Disability Practice in the Spotlight
Partnerships – in working together, supporting each other, always learning & celebrating success
It’s been fifteen years since Petria McGoldrick commenced her role as a Disability Liaison Officer at the University of Wollongong.
Though it’s been a while, she can still recall her role prior to this one; she was working in occupational rehab, based in the workers’ compensation area, and also assisting people from the community with disability to fulfil their work and education goals. Clearly, disability assistance is an area she has long been passionate about.
Over her time at Wollongong, she has spent several years working in a leadership position and has watched the disability service grow from one disability advisor to a more comprehensive service, including “a full-time assistive technology support advisor, disability advisors on all eight UOW campuses, a manager and of course, many casual educational support staff.”
She’s seen a number of other changes too, including in the number of people approaching the service for assistance.
...significantly increased numbers of students coming to university who identify as having a disability
“What I’ve seen is significantly increased numbers of students coming to university who identify as having a disability – [a] steady increase in people disclosing they have a disability and an increase in the level of complexity of people’s disability.”
Petria notes that this includes students presenting with mental health issues as well.
However, she says that disability practitioners are better equipped to provide that assistance now.
“[There’s been] a significant change in assistive technology, an improvement, particularly in technology such as voice activation, [from] being involved in voice activation when I was working in my previous job and how challenging it was to get it working effectively, to now it being such a very straightforward piece of software to use,” she says.
Petria says the university sector has also improved at recognising diversity and being more inclusive – especially in the first instance, rather than what she termed a “fix things up afterwards” response.
Through her career as a disability practitioner, she has seen her fair share of Pathways conferences.
“I have been to every Pathways conference since I started in this job. And I think I would not know what to do with myself if I couldn’t get to a Pathway!” she laughs.
She hints at the stories she could tell – lots of “dance-floor stories”. But besides that, Petria says Pathways are a valuable opportunity to learn more about the sector, not just from the presentations, but from peers and colleagues as well.
Pathways are a valuable opportunity to learn more about the sector.
“I learned so much from presentations, from the people who’d been around a long time and even from the people who were new. You’d get ideas from colleagues who’d come in from other industries, who had different professional backgrounds and who had different professional approaches. We also learned from students living with disability and understanding more about the ‘big picture’.
“I also believe that in the nature of our work we can get burnt out so it is also that opportunity at Pathways to look at our own wellbeing. It’s not just about the theory, it’s about the practise. How are we going, how are we approaching the job, what do we need to do differently, how do we keep well?”
Petria added, “keeping well for me is around spending lots of time with my family, walking, movies and visiting old and new places.”
Petria says she is indebted to those mentors who came before her and provided her with advice and guidance as she navigated the complex sector of disability support in the tertiary sector, in particular Hazel England and Trevor Allen.
One of the things they taught her was to not expect, despite her professional background, that she could “just step into this job and just know how to do it straight away”.
There’s a lot to learn, and always be learning and keep on building relationships.
“It takes time. And they emphasised that to me as well. There’s a lot to learn, and always be learning and keep on building relationships,” she says.
It’s the same advice she would give newcomers today.
“[Don’t] give yourself a hard time, because this is a job that takes a lot of learning and a lot of time and a lot of asking questions. [Don’t] expect that you can be the resident expert on everything. We all have to ask each other. And know when you don’t know something and be willing to ask colleagues because everyone’s been in the same position.”
Petria says it’s also important to remember that everyone who crosses the threshold of your office is different.
“As I said, you can’t categorise people because they are such individuals, their journeys have been different. It is not a process line, they bring such a variance in their experiences and a different set of skills and opportunities to build more skills. I think that’s a good point, it’s not just saying, ‘everyone’s just the same’.”
Personally, Petria recalls a number of highlights over the past 15 years. This has included working with colleagues across the sector on consultation, professional development and community management committees and partnering with UOW academic colleagues to develop a specialised learning development program and targeted learning support for students living with ASD.
“I guess my personal highlight though would be that I received the University of Wollongong Rosemary Cooper Award in 2017, which is a diversity and inclusion award offered annually, and I was nominated and successful last year to achieve that. That was very exciting.”
.. special moments too – like watching students achieve their goals and succeed at uni.
There have been other special moments too – like watching students achieve their goals and succeed at uni.
“…slipping in the back door of graduations and watching students graduate who you know have had significant journeys to get to uni and then to achieve and then to be graduating. And it’s also sometimes seeing those students actually fulfil their career goal.
“It sometimes gets a bit exciting when you’ve got a student in your calendar and you wonder what their story is and wonder where they’re going to be. I enjoy meeting new people and the excitement and challenge of supporting them and finding out about them. Sharing in the success that they have. I often tell students, please tell us when things are going well! We can often hear when things aren’t going well but hearing the stories and seeing the success when people do go well, it’s actually the best thing we can get.”