When asked what product has made the most difference to her life, Fiona Smith does not hesitate. As the newest member of Livable Housing Australia’s  (LHA) board of directors, she says, “I would have to nominate my wheelchair.  Before you ever use one, you think it will be stigmatising and something to be avoided at all costs.  In fact, if you have restricted mobility you quickly learn that it is incredibly liberating to suddenly be able to access areas you cannot otherwise go to or move to.”

A public interest lawyer, she is among other things, a member of the Victorian government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme Implementation Task Force, and a non-executive director of Yooralla – one of Victoria's largest disability service providers.

Wheelchair, you realise when viewing the Independent Living Centres website link to scooters, wheelchairs and wheeled mobility is a relative term. There are many different types – rigid manual, powered manual, sports, stand-up, foldable (I am sure I saw some 90 types listed), children’s and ones with conversion kits. Lifters, trailers and accessories such as armrests and cushions feature as do sunshades and brolleys to protect against the weather. There are even wheelchairs for alternative, rough or uneven terrain. It also includes pool and beach wheelchairs.

Details include seat widths and depths, footrests, backrests, castors, weights, heights of seats and heights from the ground, handbrakes, angles, load capacities, whether they have suspension springs, whether they have a reclining back and tilt-in space,  and what is the upholstery like.

No product is an island; they have to be used. If architects, designers and builders get it right, both inside and out, it can have personal and humane results. As an  “electric wheelchair user with restricted mobility” it has hard for Smith to find “rental accommodation that met my needs. I’ve incurred the  expense of modifying and changing the structure of the house I purchased to suit my needs. And I know how it feels to be unable to stay overnight with friends and relatives because their homes are inaccessible.”

A livable home has a safe, continuous, step-free pathway from the street entrance and/or parking area to a dwelling entrance that is level. Image: Livable Housing Design Guidelines courtesy of Landcom.

To ease this frustration and avoid “portable ramps or  dodgy makeshift arrangements”,  Smith believes that designing and building to common sense livable design benchmarks can eliminate many of these physical barriers.

LHA design guidelines include easy “continuous level” pathways to the front door from the street and  “at least one step-free entrance into the  home” . Such accessibility (with the trusty wheelchair too) “has not only been great for me, but a godsend as my parents became more and more frail.  It makes all the difference between being able to be inclusive of your ageing parents and relatives or not.”