Making the World an Easier Place to Navigate for People with Disabilities

This year, the theme of International Day of Persons with Disabilities is Inclusion matters: access and empowerment for people of all abilities. Far too often, people with disabilities face barriers to inclusion, and are not able to access transportation, employment, education, and other aspects of society.

In a world with a considerable unmet need for appropriate wheelchairs, enormous access challenges for those who do have a wheelchair, a glut of well-intentioned donations of inappropriate wheelchairs languishing in backrooms and landfills, where do you begin to help people who need wheelchairs? Over the last seven years, the World Health Organization (WHO)—with generous support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—has established guidelines for appropriate wheelchair provision, developed curricula for wheelchair professionals, and brought together a cadre of passionate supporters for appropriate wheelchair service provision in low resource settings. Training materials are now available, some in many languages including French, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Romanian, Khmer, Thai, and Chinese.

The Leadership, Management, and Governance (LMG) Project, led by Management Sciences for Health (MSH), has supported countries to better meet their obligations to help persons with disabilities access rehabilitation services and regain their mobility as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. USAID’s Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) and the LMG Project have supported training events for 321 professionals around the world who have learned what an appropriate wheelchair is and how to fit each wheelchair to the particular needs and circumstances of those who need them, preventing potentially harmful effects of poorly-fitted wheelchairs. Although these worldwide efforts may have only made a very small dent in the global need, for the people who benefitted from the new skills of these professionals, it has made a big difference.

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The LMG Project ensures the staff of rehabilitation centers where wheelchairs are provided are equipped with knowledge and support to manage these services as effectively and efficiently as possible. In addition, by organizing stakeholder alignment meetings, the LMG Project has helped create coalitions for concerted action among various stakeholders, such as government agencies, organizations of people with disabilities, development partners, and professional groups such as physical therapists, prosthetists and orthotists.

There is now an International Society of Wheelchair Professionals, established with support from USAID at the University of Pittsburgh, which is working on formalizing international standards and accreditation procedures so that the quality of service delivery ensures appropriate service delivery by competent staff. Additionally, with help from the LMG Project, the Philippines is setting up its own Philippine Society of Wheelchair Professionals.

The LMG Project partners with organizations that support people with disabilities. These include:

  • Mobility International USA’s Women’s Institute for Leadership and Disability (WILD) program to develop leadership skills for women with disabilities
  • The Center for Victims of Torture and its local partners providing mental health services to torture survivors
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross and managers of rehabilitation centers, especially in areas of where many people have been injured, and continue to be injured, as a result of violence and conflict

There is a long way to go, that is for sure, but the accomplishments in only a few short years, and the combined efforts of professionals who share a common vision and hail from many of the low resource settings themselves, make me hopeful that more and more people with disabilities can access the care and support they need to become productive members of their communities; after all, as one person in a wheelchair told us, “It’s our bodies that don’t work properly, but there is nothing wrong with our minds!”

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