Disability Practitioner in the Spotlight
Quenching a thirst for knowledge every day
After years in the allied health, bio-medical and corporate services industries, undertaking a VET Horticulture course to change careers opened up the opportunity for a perfect career for Shaun. As the Disability Coordinator for Bendigo TAFE, Shaun works across five campuses and multiple correction services in Regional Victoria. It is a very busy job, and he has never known a job where there is so much to learn. “Assume you don’t know anything, everyone is different, their experience is different, and their backgrounds are different”. Fortunately he has a thirst and passion for knowledge, for learning through new and challenging situations, and for making a positive difference in the lives of many students and potential students. After six years in the job he knows that he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
Shaun is able to use his strengths as a multi-tasker to manage many complex tasks simultaneously. This incorporates balancing the direct support provided to students with disability and mental health conditions, with universal design issues, policy, budgeting and managing a team of ten support workers. He also needs to know about teaching of adults (Andragogy), assistive technology, criminal justice, medical conditions, and psychology. “This is one of the few roles I have encountered where it is advantageous to be interested in EVERYTHING”. In a small regional institute the Disability Practitioner doesn’t need to be a specialist in a single area but has to be across many different issues. “It is vital to know and connect with the agencies in my community so I know how to find and refer to specialists when I need to”.
Trust is an important element in developing and maintaining networks. Being interested in what they do, and being clear on your framework of operating helps to build this trust. This can also mean being willing to learn from mistakes and committed to fixing them when they happen. “As long as student outcomes is always the underlying principle, then everything works.”
This principle is also important to work within an institute. Shaun works with a small team of three, with a youth worker and an apprenticeship support worker. They all know each other’s strengths, skills and expertise and use these to support their students and each other.
As a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Shaun knows firsthand the importance of focusing on strengths and abilities. His ASD allows him to relate to and connect with students with ASD. “I work with many young males who have a diagnosis but who don’t really understand what it means for them”. “Their brain can be adept at handling multiple stream data, and often it switches off when it hasn’t got enough input. Sometimes in class they need to wait for others to catch up – their brain is on standby, but it can take a while to reboot again. This stopping and starting doesn’t work for people with ASD, rather you need to keep them alert and focused by engaging their interest”.
Not only does Shaun see his ASD as an advantage in the role, but also his diverse employment and study background, as well as is love of the job. “I come to work because I want to, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else”. He uses this motivation to find out what students enjoy, and uses that as a leverage point for career planning.
During his time as a Disability Practitioner, he has observed an increase in mental health conditions amongst the student population. This has come at a time when the VET sector has lost some of the student centre focus, which can disadvantage the most vulnerable students, such as those with mental health conditions. Whilst the stigma around mental health is getting better, and most staff want to do something to assist there is a lack of knowledge and confidence in what to do. Shaun is therefore a strong advocate of staff undertaking Mental Health First Aid courses. He also knows that if students don’t disclose their condition to teaching staff that at least a confidential disclosure to Disability Services provides a safety net for them. “I see many students with complex mental health issues, and drug and alcohol issues and it is great that they are reaching out for some support”.
Working for a regional TAFE it can be difficult to separate work from non-work life. The Bendigo TAFE is a central hub in the community and many people have studied at the institution. This means that Shaun often meets clients at the shopping centre on a Sunday or gets calls out of hours. “I have to make it clear to people that I have work hours and non-work hours”. But the positive side of this is when someone he worked with years ago saying ‘Hi’ in the street because they remembered him and the assistance he provided.
Shaun also manages his self-care by accessing an external clinical supervisor. And he understands the importance of being kind to himself. In undertaking a role that is driven by values there are times when everything is still not enough. “There is no manual for this job, you don’t have to know everything – Be kind to yourself”. In a job where every day is different, there is always something new, let “everything that comes in teach you something – you just have to open your eyes.”
Connecting with and learning from peers is also essential. As the Convenor of the TAFE Disability Network in Victoria he has been instrumental in arranging professional development for the sector. As well as meeting six times a year the peer network supports each other by emails. In this way they can share what they do, what works, and what hasn’t work.
The underlying principles that drives Shaun in his work also flow to his free time, where his thirst for knowledge and learning from others motivates him to new challenges. He is an avid hobby farmer, and he and his partner are in the process of purchasing a small but established olive plantation and olive press processing plant.
They also have a love of vintage Austin cars, and currently own nine from the 1921-1959 era. His work on cars provides a counterbalance from work. “Cars are something you can fix, you can mostly get clarity and resolve the issues, whereas people’s issues can be much more complex and not so easy to resolve.” But saying that Shaun is ultimately motivated by the look he gets from people when he says “I don’t know the answer – but let’s work it out together.”