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Back to the future: Disability indignity fires fresh fight for fairness

Chris Kerr (left) and Chanhpheng Sivila (right) sit at a wooden table in a workshop inspecting fabric samples.
Chris (L) working in the Lao Disabled Women's Development Centre sewing school with Director Madam Chanhpheng Sivila.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Australian disability advocate Chris Kerr has spent much of her life fighting for better accessibility on home soil. But an opportunity to work in South East Asia has been uplifting, confronting and occasionally undignified, and it has left her with a fresh determination to fight for fairness.

Chris Kerr is a respected leader, brilliant strategist and powerful, magnetic communicator.

She is also stuck, stranded, and slightly shirty — unable to get through the front door until someone comes to help.

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"That is just purely by having to ask for help for everything that I need and not be able to come and go at my will.

"Things that are basic like going to the toilet. I have to arrange with someone that I'm going so they can look out for me so I can get back in the building, or which toilet do I go to because the facilities are not accessible."

Chris is in wheelchair as a result of injuries suffered in a horrific horse riding accident in her teens. The building she is stuck outside is, ironically, the Lao Disabled Women's Development Centre, on the outskirts of Vientiane, the capital of the landlocked South East Asian nation. She does not have the power in her arms to scale the steep ramps up to the foyer. Few would.

Inside are dozens of women with disabilities who live and work here. Some are on crutches, others have vision and hearing impairments. One diminutive young woman bounces around energetically on legs that end just above the ankle.

Chris Kerr (left) sits in a wheelchair on a basketball court laughing. Four others in wheelchairs can be seen around her.
As DESE team Leader, Chris has to develop her basketball skills.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"I look at the women who live and work here seven days a week, 24 hours a day and they deal with a lack of accessibility with good humour, with dignity, without complaint and yet they are not recognising that if they had an accessible environment they would be way more able than they perhaps feel right at this moment.

"The most significant impact of having to live and work in a building that's not designed for accessibility is that you actually are way more disabled than you need to be."

The lack of accessibility has a very personal effect on Chris, but she has an entirely professional response. Back home in Western Australia, she fronts ATLAS, which works to ensure people with a disability get access to health, fitness and sports activities, and she is here leading the Australian Aid-funded Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange (DESE).

Chris Kerr (left) and Shelley Chaplin (right) sit in wheelchairs either side of a house's concrete and wood scooter ramp.
Chris and Shelley were tempted to take on the many scooter ramps around Vientiane.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Her team includes Paralympic basketballer Shelley Chaplin, Project Development Officer Leone Crayden and Communications and Advocacy Development Officer Nikki Harte. They have the broad brief of facilitating the participation of people with disabilities in Laos as contributors, leaders and decision makers, but Chris' plan is laser-focussed. She wants better accessibility through strategic use of donor resources.

"It's been piecemeal and ad hoc," she says, sympathetically.

"The women in the centre recognise the need for accessible toilets but how do they get the money to do that and is that a priority when they have so many other competing priorities like feeding and housing a group of students who are arriving?

Outside the entrance of a wooden building, Chris Kerr in a wheelchair is helped down a small set of stairs by her husband.
Chris' husband Zane helps her navigate inaccessible Laos.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

And that is what Chris wants DESE's legacy to be.

Meanwhile, help arrives and she gets the push she needs to scale the steep ramp and manoeuvre herself inside the front door.

Chris heads straight to her desk, past the women learning to sew and others knitting mobile phone covers, to continue preparing Monday's speech to be delivered to powerful Laotian bureaucrats, business leaders and development organisations.

As a respected leader, brilliant strategist and powerful, magnetic communicator, there are a few things she'd like to see change.

Chris Kerr holds her hands together in prayer, with a flower held between them. Other people are in the background.
Chris among friends at the Laos Disabled Women's Development Centre.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange funded by Australian Aid.

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