Presenting at the World OT Congress, May 2018

In May I had the privilege of presenting at the WFOT Congress in Cape Town about disability and the development of the profession in Malawi. This is a topic around which I have great passion and have now been chipping away at for nearly 5 years. Let me share a bit of it with you.

Many of the stories told of Malawi are about the poverty, profound need and devastation. These things are true and real, and the reality of the circumstance in which we live and work. But they are not the exclusive truth, so my slides are filled with hand drawn pictures which are my attempt to demonstrate the unqiue creativity, opportunity and beauty of Malawi.

In my presentation, I told the story of a boy I met a few years ago called William. I met William on a rural outreach visit in Mchinji where I was working with a local Rehabilitation Technician. William was around 3 years old when I met him and he was born with no arms or legs. As we went through our assessment we found he and his family had functional strategies for coping with hygiene issues, eating, toiletting, dressing and playing. He was beginning to learn and draw with a pencil in his mouth. He appeared healthy and was well supported by his family. When we asked how we could help Williams mother told us that the other children in the village tease or avoid William and asked if we could help to sensitise the community.

In this moment and many other moments throughout my time in Malawi I have seen that there are different ways of viewing the world, people and different ways of viewing disability. My research found that often (although not always) in Malawi disability is seen from a spiritual, social or personal construct by Carers and community members. Whereas, more often (although not exclusively) health and rehabilitation workers view disability from a physical or medical perspective. Bridging this gap is one of the many places I see that Occupational Therapists could bring unique skills and knowledge. And a gap I am still learning to bridge as an OT in Malawi.

In Malawi we have a dream of starting a bachelors course in OT at the College of Medicine, which would produce well-trained, skilled and passionate Malawian OTs. I spoke of how an OT who is able to bridge gaps such as this one is like a child carrying water on their head. It takes great practice, perseverance and investment from adults to learn this type of ability. My hope is that Malawi will have Occupational Therapists and other supporters who will help train young Malawians to be this type of OT. Our dream is that OTs will decrease the burden of disease through working with communities around prevention, respond wisely and decrease the impact of natural disasters, offer opportunities for community participation, education and employment for people with disabilities. We also hope that OTs will inform policy and empower voices of vulnerable people, develop and grow sustainable health systems, create physical, social, legal and practical access to services and support.

It is a big task for the 9 OTs in the country to develop a course that can train this type of young professional and your prayers and support are appreciated.

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