"We need more people with disabilities volunteering overseas"

Wheelchair user Chris Kerr says volunteering in Laos was life-changing; and she wants more people with disabilities to embark on a volunteer journey.

Chris Kerr is a passionate advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. In 2017, she embarked on a one-month journey to Laos, leading a team of Australian volunteers with different disabilities. The group worked with organisations in Laos to help local people with disabilities grow as contributors, decision-makers and leaders in their communities. Here's her story.

I was one of a group of four passionate, amazing women who travelled to Vientiane in June 2017. As the team leader, I supported Paralympic basketballer Shelley Chaplin, Project Development Officer Leone Crayden and Communications and Advocacy Development Officer Nikki Harte.

At the Buddhist templte for Buddhist Lent celebrations with Souphaluck Boutthady Metta Thippawong Nikki Harte Shelley Chaplin and Zane DMello
Australian volunteer Chris Kerr with fellow volunteers and local counterparts at a Buddhist temple for Buddhist lent celebrations. Supplied: Chris Kerr
On the streets of Vientiane with Shelley Chaplin and ABCs Aaron Kearney
Australian volunteer Chris Kerr on the streets of Vientiane with Shelley Chaplin and ABC reporter Aaron Kearney. Supplied: Chris Kerr

It was a fantastic experience. It was wonderful to be able to give back to women with disabilities particularly, to empower them to have different futures.

It sounds really cliched but it’s true – it was life-changing to do something so out of the box.

Supporting women with disabilities to be more independent

We worked alongside the Laos Disabled People's Association (LDPA) and the Laos Disabled Women's Development Centre (LDWDC) – both non-profit organisations based in Vientiane.

The LDWDC is a live-in education and training program for women with disabilities from across Laos, mostly rural and remote provinces. They come to learn life skills, sewing, handicrafts and basic English.

They return to their villages with skills to make their own income, to support themselves and their families. In spite of their daily challenges, the women live their lives with humility and good humor and welcomed us with such generosity. 

Challenging attitudes; changing perceptions

We helped the centre develop a training and development plan, and looked for ways they could strengthen the education experience for the women.

We also worked with education and training providers, sporting programs, disability providers, government, the United Nations, other international aid organisations and private businesses to change attitudes and challenge perceptions around disability.

Shelley was there to coach the men’s wheelchair basketball team, but there were so many women who were interested and who I think were inspired by Shelly; that we ended up running sessions for the women to have a go and talked to them about creating a women’s wheelchair basketball team.

Australian volunteer Chris Kerr having a cooking lesson from Chanhpeng Silvia Director and Founder of Laos Womens Development Centre.
Madame Chanhpeng Sivila, Founder and Director of Laos Women’s Development Centre, teaching Chris how to cook Laos food. Supplied: Chris Kerr
Volunteer Chris Kerr on a tuk tuk safari with Shelley Chaplin
Chris Kerr (left) on a tuk tuk safari with volunteer Shelley Chaplin (right) in Vientiane. Supplied: Chris Kerr

Overcoming accessibility challenges

Laos is very inaccessible to people with disabilities, which provided our team with some challenges.

Shelley and I are both wheelchair users, so navigating our way around Vientiane required teamwork and lateral thinking. A sense of determination and humour were compulsory!

When we went out for a meal we had to be vigilant about where the bathrooms were and whether they were accessible – were they upstairs or down a laneway that’s too skinny for a wheelchair?

But it was great fun - it just made it all the more interesting and challenging, and who doesn’t love a good challenge?!

Take a sense of humour - and be flexible

If you have a disability and you’re thinking about volunteering, my first response would be to go for it!

If you can work with your volunteer provider and articulate what your needs are, for when you’re in-country, that’s the most important thing. 

You definitely need to take a sense of humour and be flexible because it will be different to what we’re used to in Australia.

 

I don’t believe disability prevents anybody from participating in a program. You just need to make sure your supports are right so you can do it as independently as possible.

— Chris Kerr
Chris Kerr with local Laos women at wheelchair basketball training.
Chris Kerr with local Laos women at wheelchair basketball training. Supplied: Chris Kerr
Volunteer Chris Kerr with student Mrs Thongbai in the sewing training room.
Chris Kerr (left) with a student Mrs Thongbai, in the sewing room at the Laos Women's Development Centre. Supplied: Chris Kerr

You need to know that someone’s got your back with things like accessible accommodation and transport. And if you need aids or equipment, making sure they are available where you are going. Once that is sorted, there is absolutely no reason why you can’t do it.

“That’s it for me – I’m hooked!”

The experience left me with a renewed sense of perspective and a fresh determination to fight for fairness and seek opportunities to make a positive difference in the lives of others. It inspired me to keep taking every opportunity I can to try and do new and learn new things.

I loved meeting people, and being able to be part of a community in a real way. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I’m keeping my eye out for other international volunteering opportunities. That’s it for me - I’m hooked on international volunteering!

Chris Kerr is Operations Manager at ATLAS in Geraldton, WA – a non-profit organisation that improves access and inclusiveness for people with disabilities. She is also an ABC local radio producer and business consultant. Her volunteer project was part of the Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange (DESE) – a pilot program developed and trialled as a peer-to-peer model for international volunteering through the Australian Volunteers Program.

 

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