In mid-2017, two small teams of Australian volunteers went to Fiji and Laos as part of the Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange (DESE), a unique volunteering initiative developed by Scope Global under the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program.
The DESE teams in Suva and Vientiane were the second and third in a series of inclusive team volunteering deployments connecting skilled Australians who have a lived experience of disability, or sound knowledge about the impact disability has on participation in society, with partners in Asia and the Pacific.
Scope Global instigated and managed the three DESE team initiatives. Getting each DESE project off the ground involved initial consultations, developing an accessible recruitment process, and implementing modifications and supports to enable each member of the teams to complete their assignment.
“One of the most rewarding outcomes of the skills exchange was seeing how people with similar disabilities in Laos and Fiji viewed the teams. People really admired the mobility of the volunteers and have been empowered to achieve greater levels of independence themselves,” said Alex Kay, Scope Global’s Disability Development Officer.
During their assignments, members of the Laos team supported the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre to develop post-vocational opportunities for young women with disabilities and assisted the Lao Disabled People’s Association wheelchair basketball team to promote inclusive sport initiatives. The Fiji team volunteered with the Fiji Ministry of Education to empower students with a disability to access the job market.
A lasting impact in Australia and abroad
Scope Global piloted the first DESE initiative in July 2016. Nastasia Campanella, a journalist with Triple J radio, was a volunteer on the first DESE team, which consisted of four volunteers who are blind and a Deaf team leader. The group spent 28 days in Suva, Fiji, volunteering with disabled people’s organisations and fostering leadership and engagement skills.
Nastasia achieved a lot during her short assignment, instigating a new marketing strategy, social media policy and media training program for the Spinal Injury Association of Fiji. Moving independently around Suva, Nastasia and her team also changed local attitudes towards people with disability.
Volunteering in Fiji helped build Nastasia’s own confidence to take her career to an international stage. In 2016, she filed several news stories from overseas, including a piece on Fiji’s recovery after Cyclone Winston. In 2017, she was sent back to Fiji by the ABC to report on the second DESE initiative.
“It has been amazing to see the lasting impact of the first DESE team,” says Alex Kay after returning to Suva. “Our staff were able to consolidate all the access and inclusion skills they learnt from the first DESE initiative. The local community were excited to welcome the new volunteers, and even more organisations and businesses wanted to meet the team and learn from them.”
“Bringing Nastasia back in a different capacity had a huge effect on the local beneficiaries and it was evident they were in awe of her professionalism. These interactions have a huge impact on changing mindsets about what people with disabilities are capable of achieving.”
Strong as athletes and as people
Shelley Chaplin is a wheelchair basketball player, three-time Paralympian and member of the Laos DESE team. Shelley’s role in Laos was to support the Laos’ Wheelchair Basketball team prepare for the ASEAN Para Games in Malaysia in September 2017.
Shelley explained that wheelchair basketball and other sports provide an environment for people with a disability where they are encouraged “to compete and be strong as athletes and as people”.
Shelley worked primarily with the men’s team, sharing her experiences of competition in Australia and internationally. Having Shelley on the court also inspired many female wheelchair users to try out the sport.
Disability Initiative Grants for all
Scope Global adopts a twin-track approach to disability inclusion by incorporating disability-specific initiatives and disability-mainstreaming initiatives into our work on the AVID program. DESE is one such disability-specific approach that actively targets people with disabilities as agents of change.
One of Scope Global’s successful disability-mainstreaming approaches can be seen in the AVID Disability Initiative Grants that the organisation has administered on behalf of the AVID program for the last two years. The grants are valued up to $1000 AUD each and are open to all Australian volunteers on assignment with the AVID program, provided that they have an interest in strengthening disability inclusive development in their assignment sector.
To date, 58 volunteers have been awarded grants that have supported initiatives as wide-ranging as the construction of a wheelchair access ramp at a primary school in the Philippines, to supporting people with disabilities to produce a weekly radio show in Timor-Leste.
The AVID program is an Australian Government initiative delivered in Bhutan, Cambodia, Fiji, Indonesia, Kiribati, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, the Philippines, Samoa, Sri Lanka, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Vietnam by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in partnership with Scope Global.