How does Jamaica communicate about the climate crisis with the blind and visually impaired?

Feature image via Canva Pro.

This story was first published on Our Today 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.

When it comes to the climate crisis, marginalised communities in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) often feel the brunt of its negative impacts. These communities face a double whammy: being residents of a small island developing state and also being members of a disadvantaged group of people within their country.

One such community is the blind. How easily can they access information on climate change? How much information is made available for them to access? Is it enough? If not, how much more needs to be done? Is the provision of climate funding, or lack thereof, from larger countries a contributing factor to this problem, and if so, how can it be addressed?

Local organisations and policies can have set targets on paper, but without adequate funding, climate change communication for the blind may continue to fall by the wayside, leaving this community exposed and ignorant to some of the content, as well as dependent on others to relay the information.

Adrienne Pinnock, manager of corporate communications and public relations at the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities (JCPD), says that her organisation currently houses an informal library with accessible climate change-related content for the disabled community, including the blind:

Very few of our constituents, meaning [people] from the disabled community, have approached us to consume [any] material we may have on climate change. What we find is that if we want to inform them, we would have to go where they are and have the conversation.

The JCPD library offers material about climate change, as well as publications that are specific to the community of people with disabilities. One drawback is that it is unable to lend the reading material the way a typical library would, but it remains available for use in-house. Pinnock adds, though, that it is mostly non-disabled people accessing the material, either for research or study preparation.

She believes that the limited traffic from the disabled community to consume the material can be attributed to a lack of awareness, both about the services JCPD offers and that the information is easily accessible at its library.

In 2006, the Combined Disabilities Association developed a publication entitled, “When Disaster Strikes, Be Ready,” essentially a disaster survival guide for people with disabilities. Though it is dated, Pinnock believes the content is still relevant, and there is a version available in braille:

We have copies of that at the JCPD, and we have a copy of a similar publication that came out of an international organisation. [W]e don’t have a digitised copy of that one, but our library contains other climate change material where digitised and braille copies are available.

With Jamaica's Disabilities Act (2014) finally coming into effect on February 14, 2022, following its initial approval in 2014 and the affirmation of the Disabilities Regulations in 2021, the JCPD intends to rebrand itself and increase awareness about its services, what the organisation represents, and how it plans to empower the lives of persons with disabilities.

According to Pinnock, there are two levels of awareness in that regard:

Climate change is not a very present conversation in the space of disability even though, like everybody else, people with disabilities are impacted. So, people would not think to approach the JCPD to get information.

Secondly, this is not a part of our branding today. We have information regarding climate change, but it may not inform our constituents of the fact that we have relevant information for them.

As it stands, Pinnock concedes that people with disabilities are currently more likely to lean on other organisations for information.

The Disabilities Act makes provisions to safeguard and enhance the welfare of persons with disabilities (PWDs) across Jamaica. It also aims to protect and promote equal rights for the disabled, and prohibits discrimination against them, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on which Jamaica is a signatory. However, it is not explicitly clear how the disabled community, including the blind, is impacted by disaster preparedness and climate change concerns.

In 2022, experts of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, though pleased with the Act, questioned a Jamaican delegation about how specific measures are being taken to include persons with disabilities in disaster preparedness.

In response, the delegation explained that Jamaica has a high exposure to natural disasters, including hurricanes, storms, landslides, and earthquakes. These events regularly impact the lives of PWDs and cause the destruction of infrastructure. The delegation also noted that there were challenges in early warning systems, and several attempts had been made to establish technological systems that would allow all people, including the deaf, to communicate with first responders.

In early June, Antoinette Aiken, a sign-language interpreter and advocate for persons with disabilities, challenged the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) after the organisation declared that their communication system, which includes sirens, radio messages, and tones for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, was one of the most comprehensive and robust in the world. Aiken maintained that a deaf person may not get the messages sent through phones and radios:

What access are you really providing for a deaf person? What happens when a hurricane comes? What happens if a tsunami comes? [People with hearing challenges] need communication access. They need to know that there is an emergency. During Hurricane Sandy (2012), a lot of deaf people had no idea, literally, until the day it came — and that’s their experience every day.

In 2021, the ODPEM developed and distributed earthquake safety information and emergency numbers in braille for the vulnerable group of visually impaired and blind Jamaicans. However, more is needed, because access goes beyond earthquake-related and subsequent tsunami information.

In Jamaica, the conversation on climate change — across the board — is not yet at the point where the disabled community can feel confident about being equitably included in accessing information.

As far as climate finance for the country goes, Jamaica has been actively engaged in discussions about securing funding to address climate change concerns. For example, there is a Climate Change Policy Framework with a Climate Financing Strategy to support the country in responding to the impact of climate change.

Jamaica was also the first country in the English-speaking Caribbean to join the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action. Launched by the World Bank in April 2019, it was designed to accelerate climate action in economic and financial policies through collaborative strategies. The coalition abides by seven principles designed to support finance ministers as they share best practices and experiences on macro, fiscal, and public financial management policies for low-carbon transformation.

In May of this year, it was announced that Jamaica is set to benefit from a £7-million package to increase the country’s access to climate financing. This delivers on a promise made by the U.K.'s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Affairs office at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in 2021.

The plan is to establish a fund to which others will contribute. Support for increasing climate resilience will also be provided across key sectors. Once the Jamaica model proves that this approach can work, other Caribbean countries will be encouraged to follow suit.

Still, questions remain. How will the policy framework and potential funding be used? How will all people, including the disabled community, benefit? And will organisations like the JCPD finally be able to successfully convert content into an accessible format for the blind, deaf, and other persons from the disabled community? Time will hold the answers.

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