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 Disability Practice in the Spotlight

A son-inspired journey 

Sue Hancock
Photo: Sue Hancock

Sue Hancock, an Access and Success Officer with the ANU has a great knowledge of transition for students with disability across the education span, as she has worked in primary, secondary and now the tertiary sector. “I know the issues faced within and between each level, and this understanding gives my current work an added edge, and I love to see students across their educational journey”.

However she started her career as a secretary, and was recognised as ACT Secretary of the year in 1993. Then when her eldest son was diagnosed with ASD her priorities changed in life. “I became more and more interested in additional education needs in schools, and less and less interested in my job”. She was still working part-time but was spending all the hours she could spare volunteering at her son’s primary school. She then landed a paid job at the school and from then there was “no turning back”. She loved the new role and took up all the professional development – training, learning, researching and using new resources - that she could.

Sue progressed to working in a number of schools, teaching social skills, and literacy and numeracy. By then her son was in the last years of high school and was considering his post-school options. Sue then became more interested in the tertiary sector. At the same time ANU were experiencing high enrolments of students with ASD and were keen to employ someone with experience in this area. Her training in this area, and lived experience as a parent made her the perfect candidate.

She started four years ago as a Disability Adviser, since then units within the University have merged and her current role is an Access and Success Officer within a larger Division of Student Life. Her roles have given her the opportunity to work in a number of innovative projects, such as ‘Get Up & Go’, a program for students that focused on regular health walking and building connections with others. Sue was also involved in getting the Participant Assistant Program established, a program that provides a student mentor to students with ASD.

Currently she is part of the organising team for the Pathways Conference to be held in Canberra later this year. “It’s so exciting being able to plan the conference, we have lots of exciting ideas to make it a memorable event, providing for some great networking and socialising, as well as practical practitioner tools.”

“I know how valuable the Pathways Conferences are. When I went to my first Pathways in Adelaide I was only six months in the role, and it was great to see some of the more experienced Disability Advisers, those who had been in the role for 10 years plus, still asking questions and seeking advice. I was so impressed with the culture of openness and enquiry”.

And can Sue give away any secrets for the Canberra Pathways? “I can say we have a great plan to take the opportunity to showcase our local food and drink and we have secured some excellent speakers including Drisana Levitzke-Gray, Young Australian of the Year 2015 and deaf advocate, award winning author Jackie French and disability advocate Sue Salthouse whose advocacy has included leading roles with Women with Disabilities ACT and Australia. We will also be featuring a facilitated discussion on inherent requirements. We also have exciting plans for the pre-conference workshops. Some of the feedback from previous conferences is ‘why don’t the local Unis and TAFEs open their doors – we would love to look around and see what they do’. So this will be happening. Attendees will get the opportunity to visit the ANU, University of Canberra, and the Canberra Institute of Technology. “But numbers will be limited (to how many will fit on the bus) so keep an eye out for it and book in early”.

Sue’s previous secretarial skills have come in handy for the conference organising. They have also helped her design and develop efficient administrative processes and resources in the daily tasks of her role. “If I write an important email that I’ve had to word carefully I will save it so I can have a great template for the next one. There is so much to this role, so ‘clever admin’ means I can have more time to spend with students”.

As a new Disability Advisor Sue was advised to ‘justify your adjustments’. This has helped her question what she offers and provides. She would pass this on to new practitioners, as well as the importance of excellent record keeping. “It values the students if you can have records to remind you what was covered in your last contact with them”.

“And as a people person, I love spending time with the students”. She knows that students appreciate someone who can take the time to listen and value their story. “Often just by listening you can make a big difference in student’s lives”. “I’m also a bit of a ‘go-to person, and if I don’t know the answers I’ll find who does”. It is also important to not just ask about their studies, but find out what else is impacting on their life as a student. “I also always ask students what their action plan is so we can help them maximise their opportunity to do their best and succeed in their studies”.

Sue is excited about the approach they are taking to look at student’s strengths and innate talents. Students take a 40 minutes survey that outlines their top 5 talents. It turns conversations around to focus on capacity, not weaknesses. It changes the dialogue. “I’ve never thought to think about my strengths – it’s always been about my weaknesses”.

She was also pleased to be part of the Steering committee responsible for developing the resource How to transition to Tertiary Education: Helpful Hints for People with Autism spectrum Disorder. “It was fantastic to be part of this team as it is such a valuable resource, I give it out all the time to parents and students.”

Sue applies her boundless energy and commitment to making a difference in the lives of people outside her work at Uni as well. She volunteers for Vinnies night patrol once a month, manages to get to the gym a couple of times a week and spends valuable time with her family. And the secret to her energy? Perhaps it is starting each day with a 20 minute meditation, followed by the zest provided by a smoothie made with her brilliant Nutra Bullet.