Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2010. I remember feeling as though I had entered an artificial horror scene where all I could see in my immediate line of vision were severely burnt human beings; following an urban building fire, there were over 300 hundred to be more precise. The scent was forsaken and the suffering of these people swiftly seeped into my consciousness, despite my greater attempts at resistance. I was 22 and paralysed with the weight of this event.
I had travelled to Bangladesh as a student there to learn, I had very little to offer in the way of skills, money, housing – anything. I recall thinking – Who am I to bear witness to this raw and intimate misery? Do I represent the worst breed of ‘voluntourists’? That is, to observe this suffering without any clear means of offering a sustained reprieve. This experience teamed with these questions underpinned by a larger sense of responsibility for humanity, marked my entry into the ‘developing world’. Also it marked a pursuit of a career lined with steep periods of personal development and sacrifice, questioning one’s own integral values and worthiness of this pursuit.
Since this time, I have been fortunate enough to travel to many countries with goals of assisting with policy, education and training for neurological rehabilitation staff in large cities and Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) system strengthening in rural areas. An Occupational Therapist and public health rookie by trade, whom by means of professional evolution, has more recently morphed into a teacher-trainer-disability inclusive development advocate, I have most certainly found my home within the larger aid environment.
Challenges I experienced in my role in Vietnam include all of those which you would expect, such as: the technical and attitudinal barriers created by poorly resourced settings , disability exclusive attitudes and environments, various forms of political injustice, gender inequality and of course my Australian nationality sets its own limits and can create a somewhat cultural disconnect at times. But paradoxically, flouting these blockades serves as an explanation for why I so wholly love what I do.
The most notable challenge these days is the sizable aperture between urban and rural health care in Asia and what this means for people with disability. Poverty teamed with any form of perceived social impediment is often a damning life sentence. People with disability often represent the forgotten members of our global society because they are physically locked away, hidden from view and can be considered to be an economic burden rather than a brother, sister or friend. Unfortunately, I have many examples, but on which resonates with me the most is a young woman whom resides in a rural area of Vietnam.
As a second generation Agent Orange visit, this young woman suffers severe physical disability which means that all four limbs are useless to her and her unusually small frame means that breathing is becoming an increasing challenge. What’s both remarkable and common about this story is not her disability per se, but the way in which poverty has eroded her life and that of her families.
Still ensnared by the economic hangover from the 2nd Indochina/Vietnam/American war, her family are living on approximately $30USD per week. Yes, she has a disability, but what has sealed her fate and marked her as a perceived burden to be carried by her family is not her actual physical disability, but the fickle nature of food availability, scarce opportunity for education and geographical (rural) isolation meaning that the health interventions she needed as a child were completely inaccessible and hence as an adult, any opportunity for equality and social inclusion are long extinct.
This example outlines why it’s not as simple as prescribing exercise or a free wheelchair to create opportunity for people with disability. Exclusion in the context of low-middle income countries is an intricate social phenomenon, which is frustratingly diverse and can be vigorously resistant to change.
I see this as both a personal and professional challenge, it’s impossible to battle the convoluted system in its entirety but enabling the individual and their family, one by one, is the (or rather one) key to progression.
Marlee is a development practitioner, disability advocate and qualified Occupational Therapist. She currently resides in Amman, Jordan working as Technical Coordinator for Humanity & Inclusion.