Did you know that Sydney is considered one of the most accessible cities in the world for people with mobility issues? You might not immediately think so, what with the water-girt attractions, spaghetti-bowl streets and beach-focused fun. But if you look closely, you’ll see there are a lot of intentional efforts being made to create a more inclusive city experience for people with different accessibility needs. And you’ll also find locals advancing the way we talk about and develop accessibility as a community.
One such Sydneysider is Max Burt, 55, a wheelchair user of 20 years who moved to Australia from the UK with his wife Justine eight years ago. While he says Sydney is a largely positive place for him and his loved ones to go out and experience, every excursion also requires a draining process of careful organisation.
“The problem for wheelchair users is that planning and going anywhere for a day out means getting on different websites trying to find information that’s often not there, is really difficult to find, is sometimes just wrong… and there are very rarely any photos.”
This struggle in the Australian context was made undeniably clear after Burt and his wife had lived in Pearl Beach on the Central Coast for a few years.
“There’s a beach just north called Umina, and guess how long it took us to find out that Umina Beach has a beach wheelchair – three years,” Burt says. “That crystalised just how difficult it is to find the information that people like me need to live like anyone else.”
So, they created the WheelEasy Foundation in 2012, a charity with the aim of fostering a better quality of leisure for the mobility-impaired and the people who spend time with them. The new WheelEasy website is a free, mobile-friendly city guide that’s fueled by its users.
“It’s not rocket science, but we realised the people affected by mobility impairment are more than just the minority of wheelchair users, people with dodgy hips and crutches,” Burt says. “WheelEasy is a TripAdvisor for access. It’s a sort of one-stop-shop that brings together all access information across 20 categories: beaches, cafés, museums, train stations and cinemas,” Burt says.
Users, whether they’re mobility-impaired or not, can go to a Sydney attraction or venue, snap a few access-relevant pics, write a short description and fill in a set of access criteria specific to the category. This informs a traffic light system that labels the venue as ‘green’ for accessible, ‘yellow’ for partially accessible, and ‘red’ for inaccessible. This full spectrum gives users the opportunity to fully assess the area in relation to their specific accessibility needs.
“For example, for restaurants, [some of] the criteria about access is space between tables, outside tables, accessible toilets, and all those together make up the colour. For beaches, some criteria are if there’s a ramp down to the beach, is the sand very thick or powdery, and the gradient of the beach,” Burt says.
Burt hopes that, with more people with different experiences and abilities using the website, WheelEasy will be adopted by other cities and be able to serve more people with different mobility requirements.
“The thing is, every disability is different, every mobility impairment is different. I have a totally different set of needs from a wheelchair user who’s broken their back, or from someone who’s got bad knees.”
You can sign up to the WheelEasy website for free or donate to the foundation today.
Learn more about WheelEasy's work and contribute to their mission at one of their info-gathering events in Sydney, supported by AMP's Tomorrow Makers fund.