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 Disability Practice in the Spotlight

Creating openness and reflection

Photo: Shannon Kerrigan

As a person who is passionate about social justice values and human rights, Shannon Kerrigan considers herself very fortunate to be working in a role that aligns so well with her values.

Shannon has been working within Equity & Diversity at La Trobe University for eighteen years. Currently, as the Manager of Equity & Diversity she is responsible for overseeing disability support as well as refugee support, harassment and discrimination complaints. She brought to the university experience working in women’s health, disability services, domestic violence and housing services.

Shannon has responsibility for a delivery of services to all La Trobe University campuses in Melbourne, Shepparton, Bendigo, Albury Wodonga and Mildura. The service supports over 2000 registered students with disability, however she remembers when she first started the numbers where much smaller. “There were much fewer students with disability coming to University, and we felt we were making it up as we went along” With no Education Standards to back up their work they relied on the principles in the DDA and the good will of staff to find solutions.

One of Shannon’s proudest achievements is embedding disability into the culture of La Trobe University. Disability considerations have a place in all policies across the University. And twelve years ago they developed and implemented disability awareness training. This on-line training is compulsory for all staff on joining University, gaining a promotion or having a job re-classification. “So all staff have really good understanding of why we should do it, and most of our reasonable adjustment are just put into place”.

However increasingly there are a number of students with disability with more complex needs. “We are engaging with other areas in the University to develop processes to support these students”.

Their service takes a whole of life approach to wellbeing, and they link students with disability to other supports to scaffold their studies. “Care provided needs to be much broader than just their study requirements”.

Shannon ensures that professional development is an essential element for her team. Her staff are kept up to date with issues and disability awareness through regular professional development opportunities that is also shared with other sections within the university so everyone knows how to best support a student. Peer professional development is also an important part of their fortnightly team meetings. Staff are able to discuss challenges, understand the issues and how best to approach a situation. Additionally, every six weeks they explore a particular mental health issue in terms of how it presents, what issues students with this mental health issue experience, what adjustments would best support the student, and how do staff look after themselves when working with students with complex mental health issues.

“If we learn to look after ourselves we can better assist others to support our students”.

“I encourage staff to have clear boundaries, and we have robust but respectful conversations to establish these boundaries”. “And staff are encouraged to share problems, challenges and what they’ve done to try and address an issue. Even if it doesn’t work we can still learn from that, and there is no blame if we can’t fix something, we can’t always fix others’ conditions”.

Shannon regards their team as the most exciting part of her job. “It’s a fantastic team, who support each other through reflection on cases, acknowledging success and challenges, within a safe place to listen and learn from each other”. They use a strengths based solutions focused approach, to consider their strengths and the resources at hand, to find solutions and learn and develop new approaches. “We don’t always have all the answers at the time but this gives us a strategy for developing responses to unique and challenging issues”.

“Our best improvements come from our team working together – sharing, openness and reflective practice”. Their team meetings have a clear and tight agenda, but the first item is their number one priority – reflective practice. Following this, administrative matters are discussed.

Shannon advises other managers to listen to their staff a lot. “You don’t have to be the expert, use the expertise and experience of your staff to find solutions”. She catches up for a chat with every team member once a week, even for just 5-15 minutes. “Build a strong connection by making it a phone catch-up rather than email. Regular small chats are better than irregular ones, and much better than relying on one or two annual performance review discussions.”

Shannon also recommends to all working in this area to get involved in their networks, and specifically for managers to join a manager networking group. She belongs to the Victorian Disability Manager’s Network. This groups meets every couple of months. Currently they are working together to benchmark the experience of students with disability in Higher Education in Victoria. Shannon has found this collaboration excellent and are currently developing an on-line survey that will be rolled out in May. They then hope to share this with others around Australia.

The Pathways Conferences are also a great networking opportunity. “I have found out about many brilliant projects and ideas that we could never think of ourselves or be brave enough to try.” One inspiring example was the ANU presentation on their Participation Assistant Program for students with ASD which inspired them to implement a similar program at La Trobe.

Whilst Shannon is appreciative of the increases in ongoing funding for this sector over the years, there has also been increases in reporting and accountability requirements. Currently, there are concerns the funding is not keeping up with the rising costs and the increased usage.

A wish for the future would be to see improvements in the inclusive curriculum design, and in particular in the area of assessment, so students have a number of options for assessment. “We need more senior people get behind the call for this.”

Finally, Shannon reminds us to have lunch! An important part of self-care is to keep a sense of balance in our days. Have lunch, leave work relatively on time, and don’t feel that we have to do everything at once. We can be strategic about what we do, and spend time doing some things well. Shannon balances her work with spending some quiet time in the garden, and being with friends and family, including her 8 year old granddaughter.