Having lived with polio for more than 70 years, Ann-Mason Furmage knows all too well how challenging it can be living with disability - especially for seniors.
As the world marks International Day of People With Disability on December 3, the 85-year-old has a simple message for seniors living with their own disabilities - while society may treat you differently, it's important to fight for your right to respect and the best available treatment.
A torturous road
Ann-Mason was diagnosed with polio at the age of 12. While she was diagnosed early, her left hand, arm and shoulder became paralysed very quickly.
She was living in the USA at the time, and subjected to a gruelling and at times torturous treatment regimen of having hot woolen packs placed on the muscles, a method devised by Australian nurse Elizabeth Kenny.
She also had to undergo intensive physiotherapy sessions in warm water, all in the searing heat of a non-airconditioned hospital in summer.
Exercises were often agonising, calling on her to do things like touch her nose with her knees, there was plenty of incentive to complete the exercises, it was the only way to get the packs removed.
"Polio would tighten all the muscles so that you couldn't move, even if you weren't paralysed. All the muscles tightened, so they just wouldn't work at all," she said.
"We had the hot woollen packs and also the physiotherapy to help to loosen up the muscles."
While the treatment was agonising, it did produce results - while she is now wheelchair bound due to post polio syndrome, she was able to walk for many years.
Hard to diagnose
Ann-Mason said she was luckier than some due to the fact she was diagnosed early.
"One of the things about polio was that it was very difficult to diagnose.
"It presented in a number of ways - sometimes the doctors said it was kidney disease, sometimes they thought it was a chest infection, there were all sorts of problems doctors thought it might be. The only way they could know for sure was to take a spinal tap."
The good fight
Ann-Mason was forced to retire early from her work as an accountant due to the late effects of polio, but she found renewed purpose through a life of advocacy.
"I looked around for something useful to do, and I thought there's a lot that's happening to people that had polio, so I joined something called the Post Polio Network," she said.
Through that role, she learned there was a great need for disability advocacy for people living with all types of disabilities, so she joined the Physical Disability Council of NSW. She would go on to serve as a board member, and then the organisation's president for eight years.
In her role - which she served prior to the introduction of the NDIS, she travelled all over Australia, lobbying politicians for more support, spreading the message on available support services, and emphasising the importance of "self advocacy".
The I in independence
This need to self advocate is something she sees as especially important for seniors.
"The fact is more than half of the people who have disability are over the age of 65, but unfortunately we don't always get the same care and equipment that younger people do because of the way funding is structured, and also because of the attitudes of people, and that includes the medical community," she said.
"When something's happened to me medically, I always make it clear I intend to be as independent as possible for as long as possible, and I'm offered more physio than someone else in a similar position.
"If you wish to remain independent, advocate for that. If your independence is not important to you, then I have no advice for you."
The road forward
Ann-Mason said it benefits the whole of society when things are done to improve the lives of people with disability.
By way of example, she points to lifts at stations, which were introduced for people living with disability, but now make life easier for people of all walks of live, including travellers and mothers who would previously have been forced to haul their suitcases or prams up the stairs.
While a lot of improvements have been made in terms of amenities, Ann-Mason believes we still have a long way to go in terms of respect.
"I would be interested in seeing people having different attitudes towards people with a disability - that is something that is changing but it's changing very slowly," she said.
"I would hope people would treat us like they treat their own nanas, with a bit of respect."