The incredible life of Lionel Watts

Read about the story of a man who's close to our hearts (and one who’s had a dramatic impact on disability in Australia), Lionel Watts.

We thought it was time we brought you up to speed on the story of a man close to our hearts… Lionel Watts.

“When I first became disabled, I looked around and I tried to find my way back into the community. I hadn’t really looked at my reflection and in my own mind I still considered myself as being fairly able, rather than disabled.” – Lionel Watts

Lionel met the love of his life when he was 19

Dorothy and Lionel on their first date

In 1947, Lionel and his mates made a pact to sign up to the Navy.

Unfortunately, when it came to the crunch, Lionel was the only one to go through with it (as what he didn’t know is, he friends’ mothers had forbid them to go).

There was a silver lining though – and it came in the form of a young woman named Dorothy, who Lionel met when he was stationed at Geelong.

After the two met at a dance, they fell in love and went on to marry. He later paid tribute to this enduring love, saying: “Her love and devotion have been my inspiration; for me, she has made it all possible.”

An unexpected illness changed everything

Lionel using a wheelchair after he had contracted polio

By the age of 28, Lionel was happily living in Narrabeen with his wife Dorothy and young daughters, Nicole and Kerry. He had a successful career as a Junior Executive Manager for GJ Coles, and a very promising future lay ahead. Life was sweet.

One day, Lionel caught what he (and his doctors) thought was the flu, however, they were unfortunately mistaken. Lionel had in fact actually contracted polio, just one year before the vaccination was circulated in Australia.

As a result, Lionel had developed quadriplegia – and spent two whole years in hospital recovering, weighing only 32 kilos.

In the 60s, people were ashamed of disability

Group of people with a disability at a BBQ

While today, disability is something to be embraced, the world was a much harsher place back in the 1960’s.

There was a widespread belief that if someone had a disability, they were being punished by God – which meant families would hide or barely acknowledge family members with a disability.

In Lionel’s words, “restaurants would refuse to have disabled people on the basis that it would upset the other clients. Banks and other services also felt that it would upset other customers to have that so called ‘ugly’ person in their premises.”

Nobody would give Lionel a chance

Lionel Watts with the first members of Aruma

When Lionel finally returned home from hospital, he got knocked back time and time again from job after job.

Not only was Lionel marginalised by his community, he was even rejected by rehabilitation centres, who claimed he was “too badly handicapped even to be rehabilitated”.

Quickly, Lionel realised if this was happening to him, it was happening to others too. Refusing to accept this warped view of people with disability, Lionel decided change had to happen – and together with a group of peers, he started the group that would one day become Aruma.

Lionel built an electric wheelchair out of a deck chair

Two wheelchairs made out of deckchairs

At the time, Lionel was still finding it hard to get around, so his next goal was to create a chair that he, and others, could use themselves.

Armed with a deckchair, parts purchased from a disposal store, and a little help from his brother and friends, Lionel started the process of designing one of Australia’s first ever electric wheelchairs.

Parking for people with a disability was Lionel’s doing….

Parking spot showing the international symbol of access

In the 1960 and 70s, travelling around was not easy for people with a disability.

One of Lionel’s friends at the time described Sydney’s Central Station as a ‘disabled person’s chamber of horrors. “I found that I had to go down two flights of steps and up another two. The descent was comparatively easy – I could always fall down if necessary!” he explained.

After hearing about and experiencing these issues himself, now as the chairman of the Architectural Barriers Committee for ACROD (the old name for NDS), Lionel set about campaigning for better wheelchair access for all Australians.

During his time in the position, the committee helped introduce parking permits for people with a disability and made it compulsory for all public buildings, footpaths and crossings to be accessible by wheelchair – a huge leap forward in Australia at the time.

Word of Lionel spread all the way to the White House

Lionel and Dorothy with President Nixon

A man of real determination and courage, Lionel was increasingly recognised for all his hard work.

In 1969, President Nixon even invited him to attend the President’s Committee on Rehabilitation in Washington – and over the next eight years, he went on to attend another five similar seminars.

Happily, Lionel wasn’t just heard, he was celebrated too. Not only did he receive an M.B.E. for his contribution to the lives of people with disability, Lionel was also appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his work in rehabilitation.

Lionel’s legacy lives on today

Lionel as an older man

While Lionel sadly passed away in 2000, his legacy will live on forever in the organisation he and Dorothy established – Aruma.

Find out more about Aruma and the work that we do.