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The Wheelchair as a Vehicle for Empowerment and Community Development 
In 1997, Vicki Toovey was Chairperson of  Women With Disabilities Australia and Director of Women's Health Statewide, Adelaide, South Australia.

That year, she participated in the Leadership Forum for Women with Disabilities in Washington, DC.  Vicki was deeply moved by a presentation and demonstration of wheelchair building put on by Whirlwind Women, a quasi-independent section of Whirlwind Wheelchair International at San Francisco State University.  Below is Vicki's Story, in her own words.  In it, she describes the larger impact assistive technology can have beyond the ability to improve a person's mobility or  functioning. 

Vicki's Story

"I'd like to talk about a group of women who had an enormous impact on me while I was away. I think this story models the whole lot of different ways that women with disabilities can be leaders and participants. One of the things that didn't work well for me at the Conference was the workshops in the afternoon. This was partly because of our concept of 'workshops' - a small group of women being able to sit around and introduce ourselves and be very focused. You would walk into a workshop at the Conference and there were 100 people there and so you didn't get that opportunity to integrate like you can in smaller groups. But the one session I found really inspiring and wonderful was done by a group called "Whirlwind Women". They were truly inspirational. 

Mountain of Donated chairs

What they are is a group of women who make their own wheelchairs. How we were introduced to this was by being shown a video of these women working.....the video started off by showing photographs in Africa at the back of a Rehabilitation Office where there were a pile of wheelchairs absolutely stacked high. There were a mountain of them - absolutely rusting and falling apart. What it showed was that we, in our great Western way, donate our spare wheelchairs to other countries (particularly developing countries) and we all think we're doing a wonderful thing. The wheelchairs arrive there, get used for a short time, then fall apart. They are not suitable for the conditions; are not made for the women to sit in etc. We also saw horrific video of people with sores from sitting in poorly made wheelchairs. So all of this combined meant that women were left sitting in their houses; kids were left to crawl around mud floors - and then of course, the women were unable to access education etc.

I think the original idea for making wheelchairs came from some men in America who began making wheelchairs for themselves. This idea then got taken up by a group of women from Uganda and Kenya - workshops were run to show the women how to make their own wheelchairs. 

Breaking down stereotypes

What they have done.....they've done the metalwork, the canvassing etc, and they've designed them to fit themselves. What this means is that they have learned those skills which breaks down a whole lot of stereotypes about women being able to make things to do with metal; women being able to design; women being able to repair. So what you end up with is a wheelchair that you have developed totally and that you are going to be able to go on repairing and modifying to suit yourself.

We saw some fabulous film of these women making and using their own wheelchairs and we had women there to demonstrate how they did it. One of the things they demonstrated was bending a wheel rim. This involved a round piece of wood set on another piece of wood and a piece of metal. A woman who was a paraplegic hopped out of her wheelchair up onto the table and got the piece of mental and showed us how to bend it around the piece of wood. It didn't seem to take a great deal of strength - it was more to do with the angle and the way leverage was applied to it. So then we all had a turn at bending a wheel rim. 

Empowerment

So for me, it was one of the most empowering things. It was about community development; it was about grass roots action; it was about breaking down a whole lot of gender stereotypes; it was about showing how women could do a whole lot of things that normally women with a disability would not be expected to do. It was also about income generation - the women are currently working out how they can set themselves up as a business.

One of the things that excited me about it was that it showed an opportunity that maybe we, as a national movement, may be able to support something similar in the Asia Pacific Region. We could start talking to Community Aid Abroad; the Overseas Bureau; Ausaid about how we might start making linkages with the Asia Pacific Region.

It really was one of the most inspirational things. Women were sitting there in the wheelchairs they had made and they also had some new models that they had worked on. One of the models which was really fascinating was a wheelchair that had a little seat which could be put in place - it was a velcro strap seat - and what was good about that was, as a mum, you could have your child sitting there with you. There was a fabulous video image of this woman in her wheelchair with one child in the front of the wheelchair and another 3 children running behind. The woman in the video was present at the workshop with us, and she said: "Play that again, Play that again....I haven't seen my children for 3 weeks!".

Another thing which was great about one of the models, was a wheelchair which had this velcro bit you could unstrap which opened into a hole so you could use it for a toilet....women could go camping; be outside etc. We had people in the workshop leaping in and out of wheelchairs to try this out because it was quite revolutionary in what it did. The workshop for me was one of those experiences that I never would have got except by going overseas. I wanted to share the experience with you because it really was very important to me."

Women With Disabilities Australia can be found at http://www.wwda.org.au/