Over the years, the field of prosthesis and orthotics has evolved into a niche profession. As with other professions, some stumble into it. But the goal of all those in the profession is to serve those who need help.
While orthotists develop assistive devices to correct disabilities, prosthetists make and fit artificial parts for amputees. The need for such specialists is great but there are very few technically qualified persons and even fewer institutes to offer the much-needed degree courses, says N. Suresh Joshi, secretary of the Orthotics and Prosthetics Association of India.
“I belong to the first batch of the three-year diploma course started by the Madras Medical College in 1972,” Mr. Joshi says. He went on to earn a degree in orthotics and prosthetics from the National Institute for the Orthopaedically Handicapped, Orissa, and has set up an orthotics centre in the city.
A qualified orthotist, K. Sanmugam says there is a huge unmet demand for qualified orthotists in the city. “Orthotists are needed to fabricate a device to assist/replace an external part of the body to restore the function. We make various types of devices – from feet to ear and nose.”
The surge in lifestyle diseases has increased the demand for orthotists and prosthetists, he says. “People with diabetes need devices to prevent complications of the feet. Those with cardiac problems who cannot undergo knee replacement surgeries benefit from assistive devices that we fabricate,” he adds.
R. Paulus, who runs an orthotic centre, says: “It is a big ocean but with poor awareness of rehabilitating persons with disability, very few know about us. However, those who are in private practice do well,” he adds. “To become a professional, you must be registered with the Rehabilitation Council of India, but the lack of professionals has paved the way for those without basic qualification to practise,” he adds.
The huge demand has meant that persons who have done certificate courses or have trained as prosthetists and orthotists have also found a niche area for themselves.
At Mukti Foundation in Meenambakkam, a steady stream of persons with disability arrives every day. P.Thulasidass, who has around 27 years of experience in the field, has trained all those who work under him. Though he is not professionally qualified, his experience is valued.
R. Ramesh, who completed a year-long course in National Institute for Empowerment of Persons with Multiple Disabilities, is an orthotic technician at Sevaman Trust, an organisation which provides prostheses at heavily subsidised rates.
It provides computer-designed, machine-carved customised moulds for prostheses.
“Many of my classmates have set up centres. They are serving in areas where there is no other alternative. There is a great need for artificial limbs. People cannot travel all the way to Chennai, many of them cannot afford it and the wait for a limb is long [in government institutions],” Mr. Ramesh says.