TAFE & Adult Provision Taking care of the carers in disability

Steven Cassar is the AEU rep and an educator at Onemda, a day service providing education and recreation for people with intellectual disabilities. He primarily teaches woodwork, gardening, and cooking – skills that can then be used to seek employment. 

Talking about the day-to-day running of the service, Steven explains that it’s a bit like a high school, with seven different homerooms getting together every morning, where participants plan and prepare for the day’s activities. “Then the participants will go to a variety of activities, where they will spend the day, have lunch there, and come back at the end of the day for half an hour of homeroom.”

As well as running the education program, Steven says, “you also have personal care stuff you need to do. We are trained to do PEG feed for people who can’t eat – through a tube that goes straight into their stomach. We have people in wheelchairs, so we are doing a lot of hoisting and changing for them. So, you are juggling the personal care and educational stuff.”

This juggle keeps staff busy – and, on top of that, there are sometimes situations where participants become hostile. “We have people who get verbally and physically aggressive towards other participants and towards staff… every day or two you have something going on. You have procedures, as best as you can.”

There has been a high staff turnover in the past few years, which adds to the strain. While Steven speaks with passion about his work, he adds that it’s not a job for everyone. “Some people come into it with all the best intentions and it’s not for them. The pay’s not awful. But it’s not the highest paying job, given what you need to put up with – if you’re getting assaulted at work, you’d want to get paid a decent amount!”

“The people who do this job tend to be the caring type who don’t fight for the benefits we should be entitled to.”

Steven has worked at Onemda for 20 years and he’s seen a lot of change in that time, including the gradual erosion of working conditions. “The NDIS has made it harder. Basically, there’s a lot more tightening of the work budget because there’s not the funding there used to be. There’s a lot, lot, lot more paperwork. We have had to employ a heap of people just to do admin stuff, and it’s filtered down to educators, too. We are having to do a lot of paperwork and reporting to fulfil the requirements of the NDIS.”

The physical and mental pressures of the job can be taxing. Steven says that there is a counselling service if there’s ever a major assault – but, mostly, “it’s just part of your job,” Steven says. “I’m the father of three kids, and when you use up all your patience at work it’s hard to then come home and be patient with your kids – but you have to make sure you switch it all off when you walk out the gate.”

Steven “stumbled into” the role. Employed as an animal keeper and scuba instructor, he found himself regularly working with people with disabilities. He says those roles helped him learn how to interpret body language and movement, and the differing ways people signpost their wants and needs – very useful skills to have when working with people with limited verbal capabilities.

He started volunteering with disability provider Yooralla, who soon offered him a job. Eighteen months later, he moved across to Onemda, where he’s worked ever since.

Steven has been an AEU member for close to 20 years, and the rep for 15. Generally, he says, being the rep isn’t an onerous task in his workplace.

“Onemda is relatively good as an employer. I’ve had to sit in on resolution-type issues for one or two staff members. A lot of the issues are staff querying their entitlements. Sometimes I refer them onto the union, or if I can already answer questions around pay and workers’ rights then I do,” he says.

“Whenever there’s new staff starting, when I meet them, I will let them know I’m the union rep and if they need any support, I’ll help them out.”

“It’s when you get one of the participants achieving a goal that might have taken two years of developing, and you finally crack it. I see someone and think: ten years ago, you couldn’t do that – and now you can!”

Recently, Steven has been involved in bargaining towards a new workplace agreement. “Over the past six months we’ve been negotiating our EBA, so I have been sitting in on those meetings, giving staff input on what’s going on and then relaying information back to members.”

He explains that there are three big-ticket items they are currently negotiating for. “At the moment, we get six weeks annual leave and Onemda are trying to drop that down to four weeks with no real pay-off, which no one is really happy about. So, there’s been a big push for retaining our six weeks.

Onemda also sought to cut employees’ 15 days of sick leave to 10. “But those 15 days are very necessary,” Steven says. Working in the disability sector still involves mandatory COVID restrictions – so, if they contract the virus, they have to take a week off. “If you get COVID twice in a year, that alone uses up the sick leave. And we are trying to get an increase in pay. They are the three main sticking points.”

As a rep, he speaks up for people who might not otherwise want to cause a fuss. “The people who do this job tend to be the caring type who don’t fight for the benefits we should be entitled to,” Steven says.

Current constraints caused by a lack of funding mean that it can be harder to run programs and activities, he adds. For example, “now we have limitations on how far we can travel in the vehicles because it’s all down to the funding. It was easier back in the old days.”

Nevertheless, there are some long-term rewards. “Unlike teachers – who see outcomes in weeks, months, or by the end of the year – some of our goals take years to achieve,” Steven says. “It’s when you get one of the participants achieving a goal that might have taken two years to develop, and you finally crack it. I see someone and think: ten years ago, you couldn’t do that – and now you can!”

And another thing…

The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… a positive attitude and a lot of patience.

The most important things to leave at home… impatience and a glass-half-empty attitude.

The best advice I ever received was… always be prepared for the unexpected as you never know how your day will turn out.

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… It may be very daunting and challenging at first, but if you take the time to get to know the kids you’re working with, you’re halfway there.

My favourite teacher at school was… my Grade 3 and 6 teacher, Paul Hartin. He probably thinks I was the troublemaker, but he took the time to work with me and steer me in the right direction. He influenced a lot of choices I made later in life.

The people I admire most are… the parents of the kids I work with. The love and commitment they show every day to their kids deserves the utmost respect.

The music or book that changed my life was… I love anything by the author Terry Pratchett. He was my introduction to fantasy novels, and his books amaze me with how detailed someone’s imagination can be.

In my other life… I love my kids, animals, and old cars.

If I met the minister for disability… I would explain the social and financial benefits of group-based services for people with a disability. I would also question the increasing working demands compared to the reduction in staff benefits.

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