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Mobile disability service drives change

Making the impossible possible has long been the mantra of Dr Jennifer Fitzgerald, APAM, the chief executive officer of Scope, a not-for-profit organisation supporting people with physical, intellectual and multiple disabilities. So earlier this year when Scope launched its first specialised physiotherapy service for rural Victorian children, GoKids Mobility Service, that mantra finally become a reality.

The often impossible circumstances many parents of children with profound and complex disabilities in rural Victoria find themselves in when seeking mobility aids has been a huge motivator for Scope’s creation of the GoKids Mobility Service, Jennifer says. Such families had previously been forced to travel vast distances, often to metropolitan cities, to have mobility aids fitted and adjusted by physiotherapists. The arrival of GoKids’ first purpose-built van in June was marked with a special celebration in Ballarat— coincidentally also the location of the start of Jennifer’s long physiotherapy career.

‘I commenced work here at Ballarat Health Services in 1982 as a physiotherapist and went on to have a 35-year career working in health, disability, and in aged care. During that time, I raised four children and I undertook postgraduate studies. I’m a lifelong learner and I saw that as important to the roles I was in, and important to achieving the vision I had regarding the disability and disability services system in Australia, and Victoria in particular,’ Jennifer says.

It was in the late 1990s when Australia was introduced to the Hart Walker, the brainchild of English engineer David Hart. The Cerebral Palsy Alliance in NSW took first delivery, and Jennifer says it wasn’t long before the Hart Walker program arrived in Victoria. Around the same time, Jennifer recruited new graduate physiotherapist Elise Rizzo to that program, and both have now seen the realisation of an almost 20-year dream to bring the Hart Walker and other specialist mobility aids via a mobile service to rural and regional Victoria.

‘I have worked in disability since I graduated, 20 years ago, and worked with Scope for most of that time. Then I became involved in the GoKids program, which came about around 15 years ago; it’s a holistic mobility service, which means we assess children for mobility, mostly walkers, also standing frames, wheelchairs—whatever the mobility needs are,’ Elise says. ‘It’s a statewide service and the children used to have to come to us for the assessment when we were based in Glenroy. If we provided them with a Hart Walker, for that walker to be successful it needed to be reviewed at least every six months, so families would have to travel and it was a huge undertaking for many of them.

‘We know as therapists that if things aren’t prescribed or don’t fit properly then they don’t work properly, and you end up with situations where people say “Well, that doesn’t work” and they stop using the equipment. Often we would find walkers stashed in cupboards—that’s what happens in those areas that don’t have access to therapists to assist them.’ The Sims family was one of those families impacted by the tyranny of distance. Ballarat mum Anna Sims, who watched her son Archie’s life transform after being fitted with his own Hart Walker through the service.

‘Before, it was difficult for Archie to stand, let alone walk. The Hart Walker has changed all of this. He’s now free to move on his own. Archie can now play, run and walk like any other kid,’ Anna says. ‘As a parent you always want to do what’s best for your child. And what was best for Archie was to go to specialist physiotherapy service that understood and could assist with the complexity of his disability, even if that meant making a three-hour drive.

‘Now that the GoKids service is able to travel through and visit regional Victoria, families that may never have been able to drive up can now access the same services that Archie did.’ Jennifer says seeing the transformation of the children once they access the mobility aids, and the impact that has on the child’s family, is an incredibly rewarding and powerful experience. As as the senior physiotherapist with Scope in the early days, she would often hear many stories from families about the bleak prospects they were told that their children faced.

‘Often those stories were very much about a limited future, and when the families came to see us they were often at a point of grief, not wanting to accept the future that had been painted for them. ‘Many of them had been told “Your child will not walk, your child will not talk, they will be highly physically dependent, they won’t go to a mainstream kindergarten or a mainstream school.

They will need a special environment, they’re a special kid”; when, in fact, the parents and the child didn’t want to be “special”, they wanted to be a kid. ‘So for me it’s about making what seems impossible possible, and taking the families on that journey, getting a little one up into a mobility aid. I can tell you, the look on the parents’ faces, the look on the child’s face, you can never be prepared for that.’

 In the six months since the GoKids Mobility Service has been running, funding for which was made possible through the generous support of the Bowness Family Foundation, it has prescribed and fitted four mobility aids, undertaken 22 mobility assessments for new referrals, and done 15 Hart Walker reviews and adjustments for children previously fitted with the device. The service is travelling across the state far and wide to areas such as Geelong, Traralgon, Pakenham, Lakes Entrance and Dallas. Education is also a part of the service, with information sessions being held since the middle of this year with allied health therapists in rural and regional Victoria as well as in Melbourne and its outskirts.

‘The physiotherapy profession is very mature in its structure, and physiotherapists have truly established themselves as wellinformed specialists and consultants in their relationship with primary practitioners; that relationship has been well evolved in health for many, many decades,’ Jennifer says. ‘We perhaps haven’t had them as well evolved in the community services sector, so this service is recognition of similar expertise in the community services sector, and it’s about creating those inter-relationships between the primary and specialist practitioners, whether they work specifically in the disability field or in community health.

‘For me, it’s a natural progression of what I have experienced and worked in in other settings, particularly the health sector.’


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