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15 August 2012
East Midlands discarded mobility devices help disabled Ugandans re-discover their independence

Discarded mobility equipment from the East Midlands is helping to transform the lives of hundreds of disabled people in one of Africa's poorest countries. 

A team of academics, students and medics from Nottingham and Derby have recently returned from a month-long trip to the Ugandan capital Kampala, where they treated 240 patients with lower limb disabilities using decommissioned NHS equipment including crutches, leg callipers, braces and orthotic shoes. 

The driving force behind the trip was Dr Trudy Owens, a development economist at The University of Nottingham, who has undertaken extensive research on poverty, growth and non-governmental organisations in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Health and safety 

She was offered the equipment after a chance meeting at a children’s birthday party with a local orthotist who told her about the number of devices which are still in good working order but are put out of action every year because of stringent NHS health and safety measures. 

Dr Owens said: “I travel to Africa regularly for my research and thought of the people out there who are desperately in need of equipment of this kind. My intention was to fill an extra suitcase for the next time I went out there but when I went to collect the equipment from the orthotics department at the Queen’s Medical Centre there was enough to fill a garage and the project really spiralled from there.” 

With assistance from husband Dr Nikos Evangelou, a clinical associate professor at the University and a consultant neurologist at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, they made contact with the head of the National Police Aid Convoy ssociation who offered them storage at Castle Marina in Nottingham. 

Enough equipment to fill a 40ft container 

In June this year, with a donation of £20,000 from The University of Nottingham Alumni Fund, they shipped a 40ft container filled with orthotic devices out to Uganda and amassed a 20-strong team of experts, including Trudy’s three PhD students and orthotic and rehabilitation specialists from Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, Derby Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University’s School of Graduate Entry Medicine and Health in Derby, to follow it out there. 

Dr Margaret Phillips, Clinical Associate Professor in Rehabilitation Medicine, said: “It was inspiring to see the resourcefulness of people with disabilities in Uganda but also sad to witness the similar problems of discrimination that they experience compared with people in the UK.

“We hope the project will show that giving equipment like this can help people in developing countries. But we were also very aware that to have a real effect more may need to be done, for instance, further rehabilitation to enable people to use their equipment effectively. 

“What we do know is that, whatever effect we find, we can then use it to help people in the future.” 

Bus-loads of disabled patients 

While out there the team were featured on national television, given an audience with Uganda’s Speaker of Parliament the Rt Hon Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga and assessed literally bus-loads of disabled patients brought to their base at Kampala’s Mulago Hospital by local MPs. 

The majority of patients were suffering from disabilities resulting from the childhood disease polio, which has been largely eradicated in the Western world but still persists in many developing countries, including Uganda, where access to medical treatment and vaccines is too expensive for the majority of the country’s population. In addition, the team saw many injuries caused by old gunshot wounds, road traffic accidents and congenital deformities. 

Uplifting not upsetting 

Dr Owens continued: “I thought that it would be upsetting, that I would be in tears every day — and of course there were a few heart-breaking stories that we came across — but on the whole it was a very uplifting experience. 

“There is no welfare system in Uganda and if people don’t work then their families do not eat, so even those with the most debilitating disabilities get themselves out to work every day. It was amazing to see how they have adapted and coped with their disability. Despite their hardships they were some of the most optimistic, happiest individuals I have ever met.” 

The patient’s disabilities and physical capabilities were carefully assessed by the orthotists and clinicians who prescribed the most suitable device for their needs. The device was then specially adapted to the patient’s measurements in a temporary workshop set up for the team at the hospital. 

Bum-shuffled in, walked out on crutches 

Although the team only had permission to treat adults over the age of 15, they also took devices suitable for children to be used by the local charity Katalemwa Cheshire Home, which specialises in orthotic treatment for younger people. 

Dr Owens said: “We had people who literally bum-shuffled in and went out walking on crutches, the impact that this equipment had was immediate. One man, a musician who could barely walk when he arrived, actually danced after receiving some specially-adapted orthotic shoes.” 

The team were capably assisted by the two children of Dr Owens and Dr Evangelou, nine-year-old Alex and five-year-old Anna, who were given special leave for the trip by their school Middleton Primary in Wollaton on the condition that they presented a special assembly about their experiences to classmates on their return. 

Dr Owens said: “They helped out running errands for us but really came into their own keeping the children of the patients company and handing out paper and crayons.” 

Employment prospects for disabled Ugandans 

Dr Owens and PhD students in the University’s School of Economics Samantha Torrance, Alessio Gaggero and Marta Barazzetta conducted research of their own while out in Uganda, spending about an hour with each patient conducting a questionnaire about their disability and how it had affected their lives. They will use the data to study the impact that disability has on the employment prospects of Ugandans, how they survive without welfare support from the Government, how institutions work in Uganda for disabled people and how their disability affects their happiness and well-being. 

They will be following up to assess whether receiving the lower limb mobility devices have improved patients’ lives and comparing them to other Ugandans whose disabilities were not suitable for treatment. 

The team is due to start fundraising again to fund a further trip next year to take orthotic devices out to a further 100 people who they assessed and measured. They have also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with both the Ugandan government and local disability charities to treat other people from the surrounding rural areas — and ensure the sustainability of the project.


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