An Independent Streak

At age four Wayne started having uncontrollable seizures. Following a series of unsuccessful experiments with different medications to treat epilepsy, the doctors prepared Wayne for brain surgery. Wayne awoke from the operation with an acquired brain injury, and cerebral palsy.

Wayne is turning 30 soon, until recently he had been living at home with his Mum, Karen. However, Wayne’s and Karen’s life has now changed as Wayne has moved into his apartment in Ringwood. “I’m very excited and appreciative for Wayne to have had the opportunity to come into a facility like this,” says Karen.

The independent living apartment, managed by Independent Disability Services (IDS) opened on 16 August. The team at IDS offer personal and community support in line with each client’s needs. This dovetails perfectly with our goal of supporting people with disabilities to live the life that they want in a neighbourhood environment. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is providing funding for ongoing resident support.

Karen found out about the Ringwood place when a lady working at the DHHS showed her a flier. “It was just lucky that she saw it. We put our expression of interest in, and I just thought if we get it, then we get it and if we don’t, we don’t. And we got it! It is meant to be.”

There are six apartments in the complex: two downstairs and four upstairs. They have been designed with autonomy and community connection in mind. Wayne’s self-contained unit has a kitchen, bathroom, double bedroom, living/dining area and laundry. It is light and airy, and the sounds of magpies warbling from a nearby tree drift in. Wayne’s bedroom is a Rolling Stones shrine, with framed prints of the band and a Rolling Stones bedspread.

Downstairs, there is a common room for residents, Karen says “Would be ideal for celebrating Wayne’s birthday and other occasions”. There are plans to add a BBQ and veggie garden adjacent to the common area.

Unlike other supported accommodation options, which have curfews and rules about visitors, Wayne’s family and friends are free to visit anytime. All the apartments are spacious and self-contained, so disruption to other residents is minimal.

The unit is age-appropriate, the four upstairs residents are all around 30 years of age. A huge improvement in a world where young people with a disability often end up in housing more suited to the elderly. The location is excellent, close to numerous shops and cafes, the aquatic centre, Jubilee Park, and the Ringwood train station.

When I visited Wayne, it was a busy time at the apartment, nearing dinnertime and the arrival of his support workers. In the hallway, a builder stops to have a chat to Wayne. The parent of one of the residents says a quick hello to Karen (another tenant), as he helps his daughter move in. While the IDS Case Manager visits another client, a resident with multiple sclerosis walks to the mailbox to retrieve some letters.

As with any new project, there are some kinks that need ironing out. The microwave oven near the corner door opens the wrong way, rendering it inaccessible to Wayne in his wheelchair. The lights, curtains and heating are controlled by an iPad, but Wayne cannot read. The placement of the button that opens the automated front door to the complex, and also the one that opens the elevator door, is difficult to access for Wayne, who doesn’t have the full use of his right hand, so he has to wheel up backwards to press it. And there is a collision between the path of Wayne’s harness and the shower rail. These are small things, but small things can be big things when you’re Wayne, or Karen, watching Wayne and hoping things pan out.

The units at Ringwood are generating a lot of interest. The project is a prototype for independent living for people with a disability. Different groups have been going there to have a look at what is possible for supported accommodation. Private investment firms are considering supported accommodation like that at Ringwood as an ethical investment option.

I asked Karen what she is going to do with all of the free time she will have. It is a naive question – the transition to independence isn’t going to happen overnight. Karen has been looking after Wayne continuously since he was born, she embodies the concern facing a lot of parents of children with a disability, “It has always been my worry. When I die, what is going to happen?” But if there is any place where independence for both Wayne and Karen can be achieved, it is these units. “I’m hoping it will enrich his life and enable him to live independently,” says Karen. The team at IDS look forward to seeing how Wayne and his fellow residents progress.