By Nastasia Campanella
Living in a remote village of Fiji might seem like paradise, but for someone with a disability it can mean a life of isolation.
While much has been done to address stigma towards people with disability in the Pacific island nation, education and important services remain beyond the reach of many.
“When I grew up I heard about it; that people were treating people with disabilities as separate people, as sick people, damaged people,” said Kitiona Rokomalokakalou, the chairman of a village north of Suva.
“I’m talking about 30 or 40 years ago.”
That stigma still lingers in many places, according to Larissa Burke, who has been working on the island as a volunteer.
“Often people with disability in Fiji are not included in society, in schools, in employment and in training opportunities,” she said.
Special schools have opened in some parts of Fiji, but many parents in remote areas are unaware they exist or cannot afford to send their children there.
Ms Burke, along with two other Australian volunteers recently travelled to Fiji to give advice to disabled children, their parents and teachers, in a program called the Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange [DESE].
One of the other volunteers is Connie Miari, who has Albinism which affects her vision.
“I shared with them the fact that my parents were very supportive of me while growing up,” she said.
“They didn’t perceive me as someone with a disability, they just said ‘no Connie, you have a disability, but you are able to do whatever you want and you can be an individual amongst everyone in society.”
Breaking down barriers
Ms Burke has volunteered in special schools across Fiji and Vanuatu, but said Connie’s perspective had made a difference.
“I think it’s incredibly powerful to have the voice of someone with a lived experience of disability as part of our team,” she said.
Lara Bernardo, another team member, said change was happening slowly and projects like DESE helped to speed up the process.
“I think when you’ve got people advocating for disability, you’ve got more programs that are inclusive and that are educating the wider community about disability and that it’s not a negative thing,” she said.
“You shouldn’t treat people with a disability any differently to anyone else.”
And for Ms Miari, that progress can’t come fast enough.
“I’ve had a lot of feedback from the parents, they would pull me aside and say ‘I am very keen to help my child to get into the employment force and I really want to support them’,” she said.
“‘You really changed my point of view because beforehand I kind of thought they have a disability, they have a curse, I don’t know if I can help them and the fact that you are here from Australia is also a real eyeopener as well, in saying that you can travel anywhere’.”
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.