A Bond that Won’t Break: Helping People with Disabilities in Cameroon

Aug 6, 2014
Author: 
Vitaly Kazakov

Lynn Cockburn leading an HIV and disability workshop in CameroonIf you have a special connection to a place, it lasts a lifetime. When Lynn Cockburn left a small village in northwest Cameroon at the age of 13, she knew she would be back one day.

That day came a decade ago, when she returned as an occupational therapist and U of T scholar to the village where she and her family lived for two years.

Cockburn is an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Since 2004, she has done mental health and community development work, and set up diversity, research and education programs in rehabilitation and disability in Cameroon.

“I was excited to go back and felt welcomed despite difficult circumstances. The access to health care there is expensive and limited by a low ratio of physicians and other health care providers to patients,” explains Cockburn. “The situation is even worse for those living with an impairment or a disability. Knowing the background and having personal relationships in Cameroon, I knew that I wanted to commit to working in this country I love for a long time. I decided to see what I could accomplish there in ten years.”

Cockburn was a founding member of the International Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation (ICDR) at U of T, which was established in 2004. The centre is a hub for like-minded people who wanted to make a difference in disability and rehabilitation globally. Cockburn took charge of ICDR’s Cameroonian chapter, along with fellow occupational therapist Kate Suffling.

“Working in Cameroon is challenging. We hit many bumps along the road,” says Cockburn. “People with disabilities are marginalized and have very limited opportunities in their lives. What motivates me is the commitment of my colleagues both in Cameroon and Canada who are really trying to make things better for the people and for the country.”

Her approach to rehabilitation in Cameroon is three-pronged: help deliver direct care to people with disabilities, train local therapists and care providers, and carry out research.

More than 20 U of T occupational therapy students have learned about rehabilitation care delivery in Cameroon over the years thanks to ICDR’s partnerships. “Our visiting students provide direct service to patients at a local rehabilitation centre, as well as take on at least one or two research or clinical projects, so that they see a bigger picture of international disability and rehabilitation work,” notes Cockburn.

When it comes to working with the local health care providers, it is all about humility and openness for Cockburn and her Canadian colleagues and students. “When you are trying to help patients or work on establishing specific programs, it can feel like there is not enough time for in-depth conversations, for understanding your partners and learning from each other,” she says. “One of the things that we've done really well in Cameroon is to provide spaces and opportunities for everyone involved to talk about issues related to rehab and disability.”

Cockburn hopes that there will one day be a rehabilitation program at the new University of Bamenda, which is the first state university in Cameroon’s Northwest Region. The school’s visiting scholar program — which Cockburn helped set up — may be the first step toward this goal. The program will provide opportunities for scholars around the world to teach and work in Cameroon.

It will also help some Cameroonian health sciences professionals living abroad follow in Cockburn’s footsteps and return to Cameroon. “There are more Cameroon-trained physicians working abroad than in Cameroon. We hope that this program will provide a mechanism for some of them to come back to teach and work with local patients,” says Cockburn.

Wherever the visiting scholars and doctors might come from, she hopes that they will make a long-term commitment to this country, just like her.

Photo: Lynn Cockburn (left) leading an HIV and disability workshop in Cameroon.

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