Christine Smith established a holiday property management business during her twenty-year career with the police force. Her work with the police exposed her to
aspects of bias and prejudice that most of us don't see, and combined with her holiday business experience, made her more aware of the challenges faced by people with disabilities when they travel. The desire to offer genuinely accessible holiday accommodation and recognition that this was in short supply led Christine to establish Great Ocean Stays, incorporating purpose-built holiday accommodation at Barwon Heads on the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria. Great Ocean Stays recently won the Geelong Business Chamber's 2016 Business Excellence Award in the Accessibility category. But for Christine, this is just one step along a path that has taken some unexpected twists and turns.
"As part of providing a service for people with disability to stay in holiday accommodation, I wanted to also employ people with disabilities," Christine says. "I have employed people with disability now since basically day one and it's a really rewarding part of my business."
Inclusive and accessible holiday accommodation
Christine is working towards the Bellarine region becoming known for accessibility in tourism just as much as it's known for its beaches, wineries and golf courses.
"Early on we advertised for property owners to contact us if they had accessible homes. We had quite a bit of interest in those early years, however we found people's perception of accessible accommodation and reality were two different things. More often than not what they perceived as being accessible was far from it, and it can be a dire situation for someone in a wheelchair who travels for hours to holiday accommodation only to find they can't even get through the front door."
Unfortunately, people can advertise premises as accessible even when they are not. "We really need some standards put in place," Christine says. "This also makes it a hard market to crack because people tend to stick to the places they know and trust, because too many of them have had that kind of experience where they make all the effort to go somewhere and it is completely unsuitable."
Deciding the best solution was to purpose build, in 2010 Christine set about the process of finding the land and getting the design right. With plans approved for four accessible homes, and as they were just about to break ground, life delivered one of those curve balls we never see coming. "I was diagnosed with a brain tumour," Christine says, "and the surgery to take it out was one week later, but it took me a good couple of years to recover from that."
"Everything was put on hold for around three years. When I got to a point where I was recovered enough, which was late 2014, we began, but we had to scale back. I had not worked while I was recovering so financially we felt it was a better business decision to build two and get them up and running first. Now we're building the next two. Our plan has been delayed by three years because of my own illness and recuperation."
An inclusive business model
Christine's primary business is to provide holiday accommodation, so the majority of her employees are cleaning and maintenance staff. Christine says that employers often only need to make simple changes when employing people with disabilities. "For instance in our two story homes we have a vacuum cleaner on both levels in the house," Christine says. "That means people with balance or strength issues don't have to lug them up and down stairs to get their job done. It's an easy thing to do that makes a big difference to someone's workplace tasks. They can get their tasks achieved more safely and efficiently."
"People with disability are often more dedicated and they are very organised; for some of them, just getting out the door each day requires them to successfully negotiate a whole stack of obstacles that anyone without a disability just doesn't need to deal with. Their resilience, problem-solving and time-management skills are usually excellent as a result. It transfers into the workplace as well; you'll have someone who is dedicated, capable of working well on their own and who appreciates their job. The benefits outweigh the costs and there is research that support the benefits of employing people with disabilities."
"My staff numbers do fluctuate as my business is seasonal. But of the staff who have been with me for years I would say there are 8 employees and 6 of those have a disability, none of which are in a wheelchair. One in five Australians have some kind of disability, but I think it's only around 3% of people with disabilities who are in a wheelchair. It's easy to just focus on that, because it's so visible, but there is a broad range of disabilities in our society. For instance, I have a facial paralysis and balance issues as a consequence of treatment for my brain tumour where a number of nerves had to be severed to get all of the tumour. I have a disability now but I was pursuing this business path before this happened. It's ironic, I guess."
Christine and her business partner Jeff Brooks, who runs Great Ocean Air – which has an accessible plane and was also a finalist in the Accessible category – have a lot of ideas for the future. These include some plans at Barwon Heads airport to employ around 20 people with a disability as well as establishing a more inclusive air service.
"Our dream is to provide fully accessible travel," Christine says, "so we'd offer the option of a fully-fitted out chauffeured tour car, accessible plane travel and accommodation. We want to offer genuinely inclusive regional travel, with a good directory of places around the region that are accessible."
"We are also looking at building an app and a website where we will be rating attractions and services. We will also be providing businesses with easy to understand guides on how to make their businesses more inclusive and accessible for everyone."
"We've been able to achieve a lot of this through a pilot program by the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations and Deakin University that has been running in Geelong called the Diversity Field Offices Service. The program has worked with 50 small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to build the disability confidence of businesses, with practical recommendations to help businesses like our own open up their recruitment, retain staff and provide excellent, accessible customer service. They've been invaluable."
"We really do need to think about how we interact with people with disabilities and the assumptions we make. Of course the problem is that our biases are unconscious. But nearly everyone knows someone who is dealing with some kind of disability. We all have the capacity to change our perceptions and that will change our behaviour."
"It's not even just about disabilities. We have an ageing population, and whether you are building accommodation or a cafe or office space you are potentially cutting yourself out of a significant portion of the market if you don't make your premises accessible and create an inclusive environment."
"I'm not saying anyone should hire someone with a disability regardless of whether they are the best candidate for the job," Christine says. "But we need to look past the disability to see the skills that person has to offer. Disability should not be the deciding factor."