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Seminar on "A Social Perspective of Rehabilitation Sciences for Persons with Disabilities"
and a Study Visit to Disabled People Organisations
in Vientianne, Lao P.D.R.

Issavara Sirirungruang, Ph.D.
Assistant Dean for International Relations and Networking
Ratchasuda College, Mahidol University

As the start of the ASEAN Community is fast approaching in 2015 and that all member states of the ASEAN had adopted the Bali Declaration in 2011 proclaiming 2011-2020 the ASEAN Decade of Persons with Disabilities, it is expected that disability issues will be considered more at a regional level than before. Ratchasuda College, Mahidol University, as the higher education institution which provides education, research and academic services related to rehabilitation for persons with disabilities and quality of life development of persons with disabilities, sees the importance in the establishment of collaborative networks to exchange experiences, bodies of knowledge and practices among institutions in the ASEAN region who also working in the field of disability.

Hence, during 9-13 June 2014, faculties and staff of Ratchasuda College visited Vientianne, Lao P.D.R. The aims of this visit were (1) to hold a seminar entitled "A Social Perspective of Rehabilitation Sciences for Persons with Disabilities" for organizations working in the field of disability in the Lao P.D.R. and; (2) to visit organizations of and for persons with disabilities to establish networks. The seminar was being held between 10-12 June. There were 24 participants from 4 organizations; namely, the Centre of Medical Rehabilitation (Ministry of Health), the Inclusive Education Centre (Ministry of Education and Sports), the Lao Association of the Blind and the Association of Autism.

The seminar started with keynote speeches entitled "The Rehabilitation Services for Persons with Disabilities and Disability Movement in Thailand and Lao". The speech on Thailand was delivered by Associate Professor Tavee Cheausuwantavee, dean of Ratchasuda College. The speech on Lao was delivered by Mr. Thonglith Sihabandith, the Deputy Director of Centre of Medical Rehabilitation. The contents of the seminar were divided into 4 sections, i.e., rehabilitation counseling, rehabilitation administration, assistive technology and rehabilitation for blind and low vision persons. Towards the end of the seminar, there was a section to discuss the situation of persons with disabilities in Lao from past to present, and what participants hope to see happening in the future.

Whilst the rehabilitation services for persons with disabilities in the Lao P.D.R. is very much focusing around the medical perspective on trying to cure and solve the problem of physical impairments, this seminar emphasized on the importance of the social perspective of rehabilitation. For persons with disabilities to live a life with better quality, the medical and social rehabilitation services for persons with disabilities should go hand in hand with one another.

It was noted that the most important resource that the Lao P.D.R. still lack is human resources who have a good knowledge on persons with disabilities. As a result, participants requested that Ratchasuda College develops short course trainings for their personnels. There was a verbal agreement to develop a memorandum of agreement between Ratchasuda College and the Centre of Medical Rehabilitation.

On Friday 13 June, we had a good opportunity to visit the Faculty of Social Science which has the department of Social Work and Development at the National University of Laos. The department head Dr. Bounxom Syharath welcomed our group and discussed the situation of students with disabilities in Lao. Currently, there is no student with disability in the National University of Laos. One of the barriers to this due to teachers lack of knowledge. It is considered that before students with disabilities can be enrolled, there should be necessary support provided such as sign language interpreters.

In the afternoon, we visited the Lao Disabled People Association (LDPA) – the umbrella organization advocating for all types of disabilities in Lao. The LDPA currently provides Disability Rights and Inclusion training programmes, employment services, and small business training for members. After that, we visited the Intelligent Disability Unit. The unit is a self-help group under the umbrella of LDPA. The unit acts as a day centre and school for children with intellectual disability aged 5-28 years old. There are 53 children in the centre with 11 teachers. In this centre, children are taught skills through various activities such as arts, sports and agriculture.

In conclusion, this visit to Lao provides opportunities for faculties and staff of Ratchasuda College and organizations of and for persons with disabilities in the Lao P.D.R. to learn and exchange our experiences, bodies of knowledge and practices in the disability fields. There are many similarities in the opportunities and challenges faced by us in Thailand and those in the Lao P.D.R. Together, we will continue to work alongside each other to jointly provide a better rehabilitation services and quality of life of persons with disabilities in both countries.