As the airport shuttle bus pulled away from Terminal 1 just before 3 am, the older gentleman driving began to sign along with “Homeward Bound,” which was playing softly through the sound system. That scene was indicative of my time in Perth, Australia. A Swedish woman shared the night before, “It’s easy to be here.” Agreed. Experiences in Perth and the surrounding areas of Western Australia were clean, friendly, approachable, and relaxed. It was immensely refreshing coming from Washington, DC.
I traveled the 25 hours in the sky, over three flights, to attend the 15th biennial conference of the International Association of Special Education (IASE). Their work is simple, genuine and transformative. Founded by an Austrian refugee of World War II, the organization began, and continues thirty years later, as a vehicle to connect teachers of special education around the world with each other. Their mission is to ensure that every child receives quality education, and that educators have the tools they need to make that happen. Representatives from 33 countries were present in Perth, the seemingly edge of the world for many of us.
In preparation for the conference, participants and speakers were asked to bring items from their home countries. These were then auctioned at the conference, and the proceeds then go towards awarding scholarships to educators from developing countries. I served as the 2017 Scholarship Chair, leading a committee to review applications from four continents. We awarded 12 scholarships, and nine recipients from seven countries successfully made the long journey to Perth. Some presented research and practices in special education from their home countries, and others were there to learn from others.
After the first full day of the conference, we invited all attendees to participate in a Think Tank meeting, to hear the concerns and suggestions of what we as an organization can do to better support the field of special education globally. 25 participants, representing 16 countries attended this session and offered a plethora of ideas and enthusiasm. Representatives from new countries, such as Guyana and Ghana, were eager to learn more and return to their countries with their newfound resources.
While the whole conference was inspirational, it was the final keynote address, by two retired Aussie men, that summed up the essence of why IASE exists. Olly and Bob started Wheelchairs for Kids in 1998. Their idea was simple: make wheelchairs for kids who need them. Surely others had thought the same, and even had done it. However, Olly and Bob decided that they, and anyone who wanted to help them, would do so without any monetary compensation. They also focused on a designing a wheelchair model that could grow as the children did, for longer use. And since children all around the world need wheelchairs, they would partner with organizations to ship the wheelchairs, with a personal escort, to wherever the children were waiting for them. They showed videos of volunteers transporting wheelchairs across temporary bridges and through narrow paths in jungles, to reach children with no means to do more than lie on a floor in huts in remote villages around the world.
To date, volunteers of Wheelchairs for Kids have made and shipped 37,252 wheelchairs, to 71 countries. Each one is sent with a hand crocheted blanket and soft toy to add to the gift of dignity, in the form of sitting upright and mobility.
As the global strife continues to increase, it was nothing short of a deep breath of hope and joy to witness that simple, honest, good work continues as well. And it reaches far beyond the politics and public dialogue of the stages in the world, into the huts and indeed hearts of our fellow brothers and sisters. Thank you IASE, thank you Wheelchairs for Kids, and thank you to all the educators striving to make this world a better place, one child at a time.