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Quiet housing revolution slowly giving Australians with disabilities more options

Fathema Anwar's parents thought she was joking when she told them she was moving out of the family home.

The 23-year-old, who came to Australia from Afghanistan as a refugee a decade ago, didn't have kids and she wasn't married.

"It is not normal [in] Afghan culture to move out before you are married, especially when you have a disability," she said.

She and her younger sister live with spinal muscular atrophy.

"Back in Afghanistan my sister and I talked about one day making a chair with wheels and our mum told us to work hard and then we could invent it ourselves," she said.

"When we arrived in Australia when I was 13 we realised it already existed, so when we got wheelchairs it was like all our dreams came true."

Growing up in Afghanistan, sisters Fathema (right) and Ocia Anwar, dreamed of inventing a wheelchair.(Supplied: Fathema Anwar)

But a decade on, Fathema dreamed of something more — a place of her own in Sydney.

"We lived in a very small place, and even though our house had been modified, my room was really the only place that was accessible, but it wasn't close to the bathroom," she said.

"There wasn't a lot of room for [my] and my sister's wheelchairs."

After some initial research, Fathema was disappointed to find the accessible accommodation prospects for people living with a disability in Australia were still limited, with nursing homes and group settings the most common options.

"I wanted to be independent and take responsibility for myself," said the university student who is now doing a master's degree in business marketing.

A new way of living

Recently she started accessing Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) funding in her National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) plan, which made it possible for her to explore a new kind of housing.

Fathema Anwar's kitchen has been built with lower benchtops, appliances and switches that she can access from her wheelchair.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Under this new housing model, multiple apartments in a complex are built with features such as reinforced concrete for wheelchair hoists, voice recognition technology to open blinds and doors, and accessible bathrooms.

There's also a concierge with an on-call support worker to assist residents when their own carers clock off.

Residents can choose their own support workers and use their NDIS funding to pay them.

Accommodation like this is popping up around some parts of the country and a National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) spokesperson said there were currently nearly 14,000 participants receiving SDA supports in their plans.

That's a jump of 13 per cent on last year.

SDA funding is for NDIS participants who have high support needs and cannot live in mainstream housing but want to live independently from carers.

While all residents living in Fathema's block have disabilities, other buildings are occupied by both people with and without disabilities.

Moving away from institutions

The CEO of Disability Advocacy Network Australia, Mary Mallett, said she welcomed the expanded options.

But she doesn't want to see a return to people with a disability living in clusters.

"It's great to see developers building good-quality accessible housing, but on the other hand the developers are coming into the space for financial reasons," she said.

"For the sector that has been advocating for people to move out of large institutions for years, we are a bit worried that these congregate settings are potentially reverting to more institutionalised settings."

But for Brisbane Sisters Sam and Jamie-Lee Dwyer, this type of living has been anything but that.

Sam Dwyer (left) and her sister Jamie-Lee Dwyer in their new home.(Supplied)

The sisters, who have the neurodegenerative condition Friedreich's ataxia, describe their previous accommodation as being like "a nursing home".

The women, both in their 20s, have recently moved into SDA apartments close to the city and say they no longer feel isolated.

"We were living with people who were in their 60s and we couldn't choose the food, who supported us, or even have visitors over at night," Sam said.

"Now we can finally do what we want, and we feel like we're involved in the community and getting to live like other young people who go to cafes and hang out with friends."

She said living in a block with people who aren't disabled will change attitudes more broadly.

Sam Dwyer hugs her dog in an apartment she shares with her sister.(Supplied)

"I just want people to see us as a normal part of the community … like we hate when people come up and say 'well done' when we're just sitting in a cafe," she said.

"They're not used to seeing disabled people around living like everyone else so I think integrating us into the community will really help pave the way for younger generations."

'I've burnt a few dishes'

Now a year on from getting her own place, Fathema wants to be an advocate for others living with a disability.

"With independence comes challenges too, but the best thing about having my own place is learning a lot about myself," she laughs.

"I've learnt to manage my time and my finances and cook … I've burnt a few dishes but you have to be flexible because that's life."

And she hopes all parents can be as encouraging as hers were.

"My sisters always say, 'You go first and you can give us feedback,' and they do look up to me, but they want me to try everything first," she said.

"My parents are proud of me especially because they didn't think it was possible … and I'm proud of me too."

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