A young Australian has taken to the international stage, campaigning in the Pacific for disability empowerment, imploring parents to give support and encouragement to children with a disability to achieve their potential. Sadly, the man who did precisely that for her was denied the chance to see his daughter achieve her full potential.
Connie Miari's Dad always knew she would do something great with her life. He told her so many times.
But as she confidently strode into the Nadi Special School in Fiji as part of the international Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange (DESE), her heart was filled with equal parts sadness and pride. On exactly that date four years earlier, her beloved father, George Miari, died of kidney cancer — aged just 49.
On the very day Connie was realising her big dream, the man who always encouraged her to dream big filled her head and heart.
"He was my biggest fan," she recalls.
"He always made sure I was ok. He always had conversations with me. He always made sure to include himself to make sure how I was going."
It is fitting, perhaps, that one of Connie's key roles in the Australian Aid-funded DESE initiative is to speak with parents about their role in the development of a child with disability.
Growing up a vision impaired girl with albinism, the world could be cruel. When it was, Connie had a safe and supportive home to return to and validation of her hopes and dreams. She wants the same for every child.
"I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for him [Dad] or the rest of my family. They want what's best for me.
"And that's why I kept relaying that message to parents. You should be supporting your child every step of the way so that they know you're there in case there's anything needed."
To some, that may seem obvious. But in some developing nations, where resources are often scarce, there has long been a cultural tradition of low expectations of people with a disability and minimal effort to help realise their potential.
DESE is supporting the growing local commitment to moving beyond those old ways of thinking. The inclusive volunteering program is designed to connect skilled Australians with a disability, or disability-related skills, with development projects in Asia and the Pacific.
This month-long engagement is Connie's second. She was part of a pilot program in 2016. Her team, that also included Lara Bernardo from Tennis Australia and Larissa Burke from Motivation Australia, has been improving job prospects for people with a disability by creating better development pathways and building relationships with potential employers.
Connie is growing her own career and skillset in the process.
"I've changed a lot as a person coming internationally twice because now I know I am able to live on my own," Connie says.
Foreign environments, and developing nations in particular, are challenging for any traveller, but especially so for people with a disability. Accessibility in Australia — while imperfect — makes navigation far easier. But for Connie, the sometimes hostile conditions, the unfamiliar terrain and even the odd fall are worth it because she is a living, grinning example of what is possible when someone with a disability is empowered and supported.
In the Pacific, there is still much work to do at a cultural, planning and educational level. But it all starts with a supportive family, and a Dad who wants the world for you.
"I think he'd be saying, 'I'm very proud of my daughter with the achievements that she's done'," Connie says of her late Dad.
"I think he'd crack a joke or two too."
This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange funded by Australian Aid.
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