Polio survivor Huy Nguyen is bridging the divide for people with disability, writes ERIN SCHRIEBER.

Imagine a river with a footbridge crossing it, and on the other side of the river is your family. Now imagine there is a short flight of stairs to get onto the bridge. If you use a wheelchair, those stairs pose a frustrating and very real barrier that prevents you from getting where you need to go.

ANU alumnus and ACT Young Australian of the Year 2014 Huy Nguyen often uses this analogy to describe the day-to-day challenges that many people face.

"If we just think carefully about how we design the physical environment and community facilities, then it's a way to break down the barriers and reduce someone's disability in their community or in their home.

"And if you make the design more inclusive for people with disability there is also a benefit for the wider community - for example people with babies in prams, or the elderly. So we're not just doing it for one user group, we benefit the whole community."

A humanitarian engineer and advocate for people with disabilities, Nguyen speaks from experience, having used a wheelchair since contracting polio as a child in Vietnam.

After graduating from ANU with a Bachelor of Engineering in 2010, Nguyen founded Enable Development, a social enterprise that delivers training and consultancy in Australia and overseas.

Through this, he's been involved in projects to address the water, sanitation and hygiene needs of people with disability in Timor-Leste, and introduce wheelchair basketball to the Solomon Islands.

"It's something that's fun, healthy, physical and social. It can be played by able-bodied people together with people with disability, so it breaks down those walls and brings people together," he says.

"The most important aspect of any initiative is sustainability. Locals need to take these projects on board, and it needs to be part of what governments do.

It's not enough for us to go in there and run some workshops; there really needs to be an attitude shift and a behaviour change."

Closer to home, Nguyen says there is still work to be done to improve accessibility for everyone, from making assistive devices such as wheelchairs and hearing aids more readily available to changing the way buildings are designed.

As ACT's Young Australian of the Year, Nguyen is taking this opportunity to challenge the way people think about disability.

"It's a huge honour. It's a way for me to reflect on what I'm doing and see that I'm on the right track, and it's also been an opportunity for me to share my story and encourage the concept of disability being an important part of diversity
in the community."

That bridge is looking more manageable than ever.

Video: Interview with Huy Nguyen

This article appeared in ANU Reporter magazine Autumn 2014. Subscribe for free now.