TAFE & Adult Provision Significant returns

Photo: Meredith O'Shea

There are big rewards – and many challenges – for those working in the disability sector and for their clients. LOUISE SWINN speaks to a member teaching in the field.

Working with people with disability has its challenges, but the rewards are great, as teacher Michelle McCann knows well. “People who come into the profession say they never thought they’d love it as much as they do. Some of the job is very difficult but, even then, people feel like they are contributing to somebody’s enjoyment of their own life.”

Michelle teaches the Certificate IV in Disability and the Advanced Diploma in Community Sector Management at RMIT. She has been teaching for five years and was an AEU member from day one. “It was one of the first pieces of paper I signed. I grew up with a family where, first thing they said [when I started working] was, ‘You’ve got to join the union’.” 

She has been teaching across community services, disability, aged care, and youth work for 20 years, and is a strong advocate for the NDIS. “The NDIS has been great, but the industrial side of it is stuffed,” Michelle says, explaining that she sees too many new workers coming into the sector without the level of quality training she received. 

“Some of the job is very difficult but, even then, people feel like they are contributing to somebody’s enjoyment of their own life.”

“There are things I used to do that they can’t do anymore. They aren’t funded to go out [with their clients]; they are just doing in-house stuff, whereas I would be out taking them to the pool or shopping. They also aren’t involved in the developing of plans, just the implementation – and that’s a real de-skilling.”

Right now, one of the critical aspects that needs to be addressed is the issue of disability workers’ short employment hours, says Michelle. “They get an hour shift, they drive there, and then another shift two hours later.” Workers are not being paid for the time in between, though they are effectively unable to do anything but prepare for the next shift.

With previous experience as an organiser in other unions, Michelle is well suited to the AEU rep role. “Because I’ve seen how it works, I feel comfortable in the room. I know that negotiations go through phases. I used to get annoyed because processes were slow, but now I bring the knowledge and experience to the negotiations and don’t get frustrated as quickly.

“I studied recently, and one of the subjects I did was dispute resolution, negotiation, and mediation – so I know what they’re really saying. I’m hearing with different ears.”

Being a teacher, too, means that she finds it easy to quickly build rapport. “I also understand that to get someone to sign up – unless they are a built-in unionist – it’s going to take a few conversations. They need to see what it means for them and see that I am trustworthy. It doesn’t faze me as much as when I was younger.”

The findings of the Disability Royal Commission – which showed that people with disability continue to experience high rates of violence, neglect and exploitation – did not surprise Michelle, as she knows the issues people with disability face, but she found the statistics and stories horrifying, nonetheless.

“We can fix buildings, put ramps in, make tram stops accessible, but there’s no use doing it if the rest of the community is not including people.”

She thinks a great deal about the challenges confronting her sector, and says the report’s recommendation of closing of special schools has been a big discusssion point. While she personally believes this step could help with inclusion, it would turn the whole education system “upside down”, she says, stressing the importance of proper safety measures for students with disability. “You’re going to need specialists in schools, working with kids. The government would have to find the money for that.”

However, the biggest barrier for people with disability, Michelle contends, is community attitudes. “We can fix buildings, put ramps in, make tram stops accessible, but there’s no use doing it if the rest of the community is not inclusive. Less than 30% of people with a disability are employed, and a whole lot more of them could actually work.”

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