Disability Practice in the Spotlight
Keeping VET In the Loop
Rhonda is a Head Teacher Disabilities in NSW TAFE North Coast. As someone who has always been committed to supporting students with additional needs, Rhonda initially trained as a teacher of the deaf and has qualifications in Auslan. A move to Canberra back in 1994, was the unexpected catalyst to her tertiary disability practitioner career. She took up a position in a disability support role in the TAFE there, and since then, apart from a teaching role for four years, has worked in this sector Rhonda has been in her current role since 2009.
This role means she is the main point of contact for students with disability across two campuses – Taree and Great Lakes that offer a broad range of courses from Certificate 1 up to diploma level, with a total enrolment of over 5000 students. She is also one of three specialist consultants for students with Intellectual Disability in the broader North Coast TAFE institute that is comprised of fifteen TAFE campuses. Students with other disabilities are referred specialist head teacher consultants for Blind and Vision Impaired, Deaf and Hearing Impaired and Physical disability.
“This means that I support who ever walks through the door on my campuses, and I know I can call on specialised help when I need it.”
Since joining the sector Rhonda has seen substantial growth in the increase of students disclosing mental health issues, and the use of technology. However, more recently Rhonda believes the rollout of the NDIS will really change the tertiary landscape. “It’s great to see the positive trend this is having on our enrolment numbers” said Rhonda. “Now people have a choice, and more and more they are choosing to come to TAFE to train for work.”
Some of these NDIS funded students bring their own carers with them, and don’t always come to seek disability support from the campus. While Rhonda believes this can be good if their support person is a right fit for the TAFE system there is some way to go with the interface between the NDIS and VET. The students will benefit from planning their course choice and implementing reasonable adjustments that will support their learning outcomes.
“While it’s great that sometimes people want to come to TAFE and experience mainstream programs and activities at the moment our emphasis is primarily still on training people for work” explains Rhonda. “TAFE doesn’t provide a program focusing on social activities or improving non-work related social outcomes, such as improved mental health or increased social connections.” However, Rhonda believes that developing programs to meet this need would be a brilliant step, as getting these skills is just as important as practical skills in giving people the confidence for their futures. And she believes the TAFE facilities are well equipped to easily offer both streams.
By far the biggest motivator for Rhonda in her work is seeing students’ achievements, particularly when it isn’t necessarily an easy road to success. One example she remembers well is a young man who was ‘a square peg in a round hole’ in the school system. He was on the Autism Spectrum, and had difficulties in the classroom and was an easy target for other students. So he came to an early school leavers program at TAFE instead to do a Certificate II Work & Training course where he was given more respect as an adult learner, and took more responsibility for his own learning. Consequently he gained an award for his studies.
Rhonda is also passionate about how technology can enable students to be independent, and so as a self-claimed ‘techno junkie’ aims to keep right up to date with all the advancements in this area. “But Auslan is my candy” says Rhonda. “Interpreting gives me an instant buzz, it’s knowing that by providing that service I’ve made a real difference for a student”. And she enjoys teaching Auslan to others, as well as providing Disability Awareness Training and Universal Design sessions for the teachers at her campuses.
And of course the Pathways Conferences are always a highlight, and since her first one in Adelaide some years ago she was privileged by the great experience of being on the organising committee for Pathways in Canberra in 2000 and she has notched up at least 6 in total. Rhonda firmly advocates that they are a ‘must do’ Professional Development activity for anyone in the field. For new and old staff the conferences are not only a great way to connect or reconnect with colleagues and an amazing collective body of knowledge, but also hear some inspiring speakers. One memorable speaker was Mark Bagshaw, who presented the very convincing economical case for putting resources and energy into reasonable adjustments for tertiary students. And she was impressed by Genevieve Jacobs at the last Pathways Conference who very effectively and neatly tied the whole few days together in her summary.
“While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the information and ideas on offer at the Pathways conferences my advice is to come away with three things you want to try” says Rhonda. “Some of the practices I’ve come away with over the years have included ideas for medical request formats, and Read & Write Gold”.
Rhonda suggests that engaging with disability practitioner networks is also important outside the Pathways Conferences, as a way of learning and supporting each other. “Sometimes it’s the littlest learning that can make the biggest difference” says Rhonda. She physically hosts the Beyond School Group in Taree with the local NDCO as the chair and tries to set up fortnightly meeting via Google Hangouts with other disability practitioners from the North Coast TAFE. And has recently re-engaged with ATEND.
While she feels there is often a lot of information that is more relevant for University practitioners, it is still an excellent resource for the TAFE sector, despite the state differences. “It’s OUR responsibility in the TAFE sector to make it more relevant by posting our questions, comments and concerns there”. She suggests if VET practitioners include the word ‘VET’ in the subject line this will help spark more interest in the topic.
Rhonda knows it’s a role where the learning never stops, and involves having a go to try new things. Sometimes it means making mistakes and learning from these mistakes. But her advice to new practitioners is to stick with broad policy and procedures, so if something goes amiss, at least you have these to fall back on. “And if you keep your eye on the ball of what’s ultimately in the best interest of the student you can’t go far wrong” says Rhonda.
“It’s also important for us all, experienced and new practitioners to remember to look after ourselves” advises Rhonda. “Our empathy buttons can get worn down, and if we’re not well then we can’t help others”. This might mean even in the busiest of days taking time to step away from our desks, to go outside for some fresh air, have some lunch or do some exercise. Rhonda also has a ‘meaning board’ with photos of her family and travel adventures hung behind her desk. “On those really long tiring days, or days when things don’t go to plan I can look at the board and know that I’m also working hard to be able to visit my kids or go on exciting holidays”.
One of Rhonda’s wishes is that the focus, appreciation and interest in the diversity of people with disability that bubbles up during the Paralympics every four years becomes part of our every day. And she would like to see Disability Awareness training become mandatory and the DDA strengthened with a much easier and user-friendly complaint process.
And when Rhonda is not at work she loves adding to her meaning board by travelling, bike riding, bush walking and generally keeping healthy.