures recorded in their countries.
The Met Office report on this “unprecedented extreme heatwave” notes that on July 19, 2022, the hottest ever temperature in the UK was recorded at 40.3°C in Coningsby, England. According to this 2020 study for Science Advances, temperatures above 35°C are dangerous to human health.
"There is ample evidence that the UK’s climate is changing, and the average global temperature is rising"
The average July temperature in the UK ranges from 21 to 12°C, according to data collected by Current Results between the years 1981 and 2010. The Met Office also reported prolonged drought, with this having been South England’s driest July since recording began in 1863.
There is ample evidence that the UK’s climate is changing, and the average global temperature is rising. Extreme temperatures like these are increasingly becoming a common occurrence across the globe due to the climate crisis and global warming.
Heat-related deaths and illnesses
Heatwaves like the UK’s were experienced throughout Europe in July and caused thousands of excess deaths across the continent—most notably in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and England and Wales.
The UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that there were 1,680 excess deaths during the period ending on July 22, including the peak of the heatwave between July 16 and 19. There is no statistical data on how many of these people were disabled.
"People with chronic or underlying conditions are particularly vulnerable to heat risk"
In 2021, The British Red Cross released a report warning that heat-related deaths could triple in the next 30 years. The report notes that people with chronic or underlying conditions are particularly vulnerable to heat risk.
Ailsa Speak, a disability and lifestyle blogger, experiences uncontrollable movements in the heat due to her cerebral palsy. “As you can imagine, when my involuntary movements increase, I get even hotter. It's just a vicious circle really.
Speak is one of a reported 14.6 million disabled people living in the UK who were impacted when temperatures soared to never-before-seen highs in July. Living on the South Coast of England, Speak found the extreme heat on July 19 incompatible with her disability: “I don't like the heat at the best of times, but this was awful! Almost unbearable, I struggled to do anything”, said Speak, describing the difficulty many disabled people have in regulating their body temperature.
The implications of heat on public health are not limited to physical health risks. According to this 2021 study for The Lancet, heatwaves can result in a number of illnesses, and even death.
One of the authors of this study, Professor Kristie L Ebi of the Centre for Health and the Global at the University of Washington, described the topic of heatwaves and disabled people as being “an important issue for which there is limited information”.
“Groups at higher risk during periods of high temperature include people with chronic underlying medical conditions and who take certain medications that can reduce the ability of the body to sweat (such as beta blockers).”
“It is reasonable to assume that people with disabilities would be at higher risk”, notes Ebi, going on to describe the different issues that heatwaves pose for different types of disabilities:
Ebi notes the difficulty people with mobility issues or blindness may have with accessing services, such as cooling shelters. Ebi also comments on the importance of making messaging on the hazards of high temperatures accessible to those with learning disabilities or to deaf people. “Some studies suggest higher rates of suicide and other mental health issues during heatwaves, requiring targeted interventions for those with psychiatric disabilities.”
Planning for the future
The deaths and illnesses that result from heat exposure are, oftentimes, avoidable. To prevent future death and destruction, this 2021 paper calls on governments to implement cooling strategies and adaption plans to reduce the impact of extreme heat on public health.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent UK body tackling climate change, advocates for adaption planning, as the temperature is set to rise further due to the climate crisis and global warming.
The CCC’s 2022 report on the health risks of overheating offers adaption options to the government to ensure that UK buildings are fit for future climate change. Although the publication does not offer specific advice about people with disabilities and overheating, they do recognise that a collection of people will be particularly vulnerable to periods of high temperatures.
In the absence of a concrete set of plans and support for people with disabilities, and the progression of the climate crisis and extreme weather events, people with disabilities continue to be at increased risk of heat-related morbidity and mortality.
Read more: The way we talk about disability matters
Read more: How to make your home disability friendly
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