Disability no barrier to Ian’s active life

IF there is an exemplar for getting older with attitude, it’s Ian Aitchison, who, despite his disability after becoming a paraplegic in his early 30s, leads such an active life that many a youngster would struggle to keep up.

At 76, Ian lives alone, runs his own business, drives and keeps himself so busy with his hobbies and interests that it seems age just doesn’t matter.

“I’ve always kept busy and active and healthy,” he says. “To be healthy you need a good diet and exercise.”

These days, Co.As.It. Community Services makes his life easier with fortnightly domestic assistance and physiotherapy for neck and back pain, but for the rest he looks after himself.

An action man from a young age, he was rock climbing near Boonah in 1979, when he fell and broke his lower back. After just three months in hospital and rehabilitation, he was on his way with a new course in life.

Ian still lives in the same house he bought in 1968, although the kitchen and bathroom were modified to cater for his disability.

His workshop at Milton, where he repaired BMW motorcycles and sold spares as well as lightweight camping equipment, was also repurposed and remains his business base.

Creating ability from disability

“The wheelchair I was supplied was hopeless. It weighed nearly 20kg and was so heavy I couldn’t lift it into the car. After talking to an engineering friend, I made a lightweight wheelchair,” he says.

This soon led to requests for him to make his lightweight model for others with a disability, as there wasn’t such a thing as a lightweight wheelchair in Australia when he began. Business rolled in.

“At first, I thought it was too much trouble but as I wasn’t a motorcyclist anymore, my business had fallen in a hole, so it was another direction. I’m still making them now,” he says.

Although they aren’t coming off his production line as quickly these days, he has plenty of return customers who are prepared to wait.

Ian designs and assembles the wheelchairs, although there are a few things he can’t do himself, such as the upholstery. His daughter comes in each week to help him with some of the physical things he can’t manage.

“Friends also give me a hand,” he says. “In exchange I do their watch and clock repairs.”

That’s one of his hobbies – antique watches in particular – and he can spend hours working on them.

Pushing the boundaries

In 1981, he took up wheelchair sport, and made his own racing chairs. His wheelie marathons took him around the world, but he had to give it up in 1995 as 42km was hard on his wrists.

To get around that, he built himself a hand cycle with a straight push-pull motion.

“If I had chosen to go shorter distances, I may not have worn out my wrists so quickly, but I am in very good health apart from that,” he says.  “I’m not as fit as I used to be but I still hand cycle five or six kilometres every weekend and have an exercise machine at work.”

His car is modified with hand controls, and he has never given up driving. It’s his independence.

And he continues to pursue his love of music. He plays the flute with a jazz outfit formed in 1997 called Musical Chairs and until recently, when his joints forced him to quit, with the Indooroopilly Chamber Orchestra.

He played the highland bagpipes in a pipe band as a teenager, but his disability brought that to a halt as it was a marching instrument.

“When I was 50, I decided to take up music again, so I learnt the Irish pipes, a folk instrument you can play sitting down but my shoulders and wrists are too bad now,” he says. “You need fine control on pressure on the bag and I can’t get that anymore, so I took up the flute.”

Help to stay healthy at home

Ian is modest about his achievements.

“If you’re not doing things there’s not much point in life,” he says.

All he needs to continue his active life is a little more assistance, but so far he hasn’t yet been able to secure a Level 1 Home Care package.

In some ways, he has become his own worst enemy as he is a bit too capable and when asked if he needs help washing himself, he declines and misses out completely.

“I live alone, that’s why I need some help,” he says. “The garden has always been difficult.”

With his strength and mobility declining he is grateful that Co.As.It Community Services is trying to help him get a Level 1 package.

“I have never asked for a wheelchair as I make my own, but I would like a little electric pod for the back of the wheelchair to help me up the driveway as I am a bit slower than I used to be,” Ian says. “I will just have to learn to answer the questions differently.”


Photo: Ian Aitchison runs his own business manufacturing lightweight wheelchairs.