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Practice Spotlight

Using lived experience to transform culture, learning and experience

DAWN steering committee standing in front of University of Sydney building.

DAWN Steering Committee leaders: Charles Humblet (Co-Chair), Vicki-Anh Winfield (Co-Chair), Dan Smith, David Oosthuizen, Emma Carberry, Maggie Coccione, Martin Raffaele, Nicole Wedgewood, Rohan Miller, Sue-Ellen Simic (Secretariat)

The lived experience of staff is being put to use for the benefit of the whole academic community at the University of Sydney.

It’s thanks to the passion and dedication of the volunteers behind the Disability At Work Network (DAWN), which was established in 2014 by the University’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan, to help people with disability to feel like they were part of the university community.

That includes not just students, but staff with disability as well.

Being such a large university, co-chair of DAWN, Vicki-Anh Winfield said there was a danger that some staff with disability would feel lonely in their teams. But since its inception DAWN has flourished into a network of over 361 members, all connected through shared experience – “quite a lot of people with disability all in one place”, Vicki remarked.

DAWN is dual purpose: it runs social events to foster a sense of belonging among members, as well as educational events to broaden the perspectives of staff without disability at the University.

“A lot of the work that we’ve been doing as staff is sharing our lived experience to increase inclusion for our staff communities, but also to give people more of an understanding of what disability is so that when they’re teaching students with disabilities, they’ve got a little bit more of an informed picture,” she explained.

Lived experience is central to DAWN’s purpose and activities.

One of DAWN’s key activities is to provide lived experience consultation on University projects.

A major source of pride, according to Vicki-Anh, is that DAWN members were recently given the opportunity to contribute to the university’s 2032 strategy.

“We really wanted disability to be on the agenda for that and we were successful,” she said.

“It’s one of our 2032 aspirations to be a University “where our community thrives through diversity”, so we were really excited to be an active part of the consultation process and pleased that the Strategy team took our feedback on board.”

DAWN is a diverse group that takes in people with physical disability, sensory disability, cognitive and mental health conditions, and chronic illnesses.

Having such a breadth of lived experience to share means the group can consult widely with university stakeholders depending on the project, offering tailored and personal experience in each case.

Vicki-Anh said DAWN is currently working on encouraging stakeholders to consider their project and the type of access requirements they’d like to receive advice on. When advice is not acted on, DAWN asks why, in order to bring value to the DAWN volunteers who so bravely shared their experiences in the consultation.

DAWN occupies a unique place in the University in that while it contributes to its Disability Action Plan (DAP) – specifically to the objective to increase the number of staff and students with disability – it is not responsible or accountable for the DAP’s implementation or achievement.

Rather, DAWN is an independently run network of staff, with its own steering committee comprising seven leaders and two co-chairs. The network also has an executive sponsor who can provide support from the University itself.

It interacts with the student disability club, involving its representatives in some of DAWN’s events and providing informal mentoring for the student society.

A particular focus for DAWN, Vicki-Anh said, is to make “people realise that disability inclusion is the right and responsibility of every single one of us”.

“Too often we think it's the role of disability services or it's somebody else's job to make something accessible, but it's actually all of our jobs to do that as part of creating an inclusive community.”

One of the things DAWN stated in its submission to the University’s 2032 strategy is that it wants to “change the negative connotations of disability”, writing: ‘Disability is not shame. Disability is not a deficit. Disability is not a secret. Disability is experience, belonging and imagination’.

She is confident that’s an achievable future; already, many researchers and educators at the University are “homing in” on disability excellence, while a number of researchers are using their lived experiences in their PhDs and theses. Some DAWN members are incorporating assistive technology into their lectures, exposing students not just to different ways of learning, but also different ways of teaching and working. Other members are embedding their lived experience of disability directly into the curriculum for Foundations of Physiotherapy and the Masters of Rehabilitation Counselling so that students will graduate with a better understanding of the patient perspective.

“I think that's probably our future; how can we change what the word disability means so that it's a more accurate representation of what people with disability think it means, rather than just a word that's thrust upon us,” Vicki-Anh said.

She said the reaction across the University to DAWN’s efforts has been mixed.

“Some people still don’t want to talk about disability… it feels a little bit risky, I guess, to talk about disability in the workplace,” she explained.

But despite this, as DAWN has grown and as more and more staff have shared their stories, the culture across the University has become safer and more comfortable for people with disability.

Those responsible for creating inclusion at the University of Sydney have also supported DAWN for its wealth of lived experience.

One thing that draws all those involved in DAWN together is their passion for creating a more inclusive community.

“We have people who really just want change and they see that sharing their lived experience is a way to create that change,” Vicki-Anh explained.

DAWN is structured so that members never share their lived experience alone; rather, they always do it in a group. This provides catharsis and camaraderie, Vicki-Anh said.

“One of our main priorities is about creating a sense of belonging.”

Keeping this mission in sight means sometimes, DAWN pushes back if too many activities or actions are asked of the group.

“We do push back things that we think would compromise our staff’s sense of belonging, because that’s the most important thing really, that social capital between the members,” she added.

The network has only gotten busier over time, pioneering new initiatives across the University aimed at enhancing access, awareness and inclusion.

In 2022 the group launched a peer mentoring program with two streams: one for general network support, and another specifically focused on career progression. Both have been effective so far, Vicki-Anh said.  

DAWN’s lived experience workshops, events and bespoke learning activities focus on supporting people with disability to feel positive about themselves and their disability, giving a little confidence boost and creating positive self-identity.

In late 2022, the group was recognised by the Disability Leadership Institute for its work, receiving the National Award for Disability Leadership in the Innovation category. 

“We’re so chuffed,” Vicki-Anh said of the award.

“We’re all volunteers so it’s wonderful to be recognised on a national level.”

Written by: Danielle Kutchel

January 2023