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Disability Practice in the Spotlight

nicky ashfield

Nicky Ashfield

Opening big doors in a big country

After arriving in Australia from the UK in 2009, Nicky Ashfield has definitely found her niche in this big country. As the Disability Support Manager at The University of Notre Dame Australia, with responsibility for students with disability across the Fremantle and Broome Campuses, her work now spans an expanse more than double the area of her former country.

What was your background prior to the role?

Nicky’s previous role in the UK involved working in a Pupil Reintegration Unit (PRU) with students with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. She worked closely with a team of teachers, specialised teaching assistants and caseworkers to assist these students to progress back into mainstream school. Nicky found it difficult at first to secure employment in Australia, and finally secured a position as a Retail Assistant with Bunnings three months after arriving in the country. However, she did not make it to the check out. On her first day her Manager, who had reviewed her resume, offered her the role of Community Activities Organiser.

“This was a terrific job, where Bunnings provided much needed equipment and resources to local community projects such as the local ‘Men’s Sheds’, a breakfast kitchen at a local school and other community projects. Being a Bunnings team member on these projects gave her the opportunity to learn a lot about the Australian way and culture.”

Following that position Nicky worked as a Disability Employment Consultant supporting people with disability to pursue employment or study goals.

What attracted you or motivated you to take up the role?

Nicky was inspired to apply for the job at Notre Dame because it has a strong ethos of faith and values, and places the students firmly at the centre of the University.

“I was very keen to be part of an organisation that focuses on pastoral care,” Nicky said.

Three and a half years later, Nicky is still very content to be working at Notre Dame, and values the continuous commitment to improvement of the work of the Disability Office.

The University of Notre Dame Australia is a dual sector university offering both Higher Education Degrees and VET qualifications on the Broome Campus. Vocational Education and Training courses (VET) provide qualifications in their own right, and successful completion of a VET course may also provide students with pathways into Higher Education degree courses.

What are the trends/changes that you have observed over your time in the role?

Nicky’s role is constantly evolving and growing with the number of students registered for disability support increasing to approximately 500 across the Sydney, Fremantle and Broome campuses. This increase, she feels, is partly due to more students being prepared to share their personal health issues. Taking the step to request support can be difficult, however, students are willing to do this because they know they will receive a confidential approach when they seek assistance

Nicky said “It’s great to see that in the wider community there is a general reduction in stigma around mental health and disability. Because of this students are now more open when they take the decision to study.”

Nicky is also supportive of the introduction of “wellbeing projects” in the general community and, specifically, universities around Australia targeting key areas to promote mental wellbeing for students in their studies, and later in their professional practices.

What is one difference you would like to see to?

The sector?

Nicky would like all people to have a better understanding of the role of the Disability Officer and how universities generally are seeking to ensure that students with disability participate on equal terms with other students. Nicky is keen to continue to work towards a truly all-inclusive environment, where persons with disability or health issue are given a chance to study their chosen subjects.

“Being a student and having knowledge should be considered as paramount rather than a specific type of job or career path. This is one of the areas that is most challenging for everyone working in a tertiary environment”.

The Role?

Nicky finds her role rewarding and enjoys the opportunity to be able to open doors for students when they think they may be closed. “It’s a job with a can do attitude and if we can’t do it we will find a resolution. However, she also acknowledges that it is not always easy. As the Disability Support Manager, Nicky is often a person’s first point of call before they approach anyone else, so she has to be the listener, she is the thinker, the administrator and coordinator all in one.”

What motivates and energisers you in the job?

After three years in the role, Nicky is now able to gain a sense of satisfaction from seeing a new student walk through the door to final graduation. Nicky knows the challenges they have faced and the focus needed to attain their goals. “Nicky says “when that smile appears across the face of a students as they get that graduation certificate, it truly is priceless.”

Nicky did note one difference she has found between practices in Australia and the UK. In her UK roles, there was a more open collaboration within the learning support team in high schools where a specific diagnosis could be discussed openly. Because of this openness within a team of colleagues it was more cohesive and provided better support for the student. However, Nicky recognises that this type of work practice is very different in Australia. There is a bigger emphasis stressed in terms of confidentiality in an adult learning environment in all universities in Australia, generally, and following the specifics outlined in the Disability Discrimination Act and the Disability Standards for Education.

“Students appreciate that when they attend a university it is an adult learning environment and the confidentiality around a diagnosis not being revealed among all staff is very important. Because universities are not high school, students know that they are not being labelled because of a specific diagnosis. They are personally in control of their learning access plan and are the key negotiator.”

Can you remember advice given to you when you first started in the job? What was this?

In the role of the Disability Support Manager it is important to stand firm and keep asking questions. The backup from the members of TEDAN WA and ADCET has been invaluable to Nicky. “There are some excellent practitioners in the university and VET sector who will always go that extra mile to help.”

These networks give Nicky, as the sole Disability Support Manger on the Fremantle and Broome Campuses, a sense of being part of a wider team. As a delegate to one, and an organiser of another, Nicky also sees the Pathways Conferences as a great way to connect, learn and develop.

How many Pathways Conferences have you attended? Have you got any good stories that you could share? What are some of your highlights?

Nicky was a very active member of the Pathways 12 Executive Committee, which involved everything from planning the initial concept of the conference to the final finish line. Nicky said “The task list was endless but thankfully I was part of a dynamic team who worked tirelessly together to produce what I thought was a very successful outcome.”

Nicky was very proud that the conference opening cocktail party was opened by the Pro Vice Chancellor & Head of the Fremantle Campus, Professor Selma Alliex and held in the lovely courtyard setting at Notre Dame’s Fremantle campus in the historical West End of Fremantle,.

“The Pathways Conferences are a wonderful opportunity to have so many people in the one place, all committed to the goal of making sure students with any disability or medical condition get a fair go.”

Giving people ‘a fair go’ is an aspect of the Australian spirit that Nicky particularly appreciates. An aspect that respects and allows people to learn from their mistakes. Nicky considers herself now ‘ozzified’. Apart from family and friends, Nicky finds it difficult to identify anything she misses from the UK.

What do you enjoy?

Nicky enjoys walking with her two Jack Russell’s, Milly and Molly, to the lovely beaches of Warnbro and Shoalwater, swimming in her pool, photography and art.

And what else in your life gives you energy and vitality?

Nicky’s other passion is her Harley Davidson motorcycle. She tries where possible to attend local charity runs organised by likeminded people such as Bikers against Child Abuse (BACA) and Rockingham Toy Run.