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Alumna contributing to Bangladesh’s disability and rehabilitation sector

Posted: 29 November 2022

Bangladesh, Alumni, Disability, Impact, Inclusion,

Australia Awards alumna Arifa Jahan Ema is an occupational therapist who helps people of all ages to live life to its fullest by promoting health and environmental changes to prevent—or live better with—injury, illness or disability. In addition to her clinical practice, she is also contributing to the development of Bangladesh through teaching and research in the disability and rehabilitation sector. She works as a lecturer of occupational therapy and recently coordinated Bangladesh’s first Master of Science in Occupational Therapy.

As a health professional, Arifa believes in continually updating her knowledge and skills. This led her to complete a Master of Philosophy in Occupational Therapy from Monash University in 2020, with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship.

“My Australia Awards journey significantly taught me how we can welcome people with disability so that they are seen, valued, counted and appreciated for what they bring to the table,” Arifa says.

“Not all disabilities are visible, like mental health, chronic pain, fatigue, etc. But you can still see them when you better understand the condition. So, to make a just society for all, I urge everyone to challenge how they think about disability, break stereotypes, unlearn the stigma and support the rights of people with disability.”

Arifa thanks the Australian Government for the opportunity to experience a world-class education system and international research facilities that shaped her global outlook. Arifa’s Australia Awards experience included being involved in professional development activities that led to further opportunities. “During my study, I received the Outstanding Student Award for presenting research at Sydney’s International Spinal Cord Society’s (ISCoS) annual conference in 2018,” she says. “I am now a governing panel member of the Occupational Therapy Special Interest Group of ISCoS that works to promote spinal cord injury practice, research and education worldwide.”

Arifa won the Outstanding Student Award for her Research Poster presentation at the International Spinal Cord Society Annual Conference in 2018.

Arifa’s other life-changing experience in Australia was working as an Academic Research Assistant at Monash University and developing a professional relationship with industry bodies such as the Spinal Research Institute (SRI) Australia. She still has linkages with the institute and recently won its spinal cord injury research collaboration grant to present two of her research works at ISCoS’s annual conference in 2022, held in Vancouver, Canada. Her research work also won the SRI writing prize in 2022.

While studying in Australia, Arifa was also active in efforts at Monash University to foster multiculturalism and enhance support for disability inclusion. This included being the postgraduate student representative in the Faculty of Medicine’s Diversity and Inclusion executive committee. In addition, she built networks with fellow scholars from Australia (and other countries), academics and practitioners in her field of work. Arifa’s network has become a great resource for her to learn about innovations in the field. She finds connecting and collaborating with international experts extremely useful.

One of her highlights since her graduation has been working with the World Health Organization as a guidance development group member to develop interim guidance for rehabilitating post-COVID-19 conditions.

“My Australia Awards experience and knowledge have been beneficial in working with international experts to develop a treatment and management protocol,” Arifa says. “I mainly contributed to developing guidance on fatigue management for young people and adults suffering from post-COVID conditions. Fatigue is one of the invisible disabilities that can cause physical and cognitive symptoms resulting in long-term disability and has been included in the agenda for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities.”

After returning to Bangladesh, Arifa joined academia and contributes to educating skilled occupational therapists who can serve people with physical disability and mental health needs. She has also steered the development of a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy at the Bangladesh Health Professions Institute, Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed. The master’s degree program, the first postgraduate degree of its kind in Bangladesh, is affiliated with the University of Dhaka’s Faculty of Medicine and has recently been opened for enrolment. Arifa feels great pride in leading this process, which involved multiple phases, including curriculum development and course approval from the University of Dhaka and the Government of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

“It was a bit challenging for me to start the Master of Science in Occupational Therapy program in Bangladesh,” she admits. “However, my Australian degree equipped me with strategic thinking in drafting the curriculum and I collaborated with more than 30 professionals from Bangladesh and overseas to design a course that meets the international standard of occupational therapy education.”

During her time as an international student in Australia, the opportunity to work in a different culture gave Arifa a holistic view of disability-responsive workplaces. She is now committed to strengthening disability inclusion in education.

“My recent research focuses on including students with spinal cord injury in education participation,” Arifa says. “Spinal cord injury is categorised as a physical disability in the Persons with Disabilities Rights and Protection Act of Bangladesh 2013. I dream of contributing to building an inclusive education culture focused on finding solutions for students with spinal cord injury so they will be welcomed in education despite their disability.”