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Disability Practice in the Spotlight

The first six months in higher education

Michelle Anderson

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       Michelle Anderson


Whilst Michelle is only six months into her role as Manager Inclusion, Student Engagement Unit at UniSA, she brings over two decades of expertise as a disability practitioner within various organisations, such as the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), MS Society and Disability Employment Services.

Prior to joining the higher education sector, Michelle held a pivotal role as the Assistant Director, Service Delivery during the National Disability Insurance Scheme trial and roll out stages for the northern region of South Australia. Michelle saw this as an opportunity to make a real difference and be part of an historic time in Australia where people with disabilities would, for the first time, have real choice and control over the supports they needed. Such large scale change inevitably has its challenges and the NDIA was tasked with a mammoth job of implementing significant change at both the systemic and individual level. After two and half years Michelle felt it was time to seek a new challenge that would enable her to apply her skills and knowledge to more strategic effect.

Michelle had various roles during her ten year tenure at MS Society - she started as a HR Consultant, then went on to manage the Society’s Disability Employment Service and ultimately became the Manager of MS Assist for SA & NT where she was responsible for the development and effective management of services for people with MS and related conditions across the two states. Michelle broadened the scope of both clinical and support services provided, with a focus on person-centered planning and incorporating the voice of lived experience in the quality review and planning of services.

Earlier in her career, Michelle had the opportunity to work overseas at the Irish National Rehabilitation Board (NRB) where she gained valuable experience and insight into support models for people with psychosocial disabilities. At the time, Ireland was establishing innovative social enterprise projects with targeted EU funding and Michelle saw first-hand the positive outcomes possible for individuals with chronic, long term mental illness.

Prior to this, Michelle was proud to be part of the evolution from sheltered workshops to open employment in South Australia, working on transition projects with organisations such as Phoenix Society and Barkuma in the early 1990s.

Commencing with UniSA, Michelle already describes her role as her ‘dream job’ as it allows her to apply all of her disability skills and knowledge, and her leadership acumen to effect strategic change that will manifest into real change. And it presents some new personal challenges having never worked in the higher education sector.

Michelle works across four metropolitan and two regional campuses, and heads up a team of seven who she proudly describes as: positive, engaged and willing to embrace change. Michelle likes to challenge people’s perception of what they have always done. Generally people love working (at UniSA) and want to do the right thing, they just need to know the ‘how and what’.

Michelle is excited about the future with a young, forward thinking Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd at the helm. The VC has refocused institutional culture to position UniSA as a university of enterprise and to shape its activities to better meet the challenges of the 21st century. Michelle supports the smart marketing position of UniSA and admires how proactive they are with business and in securing partnerships to bridge the gap for graduates.

“There is a strong leadership commitment to UniSA.”

Leadership and partnership commitment is reinforced in both UniSA’s strategic plan, Horizon 2020, and as part of their Vision: 'Agility and adaptability in building and maintaining productive partnerships with industry, business and the community.’

“I need to be inspired by my leaders, to learn from others and challenge my own thoughts and assumptions.”

Michelle reflected on various leaders she has worked with, and the pertinent advice she received early in her career:

  • Be assertive and confident in offering your considered opinion or thoughts, don’t sit back and just be an observer.
  • Learn to influence others to effect positive change

Michelle would also add:

  • Accept constant change and challenge in this field - and see it as a positive!

Michelle’s advice to a more experienced practitioner would be:

  • Continue to challenge yourself, your thinking and assumptions
  • Be prepared to learn from others, and to change and adapt
  • Don’t get complacent, coasting is dangerous – actively challenge yourself to think differently, behave with integrity and adopt a growth mindset.

New to the sector, Michelle is particularly impressed with the strong network of disability practitioners in higher education - so passionate, like-minded with such a connectedness that works really well. However, Michelle suggests even more collaborative work is needed to leverage the network for the benefit of all universities. Michelle is looking forward to participating in the Pathways Conference in 2018 to build on this network.

“A stronger, united voice is more powerful.”

In terms of priorities, like many passionate Inclusion Managers, Michelle’s doesn’t like the word disability, so her immediate priority is around changing the culture of language used starting with changing titles from Disability Advisors to Inclusion and Access Advisors.

On Disability Action Plans, Michelle believes the initial plan is high level and created to get into the psyche at a strategic level: an introduction. The next level is to discover, audit and evaluate where we are at; what worked and what didn’t work; and how it is measured and reported. Michelle admits vast improvement is needed in data collection and reporting particularly on students not completing courses describing it as the missing link to be able to identify trends, and be more proactive in the services they provide.

“The first time you create a DAP is because you should do it, versus the next time is because you want to do it.”

Michelle looks forward to updating UniSA’s DAP in 2018.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we didn’t need Disability Liaison Officers and Disability Advisors… My ultimate goal is to get rid of me.”

“Where universal design is the norm not the exception.”

In her (very limited!) spare time, when not taking her two teenage sons to and from their numerous sporting commitments, you will find Michelle reinvigorating herself outside somewhere in nature, catching up with family and friends or curled up on the couch with a good book.