Whole new world
Life changed for Finley when he took possession of a Wizzybug. Glyn Brown finds out how masonic funding is giving more children like Finley the mobility to explore
If you can’t move properly, life can be tough and require a bit of assistance. If you’re a child who wants to explore the world yet can’t get around, things are more daunting still. But charity Designability is working to change children’s lives for the better.
A group of occupational therapists, engineers and design experts, Designability pools expertise and practical research to develop groundbreaking products. One of its most ingenious innovations is the Wizzybug – a bright red, motorised wheelchair that gives freedom to under-fives with a range of physical issues. And it’s benefiting from a £38,250 award from the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF).
A will to explore
Designability, previously the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering, is based at the Royal United Hospitals Bath; it’s here that the radical Wizzybug was trialled.
‘It came out of a conversation with the hospital’s children’s centre,’ says Alexandra Leach, Designability’s commercial manager. ‘It seemed children with movement disabilities were being restricted, kept in buggies and pushchairs way longer than other toddlers. Yet your average two-year-old is into everything, and by investigating they’re learning and understanding their place in the world.’
Leach notes that it must be frustrating for children with, for example, cerebral palsy and spinal muscular atrophy to be treated with such caution, as they have the same desires as any other toddler.
‘Finley was put into the Wizzybug and he was asked to drive it forward. “And he did! The smile on his face was just incredible.” ’ Rosalie Davies
‘The phrase for what can result is “learned helplessness”,’ says Rae Baines, senior children’s occupational therapist at Designability. ‘You can see how it happens. Carers, with the best intentions, can be overprotective. And some children eventually lose the ability to think and act for themselves.’
It must be hard for adults to stop this, though? ‘That’s where the Wizzybug is so great. At the very first assessment we see some parents who are used to stepping in, but we try to suggest that the way for their child to sort out how the bug works is to discover for themselves,’ says Baines.
The Wizzybug is for children from 14 months to about five years, an age group that the NHS in general doesn’t provide powered mobility for. The Wizzybug is operated by a simple joystick. ‘It doesn’t take long – sometimes during the assessment, they’re off and away,’ says Baines. ‘And you see this huge grin on their face – for the first time in their life, they can move.’
But allowing a previously immobile child to get from A to B is not all a Wizzybug can do. Baines explains: ‘It gives independence, autonomy about where they want to go. It provides environmental and spatial awareness and helps with manual dexterity and fine motor skills. As the child grows in confidence and determination, the brain gets a cognitive workout and begins to grow in size.’
All of which opens up possibilities for the future. ‘Because the Wizzybug is such a bright, friendly-looking device, it gets a lot of attention,’ says Baines. ‘So instead of passers-by maybe not knowing where to look if they see a disabled child, the child will be surrounded by amazed, impressed people. Which, apart from the wonderful social inclusion, helps the child’s communication skills.’
Children bond with their Wizzybugs, and give them names. According to Rosalie Davies, her three-year-old son Finley calls his Biz and, she says, ‘Biz really is the biz.’ Finley has type 2 spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA2. Rosalie and her partner Joel suspected a problem when he was about eight months old. ‘We could sit him and he’d sit, but he’d fall forward and wouldn’t use his arms to prop himself up, or if you put him on his tummy he wasn’t doing the little press-ups babies do.’
The discovery of SMA2 was made at 13 months. ‘It was pretty devastating,’ says Rosalie. ‘Atrophy means wasting away, so he’ll reach a certain point and then, if the nerves aren’t used, they’ll start to die.’ With hippotherapy building core strength, the Wizzybug can help with nerves and muscles in the neck, arms and hands.
The first day with Biz was ‘magical’. Finley was put into the Wizzybug and he was asked to drive it forward. ‘And he did! The smile on his face was just incredible. And I… well, I was a mess.’
Baines notes: ‘It can be an awful shock to find your child has a life-limiting condition. But to then find the Wizzybug, almost with a naughty character of its own…’
The mobility offered by the Wizzybug is just the start. When children grow out of them, they’re refurbished – each is robust enough for about three owners – but they will have taught children the skills to move on to bigger things. Rosalie and her family have started fundraising to buy Finley a powerchair. And because there’ll be no worries about him using it, she’s looking at a world that might involve all kinds of things – possibly including Paralympic sports such as powerchair football and bowls game boccia.
At Designability, the MCF grant will fund nine Wizzybugs. Leach says, ‘When we heard about the Freemasons’ grant, we were overwhelmed, and delighted when they came for a visit.’
And the MCF’s Chief Operating Officer Les Hutchinson couldn’t be happier. ‘Part of our mission is to help build better lives by promoting independence – for Freemasons, their families and the wider community. The free Wizzybug Loan Scheme is a great way to help children.’
For Finley and his mum, the impact is seen daily. Now, Finley can run away, ‘be naughty and cheeky’, and play hide and seek. ‘And I love him following me,’ says Rosalie. ‘I love walking a few steps and turning round, and there he is – things other people might take for granted.’
Wizzybug fact file
Each Wizzybug costs £4,750. This amount covers the build, assessment and refurbishments for other children.
As families with disabled children already have other outgoings, the only way these chairs can be made available is through the Wizzybug Loan Scheme, which is funded by donations and the fundraising efforts of local communities.
Invented in their current format in 2006, there are now 260 Wizzybugs across the country, but more applications come in every week as awareness grows.
FIND OUT MORE Get further information at www.designability.org.uk