Thursday, August 22

Giving strength in times of need

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I WROTE about the need for better peer support for disabled people in Malaysia in this column last year.

In conversations with other disabled people, we felt there was need to define and separate peer support and peer counselling. Both have the same goals, which is to share knowledge, experience and provide support for people in similar conditions and situations. However, the qualifications to be one or the other are vastly different.

In the end, we agreed on the following definition for the sake of clarity and to prevent confusion. Peer support can be provided by someone with or without training. In Malaysia, it is usually done on a voluntary basis by those who are only armed with personal experience and a willingness to help another person who is in need. We learnt how to do it through trial and error.

Peer counselling on the other hand should be provided by someone who is formally trained in counselling and licensed by a professional body or the government. At the moment, there is no official body to certify peer counsellors for disabled people in the country.

Of the two, peer support is more widely practised due to its casual approach. It can be done by anyone and at any place. It is often carried out in hospitals at the request of doctors. Peer supporters are role models and mentors with experience in dealing with impairments and disability. They play a crucial part in helping other disabled people cope with the drastic changes in life and do what can be done to figuratively get back on their feet again.

Recognising the importance of peer support, the Malaysian Spinal Injuries Association (Masia) organised a Peer Support Workshop recently to equip members with the necessary skills and techniques to provide this service to others who need it. Seventeen members of the association participated in the three-day workshop held in Kuala Lumpur.

I was engaged to conduct the course. My knowledge in peer counselling, empowerment and structured training was put to good use. I developed the materials and facilitated the participants on the various techniques of peer support and enhanced their understanding on the concepts of disability.

They also learnt to use positive and tactful language to create a conducive atmosphere.

At some point in time, they would have already provided peer support but not in an organised and orderly manner. The course was to help them towards this end.

While the theoretical aspects are important, the participants were put through a series of exercises to build their skills in interacting effectively with the peers they are providing support to. Experience has taught me that practical sessions allow participants to understand and remember better what they have learnt. They appeared to enjoy these practical sessions very much.

They learnt to listen attentively without interrupting. These are the two most important rules in peer support. Although they have a tendency to butt in while someone else is still speaking, they have become conscious of that habit. In time, I hope they will be rid of that tendency.

To enhance participants’ knowledge in the subject of healthcare, Masia invited Associate Professor Julia Patrick Engkasan from University of Malaya to cover one session. Even though I have been living with spinal cord injury for 32 years, I was surprised that a number of the points that Julia mentioned were new to me.

Her generous use of images to illustrate her points made it easy to understand. Among the pertinent topics she covered were bowel, bladder and pressure management. These is all essential knowledge for people with spinal cord injury as neglect could lead to complications that are life-threatening.

I am happy to report that the participants accomplished most of what I had planned for them, especially learning the techniques of peer support. I wished I had more time to delve deeper into the finer points with them.

At the end of the course, we all sat together to work out an action plan. To ensure continuity and sustainability, Masia is planning to give a small allowance as travelling expenses for peer supporters each time they provide this service. This may not amount to much but it is a gesture of appreciation and compensation for time and effort expended.

The role of peer support is often overlooked and under appreciated. There were times when we were at the receiving end of rage, got told off or chased away. We were witnesses to the extreme of emotions, from the deepest depths of despair to jubilant joys. In the course of providing support, we have seen the ugliest of characters and expressions of gratitude.

Despite that, we do it anyway because at one time or another, we were the recipients of similar support that made it easier for us to cope with the difficult times. Like the saying goes, it is a dirty job but someone’s got to do it. Masia has taken the initiative to start the ball rolling.

All that is needed now is for the participants to go out and put into practise what they have learnt from the workshop. It is only through real-world application of their skills that they can improve.

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