Disability Practice in the Spotlight
Why My Job is Great
In our sector we are very good at identifying what needs to change, but often don’t have the time or the resources to make it happen. Since 2011, Shelley Odewahn, a Project Officer in Student Access & Inclusion at Southern Cross University (SCU) has been responsible for developing initiatives to address these gaps. The broad scope of her role gives her the freedom to creatively work on strategies to increase the access and participation of people with disability in higher education. “It’s the greatest job in the world” says Shelley.
Working in student administration roles at SCU since July 2000 before taking on the Project Officer has been highly valuable experience for Shelley, providing a sound internal network and operational knowledge which underpins much of the work she now does in access and inclusion. Despite her love and enthusiasm of her new found career path, she readily admits that working in the disability sector wasn’t something she had ever considered before being offered the position.
"Not many people set out to work in disability services, it’s not a typical career goal. But once you’re there that’s it! It touches and changes you in a meaningful way”.
She is currently working on a project to support the transition to university of students with disability, an idea inspired by a Keynote address at her first Pathways conference. “The transition from adolescence to adulthood can be difficult for everyone, but for young people with disability, a whole array of additional challenges can be experienced” suggests Shelley. In developing her approach to the transition program she co-facilitated, with a current SCU student with a disability, a series of focus groups with young people with disability who were in their final years of high school, with somewhat surprising results. “What I found when speaking with these young people was that although many of them were registered with their school as having a disability, many didn’t actually identify with the label” said Shelley. This meant they were unfamiliar with how to describe it, how to define it, the relationships they had with it, the impact it has on their learning, and how to best access the support services which would enable their equal participation once they moved into higher education.
Building on this youth consultation process, a working party of key internal and external stakeholders, including local disability service providers, was established and an extensive review of relevant literature completed to ensure that the program is collaboratively designed and founded in evidence based practice.
Shelley aims to have the first intake into the program in late 2017. Working with others to understand the needs and how to best address these is enabling her to hopefully have the program to “be as awesome in reality as it is my head”
Project work means once a program is up and running, Shelley can move on to the next idea and initiative. As a person with many ideas, she admits she sometimes finds it a challenge to rein the ideas in, however her experience has taught her how to overcome this and ensure the successful adoption of projects within the University. Firstly she has found that you need to develop and refine your ideas before you take it out to others. It’s important to know your audience, what they may be uncertain about, and any possible objections, and be prepared not to take no for an answer. Also, never underestimate the power of networking, the more people across the university who support your initiative the greater your chance of successful implementation.
Her other advice to others is always think outside the box. If it’s not working look at what you are doing now and don’t do it that way. “Stop rehashing – especially if it’s not working” she suggests. “And read lots – legislation, journal articles and books. Disability is such a diverse and individualised experience that you can never know enough.”
Shelley has found it’s also important to network and draw on others outside the University, and advises people to join their local disability network, go along to interagency groups and keep up with ADCET.
She hopes that disability services don’t lose sight of the fundamental human services aspect of the work. There is danger that it can be heading for an administrative check box approach rather than considering each student on an individual case-by-case basis.
Outside of work, besides getting “tortured once a week by a fitness personal trainer”, she has just completed a Graduate Certificate in Disability Inclusion that she plans to extend to a Masters degree. And last but by no means least, she is kept busy with her two delightful young daughters.