A charity mobilises the disabled in poor nations by helping them make

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 November, 1999, 12:00am

FOR the past eight years David Constantine has travelled widely in the developing world, bringing more than a glimmer of hope to wheelchair-bound people like himself. The Bristol-based charity Motivation, which he founded in 1991, helps make a difference to the lives of many disabled people by helping them make wheelchairs.

A car accident in Australia when he was 21 left Mr Constantine with a severe spinal injury. But far from plunging into despair, he went on to study computers before progressing to postgraduate studies at London's Royal College of Art.

Then he went to Dhaka in Bangladesh after a wheelchair design he made with another postgraduate student at the college won a design award. He and two able-bodied friends took the prize money to the Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralysed in the capital and set up a wheelchair workshop.

The trio had no idea their charitable act would become a global mission: it now includes Asia, Central America, Africa, eastern Europe and Russia.

When they returned to the Dhaka workshop six months later, they realised their original design did not suit the needs of people. It was too costly to make and a lack of basic materials made it difficult to repair.

They designed a new model that made use of readily available materials, including water pipes and rickshaw wheels, which are bigger than those normally used for a wheelchair.

Requests for similar technical assistance from hospitals and rehabilitation groups elsewhere flooded in after word spread about Motivation's skills-transfer projects.

The need is huge. Mr Constantine says an estimated 20 million people worldwide are in need of a wheelchair.

The group aims to train disabled people and help them make a living by working at the workshop.

The available resources and needs of wheelchair users are studied before each Motivation project, but such research is never easy and reliable statistics are hard to find.

'Bangladesh is very heavily populated, so you tend to see more people who are disabled, but similarly in other countries, a lot of disabled people are hidden away.' In Cambodia, a country riddled with landmines, there is a conspicuous need for both artificial limbs and wheelchairs. In 1993, Motivation set up a workshop in Phnom Penh, creating the specially-made three-wheel wooden wheelchair, the Mekong, which allows double-amputee landmine survivors to get by in a rough rural environment.

'It is important that the group we work with is interested, committed and willing to help,' says Mr Constantine.

'It also needs to be a sustainable project - after we have started it, they must continue it. If we went and did it for one year and they didn't continue it, it would be a waste of money.' In Hong Kong last week to raise both awareness of and funds for the group, Mr Constantine said he was fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn new skills.

'People look at me as a role model. I have been lucky to have a lot of opportunities. I have had a quality life, I think.' But in many of the countries he has visited people have not been as lucky and there is no support for the handicapped beyond that which their family can offer them.

'It's important to give them a piece of equipment they like to use, it's about self-respect, self-esteem to the users. Every time I see myself out in a wheelchair, I like to project myself as a person,' he said.

A professional photographer and inspiring figure to many, he believes life for the disabled in a modern city like Hong Kong is not easy.

'Architecture here is sophisticated and modern, but equally inaccessible for wheelchair users. There are different problems at different levels in different places.' As demand for help has surged, the work of Motivation has expanded and there is a need to more than just design and make wheelchairs.

In 1994, Motivation began developing special wheelchairs and seating units for children with cerebral palsy.

Its 25-member team also includes occupational therapists who teach wheelchair skills and help to assess the right size chairs.

Its staff also teach recreational skills. In Indonesia, people with spinal injuries have been introduced to wheelchair tennis, which led to the formation of the first Indonesian National Wheelchair Tennis team.

And in Sri Lanka, Motivation, in conjunction with the Ragama Rehabilitation Hospital, helped train rehabilitation workers as well as develop wheelchairs and primary health care products for those with spinal injuries.

'We set up a training standard in the hospital and the Ministry of Health has taken on all our training and is pushing that forward,'he said.

'The problem is that for some governments, they are either not helping or cannot afford to help. Sometimes they don't want to support it because it is embarrassing.' Some of Mr Constantine's photographs are kept by the Royal Geographical Society library and others have been turned into postcards to promote Motivation.

'I try to take positive pictures of disabled people, and put disability in a good light. So many pictures you see of disabled people are horrible. In many pictures we print, people are usually doing something, they are busy.' In meetings with disabled groups, Mr Constantine likes to spread the message that disability is a fact of life.

'In a lot of places I go to, people think they are the only ones in their country who are disabled, they think in every developed country, people can afford to get better. But that's not always the case. It's good to make people realise that it happens everywhere.

'Life can be more difficult in poorer countries if you have no wheelchair or help.'