The power of listening: creating opportunities for children with disabilities in Nepal

17 January 2019

In 2019, three more Octopus colleagues are preparing to travel overseas, thanks to Octopus Giving’s volunteering partnership with The International Exchange (TIE). We spoke to Emma Ryan, Head of Servicing and Legal at Octopus Property, about her upcoming trip to Nepal.  

Emma Ryan knew she wanted to put herself forward for a volunteering opportunity with TIE. But with so many initiatives to choose from, she wasn’t sure which would be the best fit.

Then, she learnt about Akshar Arambha Nepal (AAN)– a Nepalese charity that helps disabled children get a mainstream education. Their mission immediately resonated with Emma because of her own experience.

A personal passion

“My sister had Down syndrome. Even though England is the other side of the world from Nepal, we still have issues around educating disabled children and getting them integrated into schools,” Emma said.

“My sister didn’t go to the same primary school as me. Because the local nursery school wouldn’t take her, instead she had to go to a primary school many miles away. But if you don’t integrate disabled children into the education system from a very young age, how will other children understand that disabilities are normal?”

This personal passion is backed up by practical knowledge. As an Octopus Giving Charity Coordinator, she’s worked closely with Downright Excellent, a UK-based Down syndrome charity tackling many of the same issues.

And then, of course, there are the skills she’s bringing from her day job.

“A lot of my role is problem-solving, managing a team, strategy and reporting. I’m also a qualified solicitor, so that will be helpful for advocacy and speaking to people at all sorts of levels.”

A complex problem

Opportunities for disabled children in Nepal are sometimes severely limited, which makes AAN’s work vital.

“In Nepal, about 60% of disabled children don’t go to school at all. Often, there’s a real battle to get disabled children accepted into school, because of practicalities like wheelchair access and teaching resources.

“But there are also cultural reasons. Children with disabilities are seen as having sinned from a previous life. So, there’s a difficult cultural shift to make.”

It’s a huge and complex problem, but Emma has hopes she can contribute towards a solution.

As she explains: “The International Exchange’s work with AAN is all about creating a long-term strategy for fundraising. My role will involve assisting them with this, but will also involve talking to schools about the need for better understanding and inclusion of disabled children.

“I’ll speak to them about why they struggle to take these children on – and find out what the families of disabled children really need.

“As Westerners, we can’t just bowl in and think we know best or go in with any preconceptions. We need to listen to what is required and help to make a plan from there.”

Counting down

Emma is excited – if a little intimidated – by the personal challenge of volunteering on the other side of the world. She thinks she’ll get as much out of it as she gives.

‘I’d like to get more self-confidence and do something out of my comfort zone,’ she explained. ‘This is quite a personal stretch for me, having never lived or worked in another country. I’d like to return with a new perspective on life. I can be guilty of letting things get on top of me and getting stressed, so I hope the experience will help change the way I react sometimes.’”

There are still a few months to go until she departs. Does she feel ready? Not quite. “I can’t speak any Nepali at the moment! I’ve downloaded an app and learned the numbers one to three, but that’s as far as I’ve got.”

And what advice does Emma have for would-be TIE volunteers?

“What’s there to lose?’ she said. ‘You’re doing so much for other people, as well as having a really rewarding experience for yourself. Life’s short – just do it!”