Over four million Australians live with a disability – that’s 1 in 5 people. The 3rd of December marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPwD), a day dedicated to recognising and valuing this statistic, and accepting diversity within our community.
The 2019 theme of the UN awareness day is “The Future is Accessible”, which works towards breaking down barriers that stand in people’s way.
Reducing discrimination, creating accessible environments and ensuring people are not excluded because of health impairments are not only key goals of IDPwD, but also of the Global Challenges research area Building Resilient Communities.
In honour of IDPwD, here is an update on a project that is working towards creating an inclusive and accessible community.
SMILE Sensory Room: Increasing acceptance through the senses
You enter a darkened room, with the only light source exuding from tubes of floating bubbles, hanging fibre optic spray lights and panels that light up with a single touch. On the walls, your hand brushes past toys and equipment of varying textures, designed to be played with, prodded and pulled.
Music plays from certain areas, if you wish, and there’s a hammock in which the body can be fully enveloped in, shut away from the outside world.
It’s an environment designed to stimulate or calm the senses, a non-threatening area for people with cognitive, behavioural and physical impairments to explore, play, and just be.
Opened in July 2017, the Multi-Sensory Room at the Horsely Community Centre in Dapto is the first community-based centre of its kind in the Illawarra, and perhaps, Australia. Typically, Multi-Sensory Environments (MSE) such as this are only found in therapeutic settings such as hospitals, meaning families and carers can often struggle to gain access.
Run through CareWays, the Horsely MSE removes this barrier. It’s open to all members of the community as a support service and a safe space for families, carers and individuals to engage with sensory equipment, as a leisure experience.
The centre was born out of community need, says Senior Lecturer at UOW, Dr Holly Tootell, whose background in Information Technology has informed the study on embedding sensors into equipment, to better understand usage patterns of the clients using the site.
Working in consultation with community members, the MSE was developed by conducting focus groups and interviews to determine suitable equipment to include.
The goal was to include the community in the design of the space as much as possible, giving a voice to the families and carers who are often unheard, but yet many of whom know what will be most beneficial to those with lived experience of disability.
For Dr. Tootell, the space is also important in fostering inclusion and acceptance, reflecting the aims of IDPwD.
“People that don’t engage with people who have disabilities sometimes forget how difficult things that are simple can actually be,” she says.
“Coming from a point of inclusion, it’s really important that we have spaces that are usable by all of our community and provide achievable activities and solutions for everybody. The more we work together, the more we can break down those barriers.”
Despite the initial community consultation and interest surrounding the centre, Dr. Tootell says that maintaining the usage rate of the centre has been a challenge.
“Getting the word out to the wider community is still an issue for us.”
“The launch [in 2017] was successful, and we had a high usage rate after that, but it’s dropped back,” she says.
“We’re really looking to create some sustainable marketing plans to get the word out, so more people are aware the centre exists.”
With a successful application for renewed funding, new developments in 2020 will see the program working with a UOW public relations researcher and students to increase the project’s reach into the community.
Other developments will include a process evaluation of the establishment and utilisation of the MSE, as well as developing further methods for community consultations, working with groups in early childhood and aged care.
The MSE is open 7 days per week by booking, and can be found at 82 Bong Bong Road Horsely, NSW 2530.
Cost per session is $33 per hour, or ½ hour sessions at $16.50. This can often be claimed through certain NDIS plans. More information and bookings are available at: https://www.careways.org.au/sensory-room
The SMILE Sensory Room project is interdisciplinary, combining knowledge and expertise from a number of different faculties and is supported by the UOW Global Challenges Program. The team of researchers include Dr Holly Tootell from Engineering, Dr Pippa Burns from Science, Medicine and Health, Dr Grant Ellmers from Law, Humanities and the Arts, Dr Sue Slowikowski from Business, and Michael Szafraniec and Carly Pascoe from CareWays Community.