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Written By

Tianna Killoran

College

College of Healthcare Sciences

Publish Date

3 December 2021

A mission for good

JCU student Pala Leka is a biomedical student by day, but in his spare time is also making the world more accessible, one village at a time. In 2020 he started an organisation named KumulCare that provides assistive technologies to people living with disabilities in remote villages in Papua New Guinea.

Pala, who was born in Papua New Guinea, emphasises the importance of improving accessibility through assistive devices. “Back in Papua New Guinea, nearly 15 per cent of the population has a disability but only 2 per cent are receiving some form of support. That rate of support is even lower in rural areas where resources and health and rehabilitation workers are limited,” he says.

It was Pala’s awareness of these needs and his interest in healthcare that drove him to find a solution. So, he started KumulCare in August 2020.

“A younger cousin of mine has a hearing impairment and this has made everyday activities, such as his access to schooling and even playing with other kids, very difficult,” Pala says. In addition, Pala has witnessed first-hand the many difficulties that are faced by people with disabilities in his village, including access to necessary resources that would allow more involvement in day-to-day life. “So, we have made it our mission at KumulCare to help people of all abilities live more fulfilling lives, starting with increasing access to assistive technologies,” Pala says.

Assistive technology is an umbrella term for a range of services and devices that enable individuals to either maintain or improve their function and independence in their day-to-day lives. Assistive technology can include anything from wheelchairs and hearing aids, through to screen readers and memory aids.

Pala Leka (second from left) and other KumulCare volunteers prepare assistive devices to be shipped to Papua New Guinea

Supplied by Pala Leka

The future is accessible

“We want to spark a movement to increase accessibility to essential services in rural areas and drive more interest among other people to do the same. Our ultimate vision is for a better quality of life for all Papua New Guineans.”

JCU Biomedical student and founder of KumulCare,  Pala Leka

Pala is in the final year of his Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences and his passion for health care shines into every aspect of his life. He also works as a disability support worker in addition to running KumulCare.

Pala’s idea for the organisation sprung to mind while doing disability support work. “I was working in Townsville and one of my clients had received a new wheelchair, and so the old one was going to be discarded,” Pala says. “But I could see there was nothing really wrong with it. It probably just needed a few minor repairs to be safe and mechanically sound – and that was the light bulb!”

“So, I reached out to different businesses and services and they were all willing to donate secondhand equipment to us,” Pala says. With the equipment stored in his parent’s garage, Pala began to slowly get it refurbished.

In March 2021, KumulCare was able to deliver 24 refurbished pieces of assistive technology over to Keapara Village in Papua New Guinea with the help of the YWAM Medical Ships.

But for Pala, that was just the beginning. He, along with other members of KumulCare, plan to integrate training and advocacy into their delivery model. This will ensure that health and community workers in their target villages are equipped with a basic understanding of assistive technologies and are educated on ways to create more inclusive environments.

“The ultimate goal would be that we can give each individual assistive devices that are specifically catered to their needs,” Pala says. “For our first project, we provided a more general batch of equipment for people facing mobility challenges, to use as they need. But in future projects, this support will be individualised.”

Kingsley Vali sitting in a wheelchair with another six members of his family sitting beside him and standing behind him.
Red banner for KumulCare that has six hands arranged in a circle. It says KumulCare: Better access, better outcomes, better PNG
Left: Kingsley Vali (centre) with his refurbished wheelchair and his family in Papua New Guinea. Right: KumulCare banner. Supplied by Pala Leka.

Empowering and educating communities

Pala says that the goal of KumulCare is not just to provide assistive technology, but also to empower individuals with tools for self-advocacy and provide communities with education about the importance of inclusion and access.

“One thing I wanted to avoid was the charity approach,” Pala says. “We didn’t want to just give people the equipment, take a nice picture and leave, because that would be treating people with disabilities as mere ‘objects of kind acts’, which only serves to disempower people. KumulCare is about accessibility, training and advocacy.”

While studying at JCU, Pala came up with a plan to overcome this obstacle. “We wanted to steer away from this simplistic approach by providing training and education on the assistive devices,” Pala says. “In late 2020, we paired up with Access Therapy Services and occupational therapy students from JCU and the University of Worcester, who were able to complete a ‘virtual placement’ in Keapara village. They were responsible for developing and providing training for the devices that were delivered there.”

It was the input and training from the occupational therapy students that really helped to change attitudes and educate people. “This was an important part of delivering assistive technologies because people with disabilities in Papua New Guinea often experience cultural stigma that leads to them feeling excluded and isolated. Education and training can help to alleviate this issue.” Pala says.

Thinking about the unique needs and concerns of each village is another key consideration for Pala. "Communication was a massive challenge. There is no internet connection in Keapara village, so we had to buy phone credit, in order to buy mobile data to communicate with our contacts in the village. This could only happen when it wasn’t windy as that also affected any odds of finding reception.” Pala says.

It is in adapting to these unique challenges that Pala hopes to improve and expand KumulCare into further education, training, and advocacy. “We want to empower people with disabilities with the tools for their own self-advocacy so that they can better assert their rights. It will help to address the gap in services for people with disabilities back home,” he says.

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