Meet two Jamaican disability advocates who want vulnerable communities to become climate resilient

Feature image via Canva Pro.

This story was first published on News 5 with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations. An edited version is republished below as part of a content sharing agreement.

Climate resilience is about being able to efficiently cope with and manage the impacts of climate change while actively working to minimise their escalation. A climate resilient society would have low carbon emissions and be equipped to deal with realities where conditions are hotter. Quite apart from this direct impact, however, climate resilience can be used to empower people, especially those in vulnerable and disabled communities, who may be negatively affected by climate change-related events like rising temperatures, longer drought periods, more devastating storms, and floods.

Citizens of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Jamaica are particularly at risk. During the annual transatlantic hurricane season, many parts of the country continue to face drought even as the island prepares for potential storms by arranging national emergency shelters (892 in total) and management teams.

The Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, which is responsible for the nation's emergency preparedness, has vouched for its readiness. However, there have been occasions where disabled people have been denied access in an emergency because of a site's lack of accommodation for their disability. While the National Education Trust's (NET) Executive Director Latoya Harris-Ghartey recently said that all school infrastructure development projects will comply with the Disabilities Act, I was unable to speak with local regional disaster coordinators to determine how many designated shelter locations, like schools and community centres, are currently not as accessible as they ought to be.

Disabilities and independence

Jamaican disability advocate Richelle Henry. Photo courtesy Climate Tracker, used with permission.

Disability advocate Richelle Henry, who has cerebral palsy (CP), and disability and climate change activist Ginnel Peart, who has muscular dystrophy and scoliosis, have both stressed the importance of granting accessibility to all people with disabilities and empowering them to become climate resilient. In an interview on Global Yaadie's podcast, they expressed concern about accessibility and empowerment in coping with climate change events and the possibility of being housed in emergency shelters. Peart, who began her journey as a disabled person at about the age of five, and recalls aspects of her school life being challenging, as there was little facilitation for her to become independent, noted:

Empowerment is independence. Give people [with disabilities] their own independence. Tell them and show them that they have your support.

Henry's school experience was different. She attended the McCam Child Development and Resource Centre and the Hope Valley Experimental School, where she was facilitated and encouraged to be independent early on. Unfortunately, she explained, “when issues such as climate change-related events occur, it poses a challenge for people with disabilities (PWD)”:

So, entities need to be more proactive and not just wait until something happens before addressing concerns for members of the community leading up to or within a disaster. Think about this by being a few steps ahead and operate as if the affected people are your relatives; think about it as if you were being impacted. You are going to want to feel accepted. You are going to want to know that you can move without having people constantly assisting you.

Empowerment through involvement and collaboration

Jamaican disability and climate change activist Ginnel Peart. Photo courtesy Climate Tracker, used with permission.

Peart, a former student of animal biology, was a youth environment ambassador for Jamaica Climate Change Youth Council (JCCYC) and she is currently one of the regional coordinators for the Caribbean Youth Climate Justice Coalition. She emphasised the importance of leaving space for community members to be involved.

I don’t think enough effort is being exerted for the community. I think various entities can approach the councils and/or organisations dedicated to PWD. Yes, there is the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities, but there are many others out there, such as the Combined Disabilities Association, the Jamaica Society for the Blind, the Jamaica Association for the Deaf, and more.

She advises collaboration with all these groups “for the greater good of building resiliency for PWD,” and envisions advocates and government officials actively participating together. Peart also believes there is room for private organisations to engage in the discussion with the disabled community, noting advocates cannot effect change by themselves:

Start the conversation with the impacted individuals. Find out how their needs can be met and what it means for them to be empowered to cope in climate change-related events.

She also stressed that despite being placed under one umbrella, people with disabilities all have unique needs:

We need to use the most limiting concerns of people with disabilities as the blueprint to tailor the approach in empowering all.

Henry revealed that she only feels empowered to cope with climate change-related events based on her affiliation with climate justice advocates:

People talk about being climate resilient, but not a lot is being done to even educate. There isn’t a lot of public awareness for climate change adaptation or resiliency for PWD. Where are the community-appropriate advertisements or even social media engagement?

Climate resilience, justice, and the vulnerable

There are things that can be done immediately, starting with the proper transport of disabled people, many of whom live in flood-prone areas. Peart also mentioned providing “the right kinds of alerts” that indicate the status of an area before, during, and after an emergency. Infrastructure should also be outfitted with appropriate ramps to facilitate citizens in wheelchairs:

It’s not just that there is a ramp. There must be ease for them to [comfortably] get in and out.

Both women also expressed concerns about the accessibility of bathroom facilities within shelters (noting that they should be spacious enough to accommodate manual or motorised wheelchairs), as well as sleeping arrangements (as some people require specialised bedding to ensure sufficient comfort). They also believe their concerns transcend the disabled community to include all vulnerable people, including the elderly and people with chronic and non-communicable diseases.

While emergency shelters are not expected to be luxurious, the duo noted:

It’s just the little things. What are the adjustments being made [for the disabled and other vulnerable groups]?

At this point, the connection between climate resiliency and climate justice requires acknowledgement of the negative impact climate change has on specific communities. Without sufficient access or provisions for sustained independence, vulnerable groups cannot become empowered and are at a disadvantage. To not address these issues in time would be a further injustice.

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