Christine Smith was tired of hearing stories about people booking holiday homes under the guise of being accessible for people with disabilities, only for them to arrive and find stairs where a ramp should be.
Devastated individuals returning home unable to access paid accommodation.
So, in 2012 Chris and her husband Andrew bought a double block in Ocean Grove with a vision to build fully accessible holiday accommodation.
As a 20-year veteran of Victoria Police, Ms Smith said she developed understanding towards people living with a disability. That understanding deepened when she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which has left her living with disability herself.
“I was 18 years old when I joined the police force and left as a 38-year-old. I overlapped the last 10 years with our accommodation business (that started in 2007 under a different name),” she said.
“We had clients calling up and asking if we had a lowered shower or wheel chair accessibility. We didn’t have those
facilities and realised it is such an underrepresented market so sought to bridge the gap.”
A search for homes to modify was unsuccessful so they drew up plans to build their own, and were just about to build when Chris was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2013.
“I went into hospital to remove the tumour the following week. I lost my balance, I’m deaf in one ear and there were complications from the original surgery, which resulted in face paralysis.
“My last operation was in December and I’m still having operations to try and correct the nerve damage. I went from being this relatively attractive and confident woman, to being a recluse – I didn’t want to leave the home.”
Ms Smith said since her operation all her advocacy work is around physical accessibility to public places or buildings.
“It’s not about ensuring only accommodation is accessible but any business open to the public: it’s not a favour, it’s a basic human right.”
Ms Smith and her business Great Ocean Stays have won several awards, including the Excellence in Creating Inclusive Communities Award at the 2018 Victorian Disability awards.
They’ve also been awarded the Geelong Business Excellence Award (GBEA) for Best Accessible Business in 2016, 2017 and the 2018 GBEA for Best Home-Based Business.
“We’ve had young families with a terminally ill member come for their last holiday. We’ve had people use the unit as a trial run to gain confidence and see if they can live independently.
“We have hospital beds and equipment that can accommodate for different abilities.”
Ms Smith said her own disability has left her feeling self-conscious daily but is adamant she’ll continue advocating for change and social inclusion.
“I feel self-conscious every day, it’s still very numb and I’m in pain. The only peace I get is at night when I’m asleep. Pardon the pun but with facial paralysis, it’s in your face – you can’t hide your face,” she said.
“I was a recluse for two years and it got to a point where I knew we could do something good here otherwise we’d go down a bad road. That’s when I started to build a profile in disability advocacy.
“A lot of people don’t understand disabilities: talk to me like I’m normal (which I am), don’t yell at me like I’m stupid, I’ve had people talk to me like I’m an idiot.
“Don’t pat people on the head in a wheelchair or tell them they’re an inspiration while they’re trying to do their grocery shopping. They’re just trying to get their groceries.”
Ms Smith said there’s a term called Ableism and it’s not until you’re living with a disability that you’re fully aware of “social prejudice”.
“There’s a lot of social prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities. I see our world as very inaccessible and often unnecessarily so,” she said.
“There’s a high percentage of people with disabilities that don’t even bother going on holidays or out to cafes or restaurants because it’s too hard. We need to change people’s attitudes towards people with disabilities and work towards building an inclusive society.”