A WORLD FIRST VOLUNTEER EXPERIENCE FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITY

The Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange (DESE) was a pilot program aimed at strengthening disability-inclusive development within the AVID program.  With approximately one billion people living with a disability globally, and 80 per cent of those living in the world’s poorest countries,development efforts that include and benefit people with disabilities are integral to achieving Australia’s aid objectives.

The project saw a group of five Australian volunteers with disabilities who spent a month in 2016 volunteering with disabled people’s organisations in Suva, Fiji.

“The pilot looked to improve the leadership skills in the disabled person’s organisations where the teams were based, and also to develop an inclusive model that could feed into international volunteering programs” explains Scope Global’s Disability Development Officer, Alex Kay.

A world first for people with disability

As an inclusive, peer-to-peer model for international volunteering, the DESE project was the first of its kind. The five Australians (four of the volunteers are vision impaired and the team leader is Deaf) shared their knowledge and experience in media and public relations, financial management, disability inclusion and community engagement with staff from five disabled people’s organisations in Fiji.

The presence of the five Australians went a long way to changing attitudes and perceptions of people with disability in Suva.

“We saw first-hand the impact our presence in Suva had on people’s lives” says DESE team leader Caroline. “From taxi drivers to hotel staff and café workers, we could sense the initial shock at noticing we’re a bunch of foreign women with disabilities and then the subsequent shift in their attitude at the end of the interaction.”

The feedback from the local community has been extremely positive.

“Many commented on how independent the DESE women were, in finding their way around, setting a great example and high standards for the locals with disabilities,” said a staff member of one of the disabled people’s organisations involved.

The effect on the volunteers themselves has been just as great.

“It made me feel that everything about me is important – my skills, abilities, knowledge, experience, and even my disability” revealed DESE team member, Zel Iscel.

Since the volunteers returned to Australia, new organisations from Fiji and Laos have expressed interest in taking part in future DESE projects.

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