Blog posts of '2020' 'January'

Travel – Essential AT for Two Different Locations



In 2019 I was fortunate enough to travel to two very different destinations, Portugal and Thailand. Despite the differences between the two destinations, there are a few pieces of assistive technology that helped me make the most of these two trips.

To begin with, Portugal. Portugal has been on our list of places to go for many years, and in 2019 my wife and I decided to make it happen. As a wheelchair user who has done considerable travel over the years for both business and leisure my strong preference is to pick a place and spend time there rather than spending a night or two at several locations. This saves me the hassle of searching for accessible rooms, packing and unpacking, and hours in transit.

It has the added advantage of letting me get to know one place well, to find places that are often overlooked by tourist guides, to find the best food and cafes, to meet some local people and shopkeepers and to have a better taste of what life is like. In Portugal we decided we would spend our time in Porto.



For accommodation I used AirBnB. The accessibility filters now in the AirBnB website have worked well for me. We ended up in one-bedroom apartment right in the heart of Porto, equipped with a kitchen, good living room space and a bathroom set up that worked for me. This option was cheaper than the hotels with good accessibility and allowed us to buy the local cheeses, meats, olives, wines and other produce without having to eat out all the time.



Porto is an ancient city, built around the Douro River. This means there are a lot of steep hills, cobblestones, steps into shops, and at times narrow crowded sidewalk. Not ideal for wheelchairs! But to compensate for this it is a beautiful city, with magnificent views, architecture, history and very friendly locals. In addition, there is some excellent infrastructure such as the funicular, cable cars, accessible buses and accessible paths along the river and on the famous Dom Luís 1 Bridge. We also did a half day river cruise which was spectacular and then caught the train back to Porto (the train stations had portable ramps to get me into and out of the carriage).




In terms of getting around, we explored a lot of the city by wheeling/walking. We used the buses a few times, but mostly we just wheeled/walked to different areas. I find one of the attractions of old cities like this is to just wheel through the lanes and alleyways, get a feel for the history and be surprised by the small shops and their produce.




I will let the pictures and videos do much of the talking regards the beauty of Porto. In regard to equipment, the two vital pieces of equipment were the SmartDrive and the FreeWheel. These two products work so well together, the FreeWheel for the cobblestones and going down steep hills, the SmartDrive for getting up the steep hills. Having travelled through Europe without the FreeWheel, the difference it makes on cobblestones is truly liberating! Having the SmartDrive allowed my wife and I to explore much more of the city than we could of without it.




Moving onto Thailand, this has been one of my favourite destinations for many years. I have found it challenging (I kind of like to be challenged in my travels) but really rewarding. This trip I focused on two areas, Chiang Rai which is a mountainous province in the North West of Thailand famous for the Golden Triangle, and Prachuap Khiri Khan province in South West Thailand. In Chiang Rai I hired a car from the airport, and for the Prachuap Khiri Khan I hired car and drove from Bangkok (about a 4 hour drive). I travel with portable hand controls which can be fitted to an automatic hire car.



The Chiang Rai area is incredibly beautiful, and I really enjoyed exploring the mountains and the area known as the Golden Triangle. The history of this area is rich and fascinating, and the food is to die for. The influence of different tribal groups, the surrounding countries and the West all make it an intense cultural experience. While not as filled with tourists as the Thai islands and Chiang Mai, there is still reasonable infrastructure.



The other area I went to, the Prachuap Khiri Khan province, is a beautiful province that is largely unspoilt. The place I stayed in is very close to the biggest national park in Thailand (more jungle than park). It is only about 50 minutes from Hua Hin, a nice seaside village on the coast which is a popular tourist destination. However, where I stayed is far from the hustle and bustle of tourists. It is a new resort, on a river that had otters in it! All the other guests were Thai, I was the only foreigner staying there. Driving there I passed through areas that warned drivers to beware of wild elephants on the road, the bird life is incredible, and the scenery must be seen to be believed.



Once again, the SmartDrive and FreeWheel played a critical part in my being able to explore these areas. In the mountains of Chiang Rai, the SmartDrive took me to places I could not have got to without it. The FreeWheel allowed me to explore dirt tracks and off-road areas, as well as cross a suspension bridge that had big gaps in the planks.

If you’re interested in any more details regarding these two trips, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I hope wherever your travels take you in 2020 you have a great time!


Malcolm Turnbull

Senior Advisor and Ambassador

Mal - 40 years a para’ 

40 years ago, in the late hours of January 6th, 1980, I was a passenger in a vehicle that went over a 20-metre cliff. After a long wait to be found and rescued, I arrived at Coffs Harbour Hospital with a broken rib, a punctured lung and a deep knowing that something was significantly wrong. Not long after receiving my x-rays the local doctor came with the news that my spine was severed at T5 level, complete, and that I would never walk again. It was a short conversation, in retrospect a blunt statement of fact that I remain grateful for. The full impact of this life changing event would unfold over the years and continues to unfold as I enter into my 60th year. 40 years, two thirds of my life, as a wheelchair user.

There is much I could write about my experiences in Prince Henry Hospital and the following years, enough to fill a book. But today I want to reflect on some of the changes that have happened over the past 40 years. 

