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Skills on Wheels is One-of-a-Kind Program

Skills on Wheels

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

Whitney Kozlowski gets to witness many of these milestones for her patients who are wheelchair users as they participate in the Skills on Wheels program.

“I remember all of these successes of seeing the kids achieve something new. You’ve been working so hard, it’s really scary, it’s really challenging, and you finally got it. I see this highlight reel in my head,” she said.

Kozlowski is an Advanced Registered Occupational Therapist at Riley Children’s Health and is part of the leadership team for Skills on Wheels, an evidence-based training program delivered by trained occupational therapists (OTs) from Riley Children’s Health to help kids maneuver various life situations in their wheelchairs. The program is open to children ages 8-17 who are manual wheelchair users and live in the greater Indianapolis area.

The program lasts for five weeks each spring and brings together physicians and therapists from Indiana University Health, faculty and students from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), and community volunteers. Participants begin with a wheelchair skills assessment, ranging from driving on slopes and ramps to using a wheelie to go up and down curbs. Staff also conduct interviews with participants and their caregivers to learn about what daily life looks like for them. Then, each participant works to practice skills and build confidence. The programming is highly personalized – for example, some participants may work on getting in and out of the car, or taking apart their own chair to put it in the car.

Sessions take place on Saturday mornings on IUPUI’s campus. On the second to last week, the group goes to the Canal Walk in downtown Indianapolis to practice their skills in the real world. Participants also benefit from the wisdom of peer mentors who have graduated from the Skills on Wheels program. “For a lot of the participants, it’s much more meaningful to hear from another wheelchair user how they do a skill than it is for me to hop into a wheelchair and show them how I would do it,” Kozlowski explained.

Skills on Wheels is the first program of its kind in the United States, and the team hopes to reach as many children as possible. In just three years, the number of participants has grown from four to more than 20. Thanks to funding from Riley Children’s Foundation, this innovative program is completely free to families, and the benefits are many. “We provide children and their families with valuable training to maximize the equipment they have, find a connection with others to create a community of support, and increase confidence,” said Tiffany Stead, Riley Children’s Occupational Therapist.

Ultimately, the goal is to host more than one session per year in Indianapolis. The team is also working on expanding nationally and internationally in partnership with other hospitals and private facilities.