TAFE & Adult Provision Enshrining the right to dignity in the disability sector

Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Working in the disability support sector requires compassion, a calm temperament and a keen interest in a broad range of topics, says Mambourin employee Jess Pinter.

Disability services member Jess Pinter is the sort of person who radiates compassion and drive. She’s been working in the field for 17 years and is currently based at Mambourin Enterprise’s Altona hub, having first followed a tip-off to get involved from her mum, who worked in finance in the sector. “She said, you’ve got a lot in common with the team. You’re energetic, and you are noisy. You’re a very eclectic person.”

If you’re wondering what her mum meant by that last point, Jess puts it perfectly. “The way disability services work, you’re assisting this person in living their life to the fullest, whoever they are and whatever they’re doing. And because you assist so many people, in so many different fields, and so many different priorities, you need to be able to pull off a conversation in absolutely any subject, because you need to support this person.”

It’s what keeps the job interesting, Jess says, even if it is undoubtedly challenging at times, including physically. “It’s never the same day. You can do something that worked last week, because it was so much fun, and this week it just doesn’t work. I want them to be in an environment where they’re learning and they’re engaged.”

The need for flexibility suits her approach to life. “I’m not a set-and-forget person.”

The constant battle for appropriate NDIS funding remains a significant hurdle in ensuring that everyone Jess works with has what they need to thrive. “A basic wheelchair that’s not even electric can cost you $7,000 to $10,000, and that’s the price of a small vehicle,” she says. “So when you start putting electrics on it, it can cost thousands and thousands of dollars.”

“As long as you’re compassionate and reliable, you can do the job.”

She has witnessed a lot of misunderstanding around intellectual disability, and about neurotypical people with physical disabilities, too. That’s resulted in a few hairy situations when taking clients out on trips.

“I remember, shortly after I got my qualification, I took one group on a bus and I’d given each person their fare to purchase a ticket from the driver,” Jess says. “The driver ended up yelling at me – in front of a whole busload of people – that they ought not to be on the bus.”

As demoralising as incidents like this can be, Jess is the type of person who can stand up for herself and others, and she is focused on being the best support she can be. She insists that anyone who wants to work in the industry needs to come in with open hearts and minds, a desire to learn as much as possible, and a clear idea of why they are there. “I can look at absolutely anybody and say, ‘This person deserves dignity’,” she says.

And that sometimes requires being calm and collected in a crisis. “You need to know how to make a situation safe, calm a person down, or get back to the centre as soon as possible,” Jess says. “As long as you’re compassionate and reliable, you can do the job.”

It also helps to be a union member when times are tough, Jess says, especially with the upheaval in the disability sector over the past few years. 

Just as Jess figures out the best way to support her clients, she’s found the rallying power of the AEU invaluable during difficult times.

“When times are tough, I know that I couldn’t have brought all my [co-workers] together if we didn’t have somebody to support us with union organising. Unionising is the most important thing the AEU does.”

And another thing…

The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… Compassion, and a good sense of humour. 

The most important things to leave at home are… If you’re having problems at home and you’ve got a good team around you at work, then there’s nothing you can’t bring here that we can’t help you with. I’m sure there’s something that I should leave at home, but I haven’t found it yet. 

The best advice I ever received was… Pick your role models. Find a person who is working well and figure out how they’re achieving it. 

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… To listen more than you speak. Be humble. 

My favourite teacher at school was… I had a bad time at school, but there were teachers who meant different things for me. I turned to one who told me, ‘everything’s okay, you’re doing fine,’ but I also listened to the ones who told me, ‘this is not good enough, sharpen up.’ I’ve always needed those different facets. 

The people I admire most are… Flawed. They do their best with what they have. They are not perfect. Their flaws are a challenge and they still do what they do.

The music, book or movie that changed my life was… My favourite movie was Forrest Gump. Yeah. He was an intellectually disabled man who was flawed and still kicked ass. He did some beautiful things. 

In my other life, I am… Still the girl at high school just going, “Everybody seems to do this easier.” 

If I met the disability minister, I’d tell him… Please require everybody who works with you, everybody who makes a plan, everybody who makes a decision for a person with a disability, to have met a person with a disability. To have been in the room with them.

The most important thing the union does for its members is… They rally us. And you can ring them up and they’ll help you when something is wrong. 

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