park bench chat

What will the environmental crises mean for older people and disabled people in the UK?

By Daniel Seifu 15 July 2022 5 minute read

NPC is running a series of roundtables, convening charities and funders to understand how the environmental crises affect different social groups and what charities can do to respond. This is part of a wider project that NPC is currently fundraising for, with partners, which aims to accelerate environmental action in the social sector. This blog is the second in a series which summarises the roundtable discussions. You can read the first blog in the series, on young people and the environmental crises, here.


Last month, NPC held its second roundtable on responding to the environment and nature crises with organisations from across the charity sector, this time with those working to improve the lives of elderly people and disabled people. Together, we wanted to find out how the environmental crises affect older people and disabled people in the UK and what the sector could do to respond. Although these two groups are distinct, roundtable participants recognised that the environmental crises could have some similar impacts on these communities.


How could the environmental crises affect older people and disabled people?

Older people and disabled people are often hit hardest in a crisis. And the environmental crises­—including climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution—are no different. Older people and disabled people are often particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of environmental issues. For example, the burning of fossil fuels, mainly for transport, is causing toxic air pollution. The impacts of this on older people include increased hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and increased mortality. As detailed in our climate report, Healthy Planet, Healthy People, air pollution is also linked to the development of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Plus, people with disabilities are more likely to live in high pollution level areas than the general population in the UK.

These impacts are not happening in isolation. They’re coming at the same time as older people and disabled people are facing a range of other crises. For example, current social care crisis is making it harder to find carers, and the cost of living crisis is making it harder for those with additional needs to be able to afford even daily necessities. You can learn more about confronting the cost of living crisis in our guide here.

As David Buxton, CEO of Action on Disability, pointed out:

“The environment is not always the main issue right now when the cost of living and getting through the next few years with additional costs is a huge challenge, so thinking about climate change does not feel like a priority for many disabled people right now.”


Government and society’s response

How government, and society responds to, and tries to mitigate, the environmental crises can also have negative consequences for older people and people with disabilities. This can be seen in the electric vehicle (EV) industry, for example, where there was perceived to be a lack of standardised and inclusive guidance on charging points. EV charging point screens often can’t be adjusted to appropriate heights for people in wheelchairs. This makes it harder for disabled people to use them. When EV charge points are put on pavements they can also make it harder for people in wheelchairs or older people with reduced mobility to get past, and charging cables can also be dangerous trip hazards. It was also noted that there was very limited inclusion of disabled people at the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, with accessibility at the conference being an issue.


Where are the win-wins?

It needn’t be this way. There are win-win actions, where we can improve the environment and the lives of older people and people with disabilities. For example, whilst older people and disabled people are often hit hardest by the rising cost of fuel, they also have the most to gain from improved home insulation as it can help them to cut their energy bills and their carbon emissions. High quality, accessible, zero carbon and affordable public transport could simultaneously address issues around transport costs, whilst maintaining independence and cutting vehicle pollution.

Similarly, although research is limited, studies have identified that living closer to green spaces can slow the decline of walking speed and grip strength, and reduce isolation, which is a known predictor of morbidity and mortality. As Harriet, who has Down’s syndrome, said:

“Parks are a lifeline for people with disabilities, especially those who don’t get out of the house very much. “

Our roundtable participants identified that one of the biggest areas that charities can support older people and disabled people to respond to the environmental crises is to advocate for policymakers to include them in discussions, in a way that addresses their current and most pressing needs whilst not adding further worries and stress. Charities are also well placed to take on the role of trusted messengers.

As Kamran Mallick, CEO of Disability Rights UK, shared:

“Disabled people must be at the decision-making table and our voice and lived experience must be at the core of plans. Working together we can tackle the challenge that lies ahead of us. Working together is the right approach, leaving no one behind.”

Participants also felt that keeping discussions at the local level can encourage greater participation because it’s easier for people to see how the issues relate to their daily life. Positive experiences of local climate action also help to build a sense of agency to tackle sometimes seemingly overwhelming big-picture issues.

Communication around the environmental crises also needs to be fully accessible to ensure that inequalities in climate education aren’t widened, for example, by using a range of communication tools and jargon free language.


Turning it into action

Ultimately, older people and disabled people can and should be the agents of change when it comes to environmental action, and the charity sector must support them to succeed. At NPC, we are continuing to convene social and environmental organisations and consulting older people and disabled people to make this happen. Please get in touch with, Liz Gadd, Principal Consultant, or Leah Davis, Head of Policy and External Affairs, if would like to get involved in this work and help the social sector collaborate with and ensure that a diverse range of voices are incorporated in society’s response to the environmental crises.


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