The sight of a wheelchair has traditionally evoked pity for the person sitting in it, often presumed to be powerless and incapable. But that perception is changing—as well as the reality behind it. Today, wheelchairs are seen as tools for empowerment, which could change people’s lives for the better.
United Nations statistics suggest that 10 to 15 percent of any given population may be persons living with disabilities (PWDs) in need of some form of assistive technology, such as a wheelchair, visual aid, hearing aid, or other devices to help them with their daily needs, activities, and mobility. Given our population of just over 100 million, there could be about 15 million Filipinos living with a disability today.
Given these figures, the supply of wheelchairs for Filipino PWDs could be far shorter than the demand, so the University of the Philippines has stepped in to fill the gap and raise the quality of life of PWDs.
The UP College of Allied Medical Professions (UP CAMP) in UP Manila initiated a Wheelchair Service Program for indigents in 2012 as part of its Community-Based Rehabilitation Program (CBRP) and the Clinic for Therapy Services (CTS). Dr. Ferdiliza Dandah S. Garcia, a speech pathologist and a medical doctor currently teaching in UP CAMP, oversees the implementation of the WSP.
More than a device
Garcia says that the wheelchair should no longer be seen as just a device given out of charity or something to transport a PWD with for him or her to get adequate exposure to sunlight. “Wheelchairs are tools for empowerment. Being among the leading therapy schools in the country, we want to be at the forefront of advancing knowledge and skills that could enable our fellow persons with disabilities,” she says.
According to Garcia, wheelchairs enable PWDs to do what they can and want to do. Through the WSP, various organizations such as the Philippine Society of Wheelchair Professionals, Physicians for Peace, KAISAKA Foundation, the provincial government of Bataan, Department of Health (DOH), and others, help them attend to the needs of PWDs. They are also able to impart to their clients and the public the necessary information and training for appropriate wheelchair service provision and access to services.
Beyond securing wheelchairs, the WSP also provides services to their users. This new paradigm, Garcia adds, requires the service provider to determine with the PWD and his or her family the appropriate specifications of the wheelchair to make the device suitable to their needs. The wheelchair can then be semi-customized to suit the PWD’s condition, environment or terrain, and activities, whether it is to be used in a school or work environment, or for sports or other activities. In this way, an enabling environment is created for the PWD.
The WSP came out of a meeting among wheelchair service stakeholders years ago. Back then, it was estimated that wheelchairs were needed by only one in 100 Filipinos, with only 10 to 15 percent of that subgroup having access to a standard wheelchair. The group’s application for a grant was approved in 2015 and through it, they were able to acquire some equipment for teaching and training faculty and students in UP Manila on how to do wheelchair service provision at the intermediate level. From then on, they were able to assess and fit wheelchairs for low-income clients in UP CAMP’s CBRP and CTS.
Not only for PWDs
Garcia says she hopes the program can help the University acquire a steady supply of affordable wheelchairs, and to find other partners who can develop these. Most wheelchairs in use are imported and expensive. The need for wheelchairs, she stresses, is “not limited to the PWD. They also include the elderly, those with chronic illnesses, those needing dialysis, those with a temporary disability, such as a fracture. They all need some form of mobility.”
Although the WSP already uses available tools and equipment for semi-customizing wheelchairs, Garcia says the country still needs to establish a viable domestic industry for appropriate wheelchairs because importing is expensive. “There are prototypes for new wheelchairs, especially in other countries. There are designs for low-resource and high-resource types. The wheelchair is just one part of a bigger set of assistive technologies. It can be an industry here in the future. The WHO and UN are pushing for assistive technologies. Later on, there will be funding for other assistive devices such as communication aids, hearing aids, and visual aids. Hopefully, other UP colleges can do collaborative work to develop these,” she add.
The WSP now serves as a model for other organizations. Through their partnerships with non-government organizations and local governments, about 90 wheelchairs have been given to children with disabilities. In the college-based CTS and community-based CBRP, more than 50 wheelchairs have been provided since 2014, and about 18 formal training activities were conducted in UP Manila. Some WHO modules were integrated into their Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy classes.
Garcia says that UP CAMP is training students in basic wheelchair service provision and hopes to train other health professionals, especially from UP. The WSP also aims to promote access to research and documentation, and to put up a model wheelchair service delivery center in the Philippines.