Trainees to impact the lives of wheelchair users

TAMLYNNE THOMPSON

A wheelchair is like prescription glasses. It has to be fitted to suit the needs of the client. This was explained by Janine White, the chief physiotherapist at the Western Cape Rehabilitation Centre (WCRC), a specialised centre aimed at helping people cope with disability and integrate them back into society.

However, the challenge with getting people fitted for their wheelchairs is the lack of people equipped with the correct training for wheelchair seating. There are only eight qualified trainers in South Africa, four of whom are based in the Western Cape.

And with this in mind, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently held an Intermediate Seating “Training of Trainers” programme at the WCRC, which is situated on the grounds of Lentegeur Psychiatric Hospital, to further upskill people who have already received basic wheelchair seating skills training. Twenty-two people from 16 different countries around the world attended the training, which took place last month.

The first two days of the training covered presentation and facilitation skills, good communication practice and adult learning, with the last three days giving the trainees an opportunity to practise delivering the packages to their peers and allowing trainers to observe and provide feedback on the trainees’ skills.

Ms White said the idea was for those people who received the training, to train other rehabilitation professionals in their own countries of origin. “The WHO Wheelchair Service Training of Trainers Package (WSTP) will help to train additional people on appropriate wheelchair provision and hopefully have a greater impact on people who need wheelchairs. Currently a major bottleneck in rolling out the WSTP is the lack of qualified trainers. Even though there is great interest in the training programme, it is not possible to provide enough training to meet the demand.”

The WCRC is a key organisation for people with disabilities, as it is the only specialised training facility in the province. The WCRC serves patients referred from hospitals and clinics from all over the Western Cape, and sometimes, patients are referred from neighbouring provinces such as the Eastern and Northern Cape. About 95 percent of their patients are state patients, said Jenny Hendry, the chief executive officer of the WCRC.

The centre offers patients access to specialised rehabilitation programmes offered by teams comprising doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, speech therapists, dieticans and clinical psychologists.

Clients are also provided with appropriate assistive devices such as wheelchairs to suit the needs of clients, wheelchair repairs and other accessories to assist patients with their day-to-day lives. The specially designed retraining and wheelchair obstacle course also helps patients to learn to negotiate various obstacles they will encounter after discharge, such as kerbs, gravel, stones and ramps of different inclinations.

The WCRC also boasts a health and wellness centre, which has an indoor heated pool and gym, for people with disabilities living in the community. This allows them to continue with activities such as “Swim ‘* Gym” to stay healthy and fit.

Ms Hendry said although they have moved to Lentegeur from Conradie Hospital in 2004, most people from the Mitchell’s Plain community still are relatively uninformed about the WCRC.

“As we are on the premises of Lentegeur Psychiatric Hospital, many people assume we do psychiatric rehabilitation. Some people also think we are a substance abuse rehabilitation centre. There is lots of confusion in the community.”

She said the WCRC’s goal is “to help people who have become disabled through injury or disease, so that they can return to their communities, school, work and home lives and to fully participate as active citizens in society.”

She said the biggest challenges they face in the Mitchell’s Plain community is that there is still a long way to go to making the area wheelchair-friendly, and to removing the stigma that is still attached to both physical and mental disabilities.

“If a disabled person with a wheelchair is travelling in a taxi in Mitchell’s Plain, the taxi either won’t stop for them, or the guard charges extra – one price for the wheelchair and one for the passenger. So transport remains a huge barrier for people with mobility challenges.”

However, she said, they have in the past received some valuable support from the Mitchell’s Plain community, including from the management of the Liberty Promenade shopping centre, who gave the WCRC R10 000 in support of the health and wellness centre. Funds were raised through fines imposed by persons parking illegally in disabled parking bays at the shopping centre.

Ms Hendry said as part of the Urban Renewal Project in Mitchell’s Plain, launched by former president Thabo Mbeki in 2001 and at the time of the building of the WCRC, the Mandalay and Lentegeur train stations were also modernised to meet with universal accessibility standards and are wheelchair friendly. “However, there is still a long way to go to ensuring that all stations in the Western Cape are wheelchair accessible” said Ms Hendry.

She said the WCRC had a good working relationship with the SA police, when necessary to protect patients. The WCRC sometimes admits patients who have become disabled as a result of gang warfare. “Unfortunately, with the high rate of gang violence in the area, as well as on the Cape Flats, youngsters often become paralysed when they are shot or stabbed. The reality is that young people who are part of gangs can become paralysed for life, and it’s life-changing. Another major cause of disability is associated with substance abuse and motor-vehicle accidents.”

Ms Hendry said although there is increased awareness when it comes to disability, society still has a long way to go before people are accepted for who they are, and for their abilities – not their disability.”

“This acceptance has to be filtered down to the community level, so that people with disabilities can be fully integrated into society. We must work together, and we still have a long way to go.”