Christine Smith, in Barwon Heads, Victoria, Australia has joined ATO as one of the first offices in the accessible travel network. This is her story.
The darkest of days are still fresh in the memory of Barwon Heads local Christine Smith. The former 20-year veteran of the police force turned passionate advocate for accessible tourism calls it “ironic” that she now possesses a disability to match her cause.
The paralysis down the left side of her face is the result of complications – associated with the removal of a tumor which had been growing through her ear into her brain cavity five years ago. One week in hospital and one operation led to seven operations in nine weeks. “Ironically I came out of it with a disability myself. People can see that there is an issue and people wonder what’s happened,” Ms Smith says with a candor that defies her initial troubled acceptance of her fate. “But all of what has happened to me, I have turned into a positive into now being an advocate for people with disabilities in a tourism space.”
Tourism Board Member
She is making a difference, too, bringing her experience, insight and passion to Tourism Greater Geelong and the Bellarine on which she has been a board member for several years now.
Ms Smith and her business, Great Ocean Stays, were awarded the Excellence in Creating Inclusive Communities Award at the 2018 Victorian Disability Awards.
Her business started in 2007 under a different name when she and her husband, Andrew, saw an unserviced niche in the tourism market in catering for people with disabilities.
“I was 20 years in the police force locally and that gave me a good insight into people with disability and how it is misinterpreted a lot of the time and how people with disabilities, particularly those with mental disorders, are misunderstood,” she says.
After finding it difficult to secure a truly accessible and appropriate holiday accommodation, the couple decided in 2012 to build their own, buying a double block in Ocean Grove and designing plans for four wheelchair-accessible units. They were about to build when their life was turned upside down.
Visible and hidden disabilities
“I have my own set of disabilities but that has in turn provided me with more of an understanding what other people face on a daily basis,” she says.
She also has a far better understanding of mental demons, having experienced her own after the operation, particularly when the side of her face dropped after the initial surgery. The anxiety which beset her came despite having lived through 15 years of dealing with trauma as a member of Geelong’s sexual offences unit.
“My kids have watched their mother go from being a very confident person in the police force to being a shell of a person,” she says.
Advocate accessible tourism
Becoming an advocate for accessible tourism has provided a vital sense of purpose and a more positive outlook on life.
In 2016, two of the four planned units were built and Great Ocean Stays started leading the way in “stealthily accessible” holiday accommodation.
They include subtle features such as dual height benchtops with no underneath shelving, lightweight furniture for easy rearrangement, accessible wet rooms with turning space for wheelchairs, and other mobility aids and bed needs are provided as needed.
She encouraged Tourism Greater Geelong and the Bellarine to make inclusive tourism part of its documented strategy and she liaised with the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations – AFDO – to secure a $ 1.7 million grant which is being used to work with 80-100 tourism operators on accessible tourism and their understanding and awareness of people’s needs.
Good Business Sense
Tourism Greater Geelong and the Bellarine chief executive – now retired -Roger Grant says Ms Smith’s passion and insight had impacted on the board’s view that accessible tourism not only made good moral sense, but also good business sense. The board has identified there is a significant opportunity for this region to not just be compliant but exemplary in terms of providing access for all for holidays.
Geelong: aiming to be leader
He says with Geelong home to social insurance heavyweights, including the national headquarters of the NDIA, it was a logical extension for the city to become a leader in providing best practice for accessible tourism.
The tourism board is aiming to develop visitor hubs that provide a seamless experience from accommodation to holiday activities for people with disabilities or who have accessibility issues.
Great Ocean Stays is already breaking new ground. One of its holiday homes is one of the very few in Australia to have a pool with a hoist system.
“No one else has a hub of four homes that accommodate so many people with disabilities,” says Christine.
But she knows there needs to be more appreciation of what inclusion and what truly accessible means in the tourism market. After all, it’s a basic human right.