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The things wheelchair users go through: bumpy pavements, steep ramps and steeper hills, a lack of step-free access to public buildings. Not to mention the physical aches and pains one’s body goes through.
Last week, a group of carers and volunteers from community groups across T&T had the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be in a wheelchair and, more importantly, received training on measuring and fitting wheelchair to their users to prevent further damage or debilitation due to ill-fitting chairs.
At a three-day workshop at the headquarters of Foundation for the Enhancement and Enrichment of Life (Feel), organised by director Elena Villafana-Sylvester and run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), they learnt the fundamentals, stipulated by the WHO (World Health Organization).
“Previous to this (ruling by the WHO), you just came, you sat in a chair and you took that wheelchair home,” says Villafana. “It could be the wrong size. It could be too short for your back. If it was too tight it could rub against your legs and cause you to develop sores. If it was too wide then you could be moving around in the chair, impacting your spine.”
After training from physical therapist Steve Spencer of the LDS, the volunteers were certified to measure, build and fit brand new wheelchairs, 350 of which are supplied by the LDS, the Mormon church based in Utah, every year.
Receiving the training were representatives of NGOs from all over T&T. Toco Helping Hands, Cedros Community Group, New Vision Ministries in Diego Martin, Paradise Hill Women in Action from Blanchisseuse, Eldamo bus drivers and the Tobago Empowerment Foundation and In The Mean Time from east Trinidad.
They take it in turns to sit in and ride a wheelchair while the group listens and responds to their physical requirements.
“An important part of the training is for you to understand what is comfortable,” Villafana says, “so you can identify issues.”
One hundred and twenty wheelchairs were distributed between January and October 2013 to people who required them due to illness, accidents, crime and ageing.
Anybody who acquires a wheelchair from Feel is guaranteed it will fit correctly and function properly. But to qualify for a free wheelchair you must come from what Feel describes as “the poorest of the poor.” If someone can afford to buy their own wheelchair they must go to Pharmco or AA Laquis.
To qualify for a Feel chair, applicants must complete a socio-economic assessment form with their age, address, type of dwelling, employment status, utility bills, whether they rent or own, number and age of any children, payslips and government subsistence documents.
Villafana finds an application form at random. “This person lives in a wooden house, single-storey, that they own. They are a pensioner and it’s in Country Trace, Fanny village, Point Fortin. That’s rural. The utility bill is low. He probably has a very basic household, he’s certainly not using internet and a/c. …This one is a big yes, stamp.”
As the care workers finish their short lunch break and head outside, steering their wheelchairs down a long ramp at the Fernandes Industrial Estate compound in Laventille, they are beginning to experience exactly what disability can mean.
Janice John of In The Mean Time slowly ascends the ramp but ends up doing a 180-degree spin and rolling back down. Desmond Baldeo, a young bus driver for disabled children and the elderly, says, “Common sense told me wheelchairs were adjustable, but I didn’t know the importance of it.”
Spencer explains, “Wheelchairs can be like a pair of ill-fitting shoes. If they’re not comfortable they won’t get used and become discarded. They would rather not use their wheelchair. If carers are skilled and trained, then it improves the quality of utilisation a great deal.
The next day, a real-life exercise is carried out. Twenty-five recipients come to Feel to receive wheelchairs and the trainees have their first opportunity to evaluate, assess and distribute properly-fitted chairs.
“When we leave,” says Spencer, “we’ll leave Trinidad in good hands.”
For more information, contact Feel at 624-7758 or 624-7808