From a simple solution, to Vienna!

Written by Melanie Hawkes – PDA’s WA Associate Director

My parents raised me to be as independent as possible. With three younger brothers to care for, Mum and Dad didn’t have a lot of time to help me do basic things like feed me. I had to find ways to manage, and this has made me a creative thinker. 

So when I got stuck in a lift at university, unable to reach the button, we found a solution: a stick. My first prototypes were wooden from Bunnings and I quickly realised that these simple tools allowed me to do way more than press lift buttons. At home I could turn lights on and off! And type if I couldn’t reach the keyboard! And move things closer or push them away. Dad was able to make a holder and attach it to my wheelchair so I could take my stick everywhere.

In the early 2000s I was invited to be a guest speaker during disability awareness training for all staff at Main Roads WA. I introduced my stick and got participants to guess what I could do with it. At the end of the session, a man at the back of the room put his hand up and asked why I didn’t have fibreglass sticks. I told him I’d not heard of them. He took my address and dropped three or four off to my home the following week. They are the flag poles from the children’s crossings flags. Main Roads work with WA Police to supply the flags to the lollipop men and women. They often had some returned due to slight damage or dents and were happy to pass them on to me, for free! 

At first I found them heavy and awkward to use, plus they were narrower. But very strong – no more breaking wooden ones! I bought stoppers to fit to one end, and plastic tubing for the other, which help to protect my teeth when using it in my mouth. In 2015, when I got my third assistance dog Upton, we added an elastic band. This was because he found it difficult to pick the stick up off the floor. He quickly learnt to pick it up from the band. It also stops things sliding all the way to my nose when lifting them up! 

So what can my stick do? A lot of things. For example:

  • * scratch an itch I can’t reach 
  • * fix my hair
  • * move things closer or push them away (handy way to get things in and out of the fridge or freezer)
  • * pat my dog 
  • * put the lead on and off my dog 
  • * open and close doors, including the fridge, oven, microwave and washing machine  
  • * get my mail from my letterbox 
  • * press buttons, like in a lift, on a desk phone, and light switches 
  • * I use another short stick to feed Upton his tablet with peanut butter

I even sleep with a stick as it helps me move my sheet and blankets up and down! The only thing I use more every day is my wheelchair. Without my stick, I’d probably need 24 hour care. I enjoy time alone at home so I’m grateful that I have a low-cost, simple solution. 

And this simple solution with a profound impact on my independence has recently won me awards! When I saw PDA promoting the Simply Open Awards earlier this year, I made a 5 minute video on what my stick can do for me. I submitted it in September and found out in the last two weeks that I won not one but two prizes! The Wild Card Award from all entries in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, England and Ireland, with a cash prize of £750 (AU$1,371.31). This was announced in a livestream on Friday 1 December on social media, hosted by Open Inclusion.

The second one was announced on World Human Rights Day, 10 December. Two entries from each country were considered for the global awards. I’m surprised and proud to announce that my stick hack video was in the top two in the world! My prize is flights and accommodation to Vienna, Austria in February to attend the Zero Project Conference!

Thank you to the judges, sponsors and the organisations who run these amazing awards. We hear a lot about expensive assistive technology, but sometimes it’s the simple, everyday things we use that can help the most. I appreciate this opportunity to showcase my stick to the world, and encourage you to enter next year. 

Never in a million years did I expect to win. My little video about my stick, so important that I can’t live without it, impressed the judges so much. I still can’t believe it. It’s going to be freezing in Vienna (and I hate the cold), but I’m looking forward to representing PDA, Australia and people with disabilities who want to live great lives. I hope I’ll do you all proud! 

from Melanie

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