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Paving pacific pathways: Australia's disability-driven dream

Larissa Burke (left) and a young Fijian girl (right) sit face-to-face on the grass in the sun.
Larissa shares an intimate moment with "the girl in blue" from Nabouva Village.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

As attitudes shift and Pacific people with a disability gradually find greater acceptance, a group of young Australian women is seizing the moment to help forge new pathways to employment and fulfilment. It is a grand ambition with very personal implications.

The little girl in a sky-blue dress appears out of nowhere and plops herself down right in the middle of the Australian team.

They've never met, but it's as if she knows she is among friends.

Within minutes, there is counting and nursery rhymes and lots of laughter.

The little local has Down syndrome and is aged somewhere between six and ten — she gives a different answer every time she is asked how old she is.

A close-up of Larissa Burke smiling with her arms resting on a metal bar outside.
DESE Fiji Team Leader Larissa Burke.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

The group of women she has gravitated to is part of the Australian Aid-funded Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange (DESE). They are visiting the Fijian village of Nabouva in central Viti Levu and this exchange is one of dozens of similar encounters during their month-long engagement.

"Interacting with that person. Having them open up and share with me about their life and what they love and what they are passionate about and what they want to be when they are older and seeing the bigger picture of what this program is trying to do — to help pave their future."

This is the human face of the DESE mission — to assist students living with disabilities to access employment and internship opportunities in the local tourism and hospitality sector. Practically, this means helping to institute systems that provide an individual life and career plan for every person with a disability.

"People with a disability in Fiji and across the Pacific are sometimes not included in society, in schools, in employment, in training opportunities," says DESE Fiji Team Leader Larissa Burke.

"It can be a shameful thing. Sometimes people feel a real need to protect people with a disability and that means they are excluded and their rights aren't recognised in the same way."

Larissa, Connie, Nas and a young girl in a blue dress sit in a circle on the grass.
(clockwise from left) DESE Team Leader Larissa, DESE Team Member Connie Miari, ABC journalist Nas Campanella and "the girl in blue".

ABC: Aaron Kearney

The gentle, playful Larissa who beams while engaging with the girl in blue is in stark contrast to the ultra-efficient team manager who earned the nickname "Squadron Leader". As someone who returns regularly to the Pacific, she is determined to capitalise on recent gains for people with a disability.

"There's been amazing progress made and it is just going to continue in Fiji and the Pacific. I feel like opportunities for people with a disability are going to exponentially grow."

A crutch, an artificial leg and several sandals are left by an entrance.
Leave your shoes at the door — Nabouva Village hall.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Just by being in Fiji, Connie Miari is advancing the cause of people with a disability. As she methodically runs her fingers over a handheld fan, freshly woven from palm tree fronds, the vision-impaired 25-year-old is proof that disability need not be a barrier to work, travel or leadership.

But she too, wants to be heard, to help pave a pathway for those ignored or undervalued.

"I feel that disability awareness is still needed," she says.

"Talking to locals about how we are able to do things and be independent. We should be seen as people. I was really passionate to come and share my stories around employment and being a person with a disability."

Nearby, amongst the sandals and thongs strewn at the doorway to the village hall, an artificial leg is propped up against the wall. Its owner is an elderly double amputee. He is inside drinking kava and listening to details of the DESE program, and its ambitions to facilitate a long and fulfilling life for the little girl in blue sitting outside with the Aussies.

A close-up of a young Fijian girl with Lara Bernardo in a classroom.
Lara works with a student from Lautoka School for Special Education.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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