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Making life accessible

Laos wants a better future for people with disabilities - and a national action plan to improve access to services is a major step forward.

People with disabilities experience similar challenges the world over - including difficulty accessing basic services such as healthcare, education and transport. The Government of Laos is determined to change this situation in its country but there's a lot of work ahead.

"Although the Laos government is strongly committed to the needs of people with a disability, most people are living in rural and remote areas, so availability of services is limited," explains Mr Sisavath Khomphonh, Deputy Director General to the Department of Pensions, Invalids and Handicapped.

Relatively little is known about the disabled population in Laos. Conservative estimates suggest that 3-7% of the country's more than 6 million people have a disability that impacts severely on their lives, while a 2005 study by the Lao Department of Statistics estimated 57,000 people were physically disabled, blind or deaf.

In Laos, the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program aims to support people with disabilities to overcome barriers and increase opportunities, by strengthening local organisations in the disability sector. This is a priority for both the Australian Government and Australian Red Cross.

A key partner is the National Committee for Disabled People and Elderly whose remit is to work with government ministries, the private sector and local authorities to protect and promote the rights of people with disabilities.

The Committee is drafting a national strategy and action plan that seeks to improve livelihoods through greater availability and access to services. The draft plan sets specific goals and targets in areas such as data collection, social protection and healthcare, employment, transport, information and communication, early intervention and education.

The AVID program is supporting the National Secretariat to the Committee through disability adviser Geoff Fawkner. Geoff has a wealth of experience to draw upon. Not only has he worked in community-based roles in disability support, he's also held positions as the chief executive of a large disability NGO and president of the peak body for disability services in Victoria.

Geoff says a critical part of developing the national strategy and action plan is assigning actions to relevant organisations and authorities.

"The targets can be things like 'all international airports must be accessible for people in wheelchairs, or the number of people with a disability attending school will increase'. The strategic plan encompasses those targets and then identifies who is responsible to ensure that happens," says Geoff. "So my role has really been about seeing how we can put those things in place."

The next step will be to hold discussions with government ministries about the role each will play in improving the livelihoods of people with disabilities. Geoff is supporting interaction between the disability sector and government - an important step in increasing coordination of services.

"There are lots of good works and activities being done in the disability sector, but the problem is that most are ad hoc or done in isolation," Geoff explains.

According to Mr Sisavath, the National Secretariat and the Committee want to see disability issues become a critical part of Laos' efforts to reduce poverty and shed its status as a least developed country.

"We are committed to protect, promote and include disability issues in development, especially education, vocational training, employment, medical care, providing assistance devices, accessing public services and improving livelihoods," he says.

Geoff's work at the National Secretariat has assisted in coordination with international NGOs and helped staff to develop their English speaking and technology skills.

"Having an AVID volunteer brings many skills to our office, and our staff get more knowledge and experience in administration and management," says Mr Sisavath.

For Geoff, the opportunity to use his expertise in Laos - a part of the world he is passionate about - has been a good fit with his life-long commitment to helping people with a disability.

"Volunteering has been a wonderful and enriching experience for me," he says. "I believe I have gained more than I have given, made many wonderful friends and become deeply involved in a unique and rich culture."