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Disability Practitioner in the Spotlight

Matt Salas: Making small steps matter in big places

Head and shoulder photo of Matt Salas  

Through twenty years of experience working in the Victorian disability and higher education sector Matt Salas knows that it is the small steps and wins that really matter in achieving better outcomes for students with disability.  In 1994 he began working in TAFE and Uni as a casual disability support worker. In 2000 he was offered the then solo DLO role at Holmesglen TAFE, the largest TAFE in Victoria. After overseeing the growth of that service, he moved in 2007 to the largest Uni - Monash.

 “This is a niche field, as not many people think of disability and higher education together”.  Whilst he found a similar spread of disability across TAFE and Uni, the range of accommodations varied, with a greater emphasis on participation assistants and tutors in the TAFE sector.  Matt has found the four Pathways Conferences he has attended a great way to catch up with people directly in the sector, and other professionals connected to the field. “It’s a great way to build relationships, as yarning over a few beers is much better than just reading emails”.

 Matt commenced work in the disability field in the 70’s as a teacher’s aide in a large Melbourne Residential facility, where the selection process was “they sent you out for the day, and if you lasted that day you got the job!”  It was an old style institution for those regarded as ‘being in the too hard basket’, and residents were overcrowded in wards of 50-60 people, over medicated, constrained and consequently had very little quality of life.  After striving to give people the best positive interactions possible in the circumstances, after eighteen months he left vowing never to work in that type of environment again.

Matt’s early career also consisted of significant periods of casual, temporary, insecure employment and unemployment.  He experienced the frustrations of dealing with a large unsympathetic bureaucracy, a sense of disempowerment and unemployment shame, and feelings of being a second class citizen.  It left its mark as a passionate drive to fight for people’s rights in the system. “We need to humanise systems, so as not to act as one size fits all”.

He therefore regards working as a Disability Practitioner as a privilege where he can use his Humanistic values to argue for and have some influence on the rights of individuals in a large system. And to be paid for the privilege is an additional bonus. Starting work as a DLO also marked a turning point in his life. Shortly after commencing in the role he met his future wife and finally he began to ‘settle down’.  He felt he had found his calling.

Matt knows whilst there can be significant successes to make the system better, many of the successes are small and incremental: supporting students; working with staff; and getting the institution to see the light on some issues.  “You need to relish the successes momentarily and congratulate yourself at the time”.

One recent significant systemic achievement has been the development of a formula for accommodations for the OSKE (simulated practical exam) in the Medical faculty.  Previously it had been difficult to negotiate adjustments for these.  This was achieved through the situation of a number of genuine cases needing consideration at the same time and the long-term development of a strong collaborative partnership with the faculty. “We managed the situation in a way that gave staff the confidence and trust that the Disability Practitioner can help find solutions that satisfies their concerns and at the same time provides reasonable adjustments to students”.

Not many staff necessary have the experience or confidence in dealing with disability. Matt therefore sees a key part of this role is to help staff develop an understanding of what is disability, what are reasonable adjustments, and the confidence to implement solutions.

He regards this as not particular to tertiary staff, but generally across society there is a need for greater understanding of the experience of disability. Whilst he believes this is slowly improving, there is still a lot of injustice and disempowerment due to ignorance.  It is always important to hear and value the real life stories of the impact of disability in people’s lives.

Matt hopes to improve disability access processes at his Uni by better incorporating them into core Uni procedures, rather than add-ons.  He knows that some Universities do it well, such as with automated faculty contacts.  This would enable him to be less bogged down in administrative tasks, and enable more time for higher level communication and resolving difficult cases.

Whenever Matt feels overloaded by the many tasks of the job, and in a quandary of how to prioritise his time he calls to mind the advice given to him when he first commenced in the role: “the main role is to focus on the students – and everything else will fall into place.”  

“The core of why we are here is to provide access to students”.

Matt also believes it is essential to preserve and develop your own personal well-being and stress management skills. While there is a sense that Disability Practitioners want to give everything they can to the role to get the best outcomes for students it is important to remember that if they are not in a good space then they are not able to give their best.  Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is important.

Life is balanced by a number of passions and interests away from his working role.  As well as beach and bush walks, frequenting cafes and spending time tinkering in this workshop he enjoys singing. “It’s a powerful way of self-expression”. And in theme with working in the biggest TAFE and Uni, Matt is a member of the ‘biggest and best’ community choir in his local area.  The Mornington Peninsular Choir, part of the Frankston Musical Society regularly performs at community events and do 3-4 major gigs each year.

(February 2015)