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Disability Practice in the Spotlight

Making Connections to Make a Difference

Liz Penny

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Making a positive difference to the experiences of students with disability by connecting with students, her team, other staff and the wider community is what Liz does best in her work at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). As the Manager of Accessibility and Financial Assistance she leads an enthusiastic and committed team of Accessibility Consultants to assist her achieve this goal with the 1500 students who are registered with their service.

Liz has been working at UTS since 2002. Prior to taking on the role at UTS Liz was a community educator with Cerebral Palsy Alliance (CPA) where she assisted people with disability access the community. This focused mainly on supporting people to achieve their gaols and connections with others through recreational activities. This was a varied role, and even included tasks such as helping clients get married.

However, through supporting one of her CPA clients access university studies she realised what people with disability could achieve through further education. And was motivated to take up a Disability Services Officer (DSO) role at UTS. When she first started she was the only DSO at the University, but since then this has steadily grown to the current team of eight DSOs - to meet the demands of more students with disability, more requests for services, more types of disability, and a greater prevalence of secondary disability, and more support from DSO to negotiate a range of learning adjustments. “UTS has always had a strong social justice focus, and recognition that it needs to meet the requirements of all its’ students” explains Liz.

Liz enjoys working in her consultative and collaborative team, and values the diverse experiences each member brings to the group. “It’s great to draw on each other’s knowledge as it helps us come up with more ideas, creative solutions and better outcomes for the students” says Liz. “And of course what we all have as our key driver is a commitment to establish rapport, connections and engagement with students so we can deliver a quality service to them”.

Liz loves being challenged by something that at first looks impossible, and then being able to collaborate with others to come up with really great solutions. A memorable example was not long after Liz started as a DSO, she needed to organise alternative format material for a student who was starting in mid-year. At this time the University had no established processes for alternative formats. This meant meeting and drawing on staff from across the institution who could help her achieve this goal in a short period of time. “It also meant that I needed to learn about the technical side of things – glitches and all” explains Liz. However from these conversations as well as development of relationships with the Library, via our Manager at the time, Marie Flood emerged a library based process that is now used across the university to convert material to alternative formats.

“We are always progressing to the principle that providing access is just part of ‘business as usual’ for everyone here” says Liz. “And it’s wonderful to see some attitudes change over time, from being uncertain and not confident in providing adjustments to being champions for the cause. Some of this shift has gone even way beyond my expectations”. But on the other hand while Liz is excited about the continuing moves towards universal design in the sector, sometimes she is frustrated that the pace around this is too slow.

Liz has attended a number of Pathways Conferences and believes they are valuable formal and informal learning experiences. “You start a conversation with someone and you don’t really know where it’s heading, but you know that mostly something useful will come from it”. At her first conference she remembers feeling very young and inexperienced in the sector, and was travelling on a bus, with a group of experienced practitioners who were sitting at the back of the bus. “There was such a great vibe - they were fun, welcoming and approachable, and had such a willingness to share information and ideas. And I was struck by the thought that even though they may have discussed some topics hundreds of times before they were still so enthusiastic and generous about sharing their work experiences”

Liz’s advice to new practitioners is never be afraid to ask questions, and re-ask questions as much as you need to. There are so many variables and so much to know. And it’s a sector where things change so often and we all keep continually learning. And the key to the role is to establish good rapport with the students you are working with.
And even if you have been in the role for a while you can never underestimate the importance of getting to know each individual student: what motivates them; what are their needs; and where are they heading. And to provide a wholistic service as possible to support them in their studies.

“University not only offers students with disability the opportunity to study, succeed and graduate, it also offers an important opportunity to learn about themselves, the impact of their disability, and develop strategies that they can use in their careers and life in general”.

Liz believes there needs to be a greater level of understanding and disability confidence in the wider community. “People might have good intentions, but often if they have little first-hand experience with people with disability they can feel awkward and uncomfortable at first” says Liz. And this can impact on the employment of graduates with disability. She hopes that this improves so these graduates chances of establishing a career are on par with their peers. Though she is optimistic about emerging contacts with the university from organisations that want to employ graduates with disability, as they recognise that they haven’t been tapping into the strengths and capabilities that these potential employees offer.

When Liz is not at UTS you’ll most likely find her outdoors, at the beach, on the touch footy field or catching up with friends and family.