There have been obvious changes in the quality and range of Assistive Technology available. My first wheelchair was a chrome plated folding frame wheelchair that weighed around 24kg. It was an “off the shelf” chair, it was so big I “swam” in it. Pioneers in modern wheelchairs, the likes of Michael Callahan, Nick Morozoff, Marty Ball and Mike Dempsey (all wheelchair users) paved the way for the amazing range of manual wheelchairs available today.

The advanced technology built into powered wheelchairs that allow for even the most mobility challenged users to not only get mobile, but to be able to do so in various seating/standing positions and with maximum comfort. Improvements in seating and positioning products, pressure care cushions and support surfaces, motor vehicle modifications and control options, off road devices – power assist was not even a concept in the 1980s. 

Environment control systems were starting to appear in the late 1980’s but they cost tens of thousands of dollars and required specialised systems and installs. Now off the shelf devices from mainstream companies are doing more than could ever have been imagined. Add to that the robotics that are in their relative infancy. I find the range of Assistive Technology available today mind boggling, and it is hard to imagine what will be happening in 40 years from now!

Apart from Assistive Technology, facilities for, and attitudes towards, people with disabilities have vastly improved. In 1980 I could access three railway stations in Sydney, there were no building regulations for accessibility, accessible toilets were few and far between and I can’t remember being able to book an accessible hotel room. In my first few years as a wheelchair user, I was referred to doctors in Macquarie Street, Sydney for specialised assessments – and all of their rooms were upstairs! I had to get out of my chair and “bum” it up the stairs, towing my chair behind me.

In 1981 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the first International Day of People with Disability which called for a plan of action at the National, Regional and International levels, with an emphasis on equalisation of opportunities, rehabilitation and prevention of disabilities. The theme of IYDP was "Full Participation and Equality", defined as the right of persons with disabilities to take part fully in the life and development of their societies, enjoy living conditions equal to those of other citizens and have an equal share in improved conditions resulting from socio-economic development. This accelerated awareness around disability both here and internationally.

In 2000 the Paralympics were held in Sydney, which really helped push improved accessibility. There is still a lot of work to do, here in Australia and internationally (especially in underdeveloped and developing countries) but it is a huge improvement from the 1980s.  

There have also been improvements in the attitudes towards people with disabilities. I remember when I first left hospital I would go to my local pub for a beer and people would walk past and drop a $2 dollar note on my lap (yes, we had $2 notes!). People asking my companion what I would like to eat instead of asking me, pushing my chair despite my protests, the most inappropriate questions, hushed whispers of pity and amazement that a wheelchair user could drive/work etc. It was not all bleak, of course, there were lots of fantastic people – like the staff at Ultimo UTS who made major adjustments to allow me to study Mechanical Engineering. But there was a general level of ignorance around disability that has improved greatly.

Again, there is a lot more to be done. People living with disabilities in Australia have high levels of unemployment, and there is still a degree of ignorance and fear around how to interact with people who live with disabilities. However, overall the understanding about people with disability has improved hugely. This is also reflected in the language used. Largely gone are terms such as “cripple”, “handicapped”, “retarded”, “disabled”, (although the “Disabled Bathroom” still gets a run – who wants to use a bathroom that is disabled?). In a recent trip my wife and I did a stop-over in Dubai and came across a sign referring to people with disabilities as “People of Determination”. My mum always said I was a determined little so-and-so.

Another thing that has changed dramatically is funding for people with disabilities. In 1980 you were either fortunate enough to be eligible for compensation (eg. from car insurance or worker comp) or you fell into a state-based funding scheme such as Enable. I vividly remember being in Ward 1 at Prince Henry Hospital and hearing compensation lawyers advise other inpatients to avoid work before their compensation case because this would reduce their “loss of income” payout. The compensation cases would often drag out for many years, by which time many people found it extremely difficult to return to the workforce.

The implementation of iCare Lifetime Insurance in NSW, and similar no fault insurance schemes in other states, was a big step forward but it still created a two tiered approach to care – those in the iCare scheme had access to the best equipment and care available while those in the public schemes had access to basic equipment and care. The implementation of the NDIS has been a major reform and is potentially the world leader in provision of services and equipment for people with disabilities. Again, it is not perfect and the lack of uniformity across the nation is frustrating, but it is a huge step forward and at its core embraces principles of empowerment, inclusion and participation for people with disabilities.

There is so much more that can be written, and I am sure others would have lots to say about this. Disability Advocacy groups such as The Quadriplegic and Paraplegic Associations, NSW Physical Disability Council, CPAs – so many great organisations – have made and continue to make a positive impact on the lives of people with disabilities. Medical developments, from the ambulance and first responders to the fundamentals of bowel and bladder care to advanced scanning and medical procedures have made a huge impact. Research into best practise for therapists and clinicians, the expertise and professionalism of Assistive Technology suppliers, access to travel and sports – the ground-breaking Sargood on Collaroy facility – the list goes on. 

Finally, I want to acknowledge the generations of end users that have paved the way for people with disabilities – passionate and forward-thinking wheelchair users like Mark Bagshaw, Chris Sparks, Nick Morozoff, Errol Hyde, Kevin Coombes, Kurt Fearnely and many more.


Malcolm Turnbull
Senior Advisor and Ambassador