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 Disability Practice in the Spotlight

Equipping Students for Life

Photo: Dr Chris Summers

 As the Lead Vocational Teacher in Student Support Services in Tafe Queensland – Skills Tech for the past seven years Dr Chris Summers has been supporting students with disability to equip them skills for work and life.
It’s a role that not only works with students, teachers and parents, but also links him with employers as he goes out to ensure his students have strategies to succeed in their workplaces.

Tafe Queensland – Skills Tech specialises in trades, such as construction, electricity, plumbing, automotive and engineering. They offer apprenticeships and trade courses from Certificate 1 through to Advanced Diplomas. Tafe Queensland-Skills Tech trains about 8000 apprentices, and 5000 other certificate and Diploma students. Apprentices attend Tafe in two to three week blocks to learn technical skills and the theory and regulations required for their trade.

Having a title of Lead Vocational Teacher gives him the flexibility and credibility to collaborate closely with the teachers. Prior to this role Chris was a School Guidance Officer for thirteen years where he worked closely with a number of students with disability in special education units. “I was always keen to help these students work out where they were going when they left school, so I see my current role as a natural extension of helping students with their career goals”.

Chris supports between 200 – 250 students, and co-ordinates ten support workers. Learning Disability (LD) – reading, comprehension and understanding mathematical concepts - is the most common disability he encounters within his role. Some of these students come to Tafe knowing they have a LD and have supporting documentation. But many students come with practical skills, and while motivated to do the trade, they start to have difficulties when they need to apply the more complex theory to their practical work. Most don’t have a good understanding of their disability as all they know is they can’t read for comprehension or understand the maths required for their trade.

“Often these apprentices have no learning confidence – it’s all been knocked out of them before they get to us”. Chris and his team therefore focus on building their confidence and helping them find ways they can learn the theory part of their course. “It is important that ultimately they become confident independent learners, especially out in their workplaces.”

Also, these students can worry they may lose their apprenticeship if their employer finds out they are struggling with the reading, writing and maths they need to complete the course. They are determined to keep their apprenticeship. “They see this trade as their future – it’s linked with their goals, family and career aspirations. And they want to know that the right support will be there when they need it.”

Students are provided with classroom support for the theory component of their studies, note taking services and exam reading. Chris has trialled Assistive Technology with the apprentices during their block learning but without success. The classroom environments tend to be very noisy, and students aren’t confident using the unfamiliar tools. “We find having someone one on one is a better way to build their confidence”. Having someone take notes allows them to concentrate on what the teacher is saying. Students are also given PowerPoint presentations on a USB so they can review the material.

Chris is able to tap into three sources of funding to provide support to students.
If the student has documentation from a medical practitioner confirming their Learning Disability and are doing an apprenticeship they are eligible for mentoring and tutoring support from the Commonwealth Disability Apprenticeship Wage Subsidy Scheme (DAAWS). Alternatively there is state funding available to support other students who are not doing an apprenticeship. Also Tafe Queensland – Skills Tech provides some funding to provide additional support to students. Many students also get a high level of support outside the Tafe from their family and friends and in their workplaces.

Over the past seven years Chris has noticed an increase in students with mental health issues.
The suicide rate for apprentices is high, and especially in the construction industry. It’s a time when there are many pressures - settling into the adult workplace, managing finances, managing relationships – and often the supports aren’t there when they are needed.

Experiencing such conditions as anxiety and depression can prevent a student from learning and engaging to their capacity. It can get in the way of preparing for exams and assessments. Often support workers are supporting a student with their anxiety more than note taking. And expectations to pass their studies can place more pressures on students.

This is especially the case where failing assessments at the end of a three week block can have many negative repercussions for an apprentice. They may have to take unpaid time off work to re-sit the assessment or do a supplementary exam. If they don’t pass the supplementary they may have to find the time and finances to repeat the whole unit. As some employers expect apprentices to pay for their own training and do their block releases in their holidays (even when they pass), finding the extra time and money for a repeat can place added pressure on an apprentice’s pay packet.

However, the students who are supported by Chris and his team are much more likely to get through. They have a 90% course completion success rate for the students they support. “It is great to see them gain confidence, take responsibility for their own learning, and progress to be independent successful learners”.

One particular student Chris remembers had a motorbike accident two years into his electrical apprenticeship. This left him with an acquired brain injury that affected his memory. He was off work 12 months, his confidence was shot and he wasn’t sure if could complete his course. A plan was put in place to meet with him every morning before class to review the work from the day before and to provide one on one support for him through the theory component of his course. It took a couple of years but he did successfully complete his course.

Chris’s time is divided between supporting students and working with teachers to help them understand, accept, and know what they can do to make reasonable adjustments to support their students learning. Chris acknowledges some teachers are not always comfortable having a support worker in their classroom, as they can worry about being judged. Teachers need the information on the effects of the disability on learning, and how to use a combination of teaching and assessment strategies to suit the student’s needs. “It’s about working collaboratively with the teachers, and letting them know that they are still in charge of the classroom”.

Chris advises other disability practitioners to learn from others, by joining forums and networks, and keeping up to date with what’s happening in the sector. He is the Chair of the Queensland Tafe Disability Services Officers Network that meets every six weeks. This network upholds the social model of disability, and supports each other by talking through a case study each meeting, undertaking professional development, and discussing local issues.

Chris is also a member of the National ATEND Committee. “It’s important to get involved in our networks as this sector has to be very strong to meet the challenges ahead, such as the increased need for services and how we will meet these, and the changing nature of our service as we support more students with issues such as mental health conditions”.

He would like to see disability practitioners gain greater recognition from their institutions, government and the community for the work they do. Disability practitioners are able to add value to the work that institutions do by assisting students with disability to achieve successful outcomes. “We help the institute project the image that they care for all students”. Chris also suggests introducing a standard for qualifications and strengthening the Code of Ethics could help in gaining greater recognition.

And when not at work Chris has a love of Shakespeare. His favourite is King Lear, providing insight into a journey of self-discovery. Currently he is indulging in the Shakespearean Sonnets.