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The empowerment and the passion: Driving development through disability

A man pushes a woman in a wheelchair across the grass in the large garden.
Zane and Chris made a habit of turning challenging conditions into fun moments.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Four Australian women who believe passionately in the power of inclusion and opportunity for people with a disability have had the chance to prove its value across cultures. It was hot and hard and wheelchair inaccessible — but they say it was worth it.

"Um, Zane, can you please tie my legs together," Chris says with a cheeky grin and dancing eyes.

"I'll have to take my belt off and use it," her husband Zane replies, pretending to be embarrassed.

"It'll be your fault if my pants fall down."

Chris tightly grips the handrail on the tuk tuk. Zane gives the leather strap now wrapped around her knees a final tug test and climbs on board.

Four people (two obscured) hold onto the rails in the back of a tuk tuk driven by a man in sunglasses.
Nikki and Shelley take on Vientiane in a tuk tuk.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

It is a moment that exemplifies Australian Aid's Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange (DESE) volunteer program in Laos. It has challenges, and it requires teamwork and lateral thinking — determination and a sense of humour are compulsory.

DESE Team Leader Chris Kerr is here because she is a leading thinker and strategist. A horse riding accident in her teens means she has little control over her legs and when not in a tuk tuk, she travels in a wheelchair.

The belt makes it safe for her to join in on a tuk tuk adventure tour around Laos' capital, Vientiane. Her husband, Zane, has joined her in South East Asia to support her as she leads the four-woman DESE team.

Four women (two in wheelchairs) and a man on a dirt road in Laos approach the camera. Four other people are in the background.
The Laos DESE team. From left to right: Nikki Harte, Shelley Chaplin, Leone Crayden and Chris Kerr with Zane behind them.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Paralympian Shelley Chaplin has a month to get the Laos Wheelchair Basketball team firing and ready for international competition.

Chris, Project Development Officer Leone Crayden and Communications and Advocacy Development Officer Nikki Harte are to use their skills to assist people with disabilities to grow as contributors, leaders and decision makers in Vientiane by working with the Lao Disabled People's Association (LDPA) and the Lao Disabled Women's Development Centre (LDWDC).

Four women sit at a wooden table with cups of tea. Two women smile at the camera, one sips tea and the other looks away.
The DESE team takes time out for tea.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"There's a willingness to treat people equally," observes Leone, whose work in Australia is to ensure vulnerable people get access to decent housing.

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That's a message Nikki Harte has been helping to get across in Laos.

She's helped the LDPA's media and communications team produce TV segments that are airing nationally, showcasing people with a disability realising their potential. Shelley has been the star of many of the most popular pieces.

A three-time Paralympic medallist, she was moved to write to her Gliders' teammates back home in Australia about her new, adopted national team.

"These guys don't have any way of getting to training, they don't have brand new wheelchairs, they don't have gym access," she wrote in an email home.

"Sport, for me, has changed my life but I see it enhancing their lives as well and that's special."

To respect a Paralympian is easy, but Zane D'Mello has witnessed up close how Laos locals have glimpsed new horizons because of this pack of Aussie women so far from home.

"People do a double take, they have a look, they are interested," he says.

"But when they are in a work setting, the disability doesn't exist. It is about what you know and what you can bring."

A woman with her left leg raised behind her stands with a crutch at the end of a corridor and looks at the camera.
The DESE team is helping improve lives at the Laos Disabled Women's Development Centre.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

For Chris, it is just further evidence of a proven truth.

"Historically, people with a disability have not been included in the journey about what happens for them and so we know the best way to make the world more inclusive is to have people in the dialogue.

"People with disabilities know what they need."

Sometimes what they need is the chance to share their skills with the world. Other times, it is simply a friend with a belt, who is prepared to help you strap in for a wild ride.

Three women talk in front of a white wall.
Leone at work 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 the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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