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S'porean on helping children with disabilities integrate into the community

32-year-old Zulhilmi Zulkifli (Hilmi) is eight years into his career working with children and youths (or clients) with physical disabilities and low vision.

Yet, according to him, “no two days look alike!”

The senior physiotherapist has been with AWWA, a social service agency, under their community integration service programme.

In simple terms, he helps his clients integrate into their schools and community so that they can reach their fullest potential.

But what does this actually mean in practice?

Not just doing massage

The physiotherapy profession, Hilmi says, is sometimes misunderstood for “just doing massage”, but a look into his work day reveals a different picture.

In fact, physiotherapy could look like many things in different settings.

“We do not focus on a client’s diagnosis, but instead, we look at their participation in the community and their environment,” he explains.

The range of physiotherapy intervention programmes Hilmi is involved in includes individual or group therapy, parenting workshops, integration camps or sports.

One such initiative is “Adventure Club”, which promotes physical activities and introduces new sports to its clients.

Through this programme, Hilmi’s clients get to experience trying out new sports under his guidance, such as bowling or hand-cycling in public locations.

Hilmi accompanying a client during a hiking session at Sungei Buloh.

Hilmi (left) assisting a client during a bowling session as part of the CIS’ ‘Adventure Club’ programme.

Hilmi’s work is more holistic than just physical therapy.

Some of his clients have a speech disorder and struggle to speak in class.

Others might face trouble performing “simple tasks” such as toileting in school or even purchasing food from the canteen.

To aid his clients in a meaningful way, he works with the youth’s caregivers and teachers, occupational therapists, speech language therapists, social workers, and educational guidance officers.

This inter-professional team supports clients and their caregivers with their day-to-day activities, such as moving across different locations within their school and home environment.

When he is not working with his clients, he gets together with his team to discuss cases, learn and teach one another, conduct school and home visits, and carry out social and community sport activities like swimming.

Helping clients with diverse needs participate

“Together, we formulate individual support plans that adequately meet the diverse needs of the children and youths that we serve.”

In school, Hilmi suggests modifications and strategies for the student’s physical education (PE) lessons.

To do this, he conducts assessments to identify the needs of clients and works with other professionals like PE teachers or Allied Educators (AEDs) to develop activities that allow all of the clients to participate meaningfully.

This includes exploring different forms of common sports and activities, through the use of alternative equipment and strategies.

Hilmi (in black t-shirt) overseeing a client trying out hand-cycling at a running track to promote an active lifestyle and generate interest in para-sports among his clients.

For some clients with neuromuscular issues, he conducts hydrotherapy sessions where the activities are more therapeutic and recreational in nature.

In these sessions, the clients undergo exercises and specific physiotherapy techniques are applied by Hilmi through games and activities in warm water.

Hilmi (left) as the training lead for fellow PTs during a hydrotherapy training session.

Journeying with clients

Hilmi initially considered a career in nursing, before he stumbled into his passion for physiotherapy, where he could work with a diverse demographic of clients with a myriad of needs.

Eventually though, he found his calling working with children.

“What continues to drive me is a simple smile from the children and youths that I work with,” says Hilmi.

He recalls working with a Secondary 3 student on their gait to help her walk with a walking aid.

They were reminiscing about the past, and discussing her aspirations for the future, when it suddenly occurred to the two that Hilmi had journeyed alongside her since she was 10 years old.

He saw her go through major examination milestones like PSLE, going to a new secondary school, and being a part of her life was something he appreciated about his job.

Watching them “live out their aspirations and dreams”, as he says, keeps him going.

The community’s role

However, physiotherapy sessions are not always positive experiences.

Hilmi sometimes brings his clients into community spaces to perform exercises and train them to navigate around the neighbourhood or community independently.

Here, it's impossible for him to not notice the stares and whispers of people around them as they go about our usual routine.

Sometimes, people take photos of his clients.

“Not many Singaporeans realise the struggles of growing up with a physical disability. Seeing an old man in a wheelchair, no one bats an eye, but seeing a young child with physical disability on a motorised wheelchair, their eyes tend to widen.”

Because of such incidents, some clients are hesitant to venture out into the community.

In his unique role, Hilmi often asks himself: Are Singaporeans inclusive enough for people like his clients to be part of the norm of our society?

Nonetheless, Hilmi reflects that he has noticed that the community has also become more compassionate in some ways.

“When I think back, I am heartened by how much things have evolved.”

He recounts working with a student who was not confident travelling on public transport by herself.

During a training session at an MRT station, she was alighting when the wheels of her motorised wheelchair got stuck in the platform gap.

“A few commuters stepped up immediately to help her, without thinking twice or needing to be prompted,” said Hilmi.

After experiencing the act of kindness from fellow commuters, he said it helped her gain confidence about travelling independently, as she understood that she can always seek assistance from others if she needs it.

Thinking bigger

Over the years, he has honed his ability to consider the bigger picture for his clients and work actively to help them be more independent despite their disabilities.

While it might look like he is helping them improve their physical endurance or mobility in a confined space, he is really considering the end game for his clients:

“Increased physical endurance equates to opportunities for longer distances to be travelled, which in turn equates to more places like libraries, cinemas, shopping malls and parks being accessed.”

And all of that is to say, it expands the world for his clients, so they can enjoy being kids.

Inspired by Hilmi’s work in the community? MOHH offers the Community Care Scholarship for Nursing and Allied Health. Find out more at Healthcare Scholarships.

This article was first published in Republished with permission