Ben's Mongolian lambs

Armed with his physiotherapy degree, Ben Gwilliam has spent the past year helping disabled children in Ulaanbataar.
Image of Ben Gwilliam with children in Ulaanbataar

Mongolia is not your usual career move for a recently-graduated physiotherapist. Home to nomadic herders, Arctic winters and sandwiched between China and Russia, its climate and location turn even the simplest undertaking into a complicated project. The mixture of mystery, an interest in development and an enticing job description was irresistible to a young man with itchy feet and a curious mind.

My interest in development is a product of an unusual upbringing, spent for the most part, running around barefoot in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. I first tasted volunteering in development in Guyana in 2007 following my undergraduate degree in Exercise and Sports Science in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Cumberland. On my return I applied to enter into the Masters of Physiotherapy course at the University of Sydney as I was itching to continue working in development.

“It is the only centre in the city that provides services for children with disabilities. It also acts as an advocate to protect their rights.”

Throughout my Physiotherapy course there were lecturers who drew on and spoke about their experiences working in countries like South Africa and Vietnam or with refugee communities in Australia that captured my attention and shaped the kind of therapist that I have become.

As my studies in Physiotherapy at the University drew to a close in 2009 I was given the opportunity to explore the appeal of working in development and practise my profession in Vietnam through the University’s Hoc Mai Scholarship, which offers exchanges for health students and professionals between the two countries. That experience left me hungry for the next opportunity and I spent a good part of the next two years stalking volunteer organisation websites to pounce on my ideal job.

Developing physiotherapy abroad

In late 2011, along came the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) Program, part of Australian Volunteers for International Development, an initiative by the Australian government.

The job, the destination and the opportunity were too alluring to resist. My volunteer placement in the capital, Ulaanbataar, is as a Physiotherapy Educator at Kindergarten and Nursing Complex No. 10. The kindergarten employs a multi-disciplinary team of doctors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, social workers and teachers.

It is the only centre in the city that provides services for children with disabilities. It also acts as an advocate to protect their rights. The children range from 18 months to 12 years, with many coming from impoverished backgrounds. Sometimes families will make special trips from the countryside to visit the kindergarten.

It is an exciting time to be involved with physiotherapy in Mongolia as it is only just starting to develop. A School of Physiotherapy was opened at the Health Sciences University of Mongolia in 2007. Despite their lack of professional training, the therapy team at the kindergarten is determined to improve their skills and knowledge. This, coupled with the steady influx of physiotherapy, social work and medical students, gives me a captive audience.

Early intervention and family-centred practice are two cornerstones of paediatric therapy practice. These are both ideas that my colleagues at the kindergarten were aware of but weren’t implementing effectively, so I have been training the therapy team (not just the physiotherapists) in these and other skills. I have also been developing resources so the children’s parents are better equipped with the knowledge and skills to care for their children.

Disability in Mongolian society

There are many social issues associated with disability in Mongolia. As you fly into Ulaanbaatar’s Chiingis Khan International Airport, the empty moonscape of the rolling steppe blanketed in snow is contrasted with Ulaanbaatar’s sprawling shanty-like ‘ger districts’ and an ever-evolving city skyline. Ulaanbaatar is a city galloping towards Western development but the many challenges faced by people with disabilities are obvious.

“Only a very small number children integrate into mainstream schools. This leads to a revolving door of poverty.”

Access is just one of the issues. When children are younger it is easy to carry them from place to place. As they grow older, carrying them becomes more challenging and with the lack of access to good quality, well-fitted wheelchairs, mobility becomes difficult. So only a very small number of high-functioning children manage to integrate into mainstream schools and continue their education, with the rest remaining at the kindergarten for as long as possible or being forced to stay at home. This leads to a revolving door of poverty, plus issues of dependency.

There have been constant challenges but these have been outweighed by the rewarding nature of the work. I am baffled on a daily basis by the Mongolian language. My daily bewilderment, however, is lessened by the presence of an outstanding translator. There are also the frustrations that come from working in a resource-poor setting.

However, this lack of resources is part of why I enjoy working in development so much. I take pleasure in the independence and challenges of working in these types of environments, where initiative and creativity are key requirements. The caring and dedicated nature of my colleagues towards the children and towards improving their skills has also helped soothe the frustrations.

I am only halfway through my assignment so I have many more challenges and frustrations to look forward to. Given the developing nature of physiotherapy and the social issues relating to disability, there is a lot of work still to be done. I think that physiotherapists trained in Australia are among the most well-trained in the world and that it is a part of our duty to share our knowledge and skills with others around the globe. I hope that my experience here in Mongolia can encourage others to apply for and work in similar positions.