Training healthcare workers on appropriate wheelchair management is a leap forward in Bhutan as reported in the May 4th edition of Kuensel, titled “Improving mobility for the disabled”.

This week, the wheelchair training programme has concluded, leaving healthcare workers and the disability community better prepared to fit, repair, and maintain wheelchairs for persons with mobility difficulties.  Wheelchair users will have better mobility skills to support life inside the home, as well as in the community.

It’s timely to understand that many people face limited mobility in and out of Thimphu, due to their need for appropriate and better quality assistive devices.  A person’s limited mobility, the surrounding environment, and stigma can cause a person to be socially isolated, stay inside all the time, and be at-risk for preventable health conditions.

So, providing the training, resources, and support for these appropriate wheelchairs is an essential first step to equalising the rights of persons with mobility difficulties.  The World Health Organisation has compiled experts and years of experience into wheelchair-training materials for this very important reason.  They estimate that one percent of people globally need wheelchairs—in Bhutan, appropriate wheelchairs could benefit at least 7,000 people and their families.

One can imagine a person who would be that much closer to equalising his or her rights – a child who needs a custom wheelchair to learn and participate in school, a young adult who would like to get computer skills training for a future job, or an older family member that wants to get fresh air at the Coronation Park.

But the work doesn’t stop here.  The next step will require action on behalf of public servants, private enterprise, and development partners to make the environment more accessible.  This not only includes the traditional ramps, curb-cuts, and elevators for wheelchair users, but also includes adjusting attitudes, services, policies, and physical surroundings to truly make society barrier-free.

Take the examples below:

A child wheelchair user will need to be able to access the library, washroom, canteen, and classroom space in order to fully participate in primary education.

A young adult wheelchair user will need to access university campus, classrooms, and suitable transportation in order to participate in higher education.  That young adult might be a job-seeker that is unable to find a public vocational training programme that provides barrier-free workstations.

An aging adult might need another person to assist with getting out of his apartment building, pushing the wheelchair, and getting to the Coronation Park.

While in the near future, we hope people will be supplied with the best fitting and appropriate seating devices – public planning, construction, services, and attitudes/behaviors towards people with mobility difficulties must correspondingly change for the better.

To meet these challenges, multi-sectoral and interagency collaboration will be necessary.  For example, engineers working on inclusive school facilities can collaborate more with engineers working on inclusive water-sanitation in health facilities to share best practices.

The Special Education Needs (SEN) programme of the Ministry of Education, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), and the Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation Programme at the Ministry of Health are engaged in making devices and spaces more accessible to people with diverse difficulties – whether it be visual, hearing, mobility, or intellectual difficulties.

This good work must move forward.  The local expertise and experience of health rehabilitation workers, SEN teachers, CSOs, and persons with diverse difficulties themselves (also known as persons with disabilities) must be heard as leaders problem solve the necessary and tough questions.  How do we make accessible devices and environment a priority?  How do we make our programmes and budget more inclusive?  Who should be involved? Who should take the lead?

For persons with mobility difficulty, an accessible environment is the next big step after getting the right wheelchair.

This is a challenge leaders in Thimphu can successfully tackle.

Contributed by Shaheen Nilofer, 

Representative  UNICEF 

Bhutan Country Office

Dr. Ornella Lincetto,  Representative 

WHO  Bhutan Country Office