Rosemary Luger, supervising Occupational Therapist from The Chaeli Campaign
Framing possibility and supporting change
by Zelda Mycroft
On 11 February the world celebrated International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Only 33% of researchers are women and, according to www.unwomen.org “women account for just 22% of professionals working in artificial intelligence and 28% of engineering graduates. These glaring under-representations limit our ability to find inclusive, sustainable solutions to modern problems and build a better society”. For the last decade there has been an active drive in South Africa to proactively support women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Maths) fields of study. However, even when women achieve at the highest levels they are often not fully recognised. In the 1950’s Katherine Johnson’s calculations on orbital mechanics was essential to the success of NASA’s first and subsequent US missions to the moon – and she had to wait decades to be recognised as the brain behind the journey. More recently Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian and 2021 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Champion of the Earth in Science and Innovation admitted: “[As a female scientist], I’ve faced quite a number of challenges but some of the biggest were that people just don’t think that women and girls can do the same things as boys”.
And then there’s an entire realm of science that is seemingly female-dominated and often deemed ‘not proper science’ because of the softer skills associated with the work. I speak of a very special category of scientists: occupational therapists, speech therapists and physiotherapists. Enter Rosemary Luger, occupational therapist at The Chaeli Campaign since 2007 and supervisor of the Therapies and Outreach Programme.
Rosemary believes that girls are often not encouraged to pursue science from the start through parents’ expectations and the way play is framed for them. Ironically, the therapists’ work force is skewed to women and is one of the science fields that need more men, especially in the field of disability, according to Rose.
Rosemary has always been interested in being of service to others, through being an Interact member at school and with a heart that wanted to go into the medical field, but not liking blood and gore made becoming a doctor or nurse a no-go zone. Through service projects as a high school Interact student Rosemary was exposed to disability, was fascinated with the health aspect of disability and enjoyed the idea of working individually or in small groups. Occupational Therapy was a natural progression from this.
Rosemary loves the passion of The Chaeli Campaign and the flexibility and trust she has to do what needs to be done and implement change as it’s needed. She is allowed to be responsive and having that kind of freedom is not always afforded to therapists in the field. She also loves working alongside community workers, which include moms of disabled children, as they have lived experience and skills that she doesn’t have. She values her role as supervisor of the Therapies and Outreach Programme as she is able to lead from behind the team: often unseen, always available to offer assistance when required, keeping in touch with everyone to ensure effective communication and to check in with what they need. This is the opposite of micro-managing and sets up a platform to affirm and grow skills in others. Rosemary is a multi-tasker supreme who employs and affirms a variety of leadership styles in the team. Her other duties stretch to management, clinical work, organisation, planning, reusing available resources (“I don’t like to waste – using existing resources is important”) and linking people with disabilities to more effective services.
Why does she enjoy the work she does, working in communities like Masiphumelele where she first met Ayabonga at the age of 3? Now that he’s 18 years old helping him to open a bank account into which his disability grant can be paid is enough of a reason, finding a path for him to claim greater independence. “It is such a privilege to pop in and out of disabled children’s lives – always waiting and ready for an invitation – available to support the next step. These relationships are long-term investments for us all,” she confirms. Rosemary believes that occupational therapists have a key role to play when children are not functioning to their full potential and especially to support transitions between different life stages, such as preparing for primary school. This is why Rosemary and The Chaeli Campaign community workers spend two mornings a week in Masiphumelele and Philippi ECD centres acting as a resource for early childhood development teachers and parents wanting to optimally include children with barriers to learning.
It is special to work with other therapists (speech and physiotherapists) at Chaeli Cottage Preschool – it’s not everywhere that this kind of teamwork happens. Being part of a group of women in science is a privilege: setting joint goals and bringing different elements of inclusion to Chaeli Cottage Preschool, as well as assisting families and teachers plan for the future needs of the children.
Rosemary co-ordinates a Journal Club as a quarterly forum for all the voices involved in the Chaeli Campaign ECD and Therapies Programmes to be heard. It is a special place where therapists, community workers, early childhood development teachers and facilitators all provide valuable input around a topic of interest relating to the work being done through Chaeli Campaign projects. It is a place of mutual respect and diverse opinions which breaks down academic barriers and perceptions. Over the years it has resulted in various people co-presenting literary papers, a skill and confidence being created in community workers, facilitators, teachers and therapists. Together, in support of one another, a safe space where each can offer honest feedback and open communication is critical. This group of powerful women does things together to dispel the myth that academia and science are just for men and boys. They do things together to improve evidence-based practice: choose articles together, summarise articles together, co-present these articles and then it all culminates in co-writing papers, under-girded by doing things together. Four papers have already been published in accredited, peer-reviewed Education and Disability Journals. Science and academia at its best: practice-based, accessible and inclusive.
Closing wisdom from Rosemary: “We are all scientists to a certain extent. Science can and should support human development. Therapists are scientists who truly ‘see’ the person behind the disability. Bringing science into lives in a useful and functional kind of way is important. Science without heart is not effective when dealing with people; with heart science is always more beneficial and useful.”