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Disability Practice in the Spotlight

A Job That Really Adds Up

Head and shoulder photo of Doug McGinn sitting at his work desk

For our inaugural Disability Practice in the Spotlight, we talk to Doug McGinn.  Doug graduated with a maths degree in 1991 and was aiming for a high-flying, high-paying actuary position. Instead he took up a temporary position of Disability Liaison Officer with the University of Tasmania.  Twenty-three years later Doug continues to work with the University as a Disability Adviser, and has no regrets about staying in a job where the satisfaction of knowing you are making a difference in peoples’ lives far outweighs an actuary’s pay-packet.  He has seen many times over, how the organisation of appropriate supports and accommodations can be essential life changers for some students.

  “When students come back after finishing their studies and give me the feedback that without my assistance they wouldn’t have got their degree and wouldn’t have got their job – that’s when I know I’ve really made a positive difference in someone’s life, and assisted them to reach their potential. That’s priceless” said Doug.

 Whilst Doug has many years’ experience in the role it still presents the opportunity for him to learn and develop.  Every year he continues to work with different types or manifestations of disability or health conditions that he has never heard of before.  For example, this year Doug has been working with his first student with selective mutism. 

Even with the more common types of disability, Doug knows the critical importance of being open and informed by the student’s experience of their disability.  “No two students are the same, and no two disabilities are exactly the same” says Doug.  He does not assume what students need, or try to jump in and short-cut the process.  But what he does do is use his experience to emphasise to the students, and to give examples of what can and has worked previously for other students with similar requirements.

Students with physical disabilities, particularly back conditions were the largest proportion of Doug’s cases in the first few years of the role. Mental illnesses, autism spectrum conditions, and specific learning disabilities are now much more prominent.  Doug reports that currently students with mental illness are by far the largest proportion of students who disclose.

“I remember working with my first student with Asperger Syndrome in 1997. I had to look that condition up then. That student was so so different than every other student with Asperger that I have worked with since then” said Doug.

Overall Doug has seen the number of students who disclose with disability increase significantly at the University of Tasmania over the past two decades.  He thinks this may be because the word is getting out there more effectively about what is possible for students with disability when they get the appropriate support they need.  He is also pleased to see that students are becoming better self-advocates. And he is positive about the additional staffing resources his Uni has put into Disability services to meet the additional student demand.   

Doug understands that the Disability Adviser role is to ensure students get the appropriate support, but also to ensure academic rigour.  “Sometimes this is hard to balance, as students and families expect us to be advocates all the time. What we can do is facilitate meetings, and share information appropriately” said Doug.

Another trend Doug has noticed in this field is the increasingly affordability and availability of assistive technology.  He is a keen advocate for the potential difference this can make, for example for students with specific learning disabilities. However he wishes that these students had better understanding and training with the available Apps.  Also Doug knows the technology is changing all the time, and while it can be overwhelming to be confident with all the changes, practitioners need to ensure current assistive technology is taken into account to keep up with the times.

The Pathways Conferences have always been one of the main highlights of the job for Doug. Aside from the socialising, drinks and fun times (and for Doug there have been many) they have been really valuable in supporting him in the role.  In a small state, with one University Pathways has been crucial for him to meet like-minded people in similar roles, with similar approaches tackling the same issues on a daily basis.  They have helped him link with interstate networks for collegial support, development and sharing ideas. “It’s good to know too that little ol’ Tassie is sometimes doing some things really well” said Doug.

Doug acknowledges the current push in the Tertiary Sector for administrative efficiencies and the need to do more with less.  He believes that finding system efficiencies can be a good thing as long as it is not at the expense of providing good service to students. “You can’t rush students out the door, you need to take the time to listen and provide information.  We need to be mindful that students can feel stressed having to see us, we need to help them feel at ease so they can tell their story, and understand the processes required and appropriate supports”.

And for any new practitioners entering the role the best advice Doug can give is that old practitioners don’t know everything! Be open to ALWAYS learning from student experience. But at the same time, link in to state networks and find a mentor who can help you out with your questions.  Also, Doug would encourage practitioners not to ever feel shy or awkward about posting any question on Austed.  He regards both Austed and ADCET as excellent ways to find answers to tricky and easy questions, and keep up to date with current issues and good practices.

There are two challenges on the immediate horizon of the Disability Adviser role for Doug.

 Firstly, how Disability Advisers and NDCOs can be involved in planning for students through the NDIA as it is progressively rolled out.  Currently two University of Tasmania students are being supported by the NDIA, and Doug can see this has made an amazing difference to their experiences.  The NDIA is exciting, however, there needs to be ways for more dialogue between the tertiary support services, NDCOs and the NDIA.

 Secondly, will the beer, good times and friendships continue to flow at Pathways Conferences?

 And as for the two concerns on the horizon of Doug’s personal life: Will Collingwood win the Grand Final while Buckley remains coach?  And will he get to enough Tasmanian Cricket Team matches this season?

(February 2015)