TAFE & Adult Provision What next for a disability sector in crisis?

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Three disability support workers recently made redundant tell STEPHEN A RUSSELL what needs to change in their sector.

Spend 10 minutes talking to Craig Bennetts about his work as a day service disability worker at St John of God Accord in Greensborough, and his enthusiasm for the job becomes obvious. It’s a role he relished for almost two decades, until changes to NDIS funding and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic swung a scythe through the sector last year.

Formerly an AEU rep at St John’s, Craig has now joined the union as a project officer. But he misses his disability role deeply and is troubled by the sweeping effects of mass redundancies across the industry and the loss of supported group time for his valued clients. “It’s really heartbreaking, because so many participants love being in group situations and having that opportunity to socialise.”

While Craig recognised the severity of the situation last year, he says he and his colleagues were open to flexibility. “We were putting forward a lot of ideas of alternative work staff could do during this very uncertain time, and none of those ideas were really pursued.”

As he sees it, the day service offering within the sector is “on a knife’s edge”, adding that “the push to support participants in the community is a bit of a cost-saving measure, so there are no overheads like buildings, and workers use their own vehicles.”

“There’s so much change going on, and not a lot of political backlash because of lower union membership.”

He suggests providers are being forced in that direction by the federal government’s cuts to the NDIS. But he also suspects that under-representation of AEU membership across the disability sector had a knock-on effect, resulting in the industry being hit hardest by redundancies last year. “That’s my grave concern,” he says. “There’s so much change going on, and not a lot of political backlash because of lower union membership.”

Sue Adams also worked in day services at St John’s, notching up 12 years in the role with similar fervour and a keen interest in person-centred planning. “So, improving their quality of life by giving them skills, but also recreational activities that they enjoy,” she explains.

The pace at which redundancies were offered came as an “incredible shock” for Sue, especially as she had worked hard to offer solutions in her role as a union rep and Occupational Health and Safety Officer. “When COVID came along, we were planning how we can keep our clients engaged if they weren’t on-site. We kept working on it, kept brainstorming.”

Craig and Sue swung into action. “It was about getting the best amount of information and the best possible result for all the members that were going to be affected.”

Sue is now working her way through a master’s degree in disability policy and practice, plus a Cert IV training and assessing, with a view to future disability support roles and teaching at TAFE. As a parent of an adult who receives NDIS funding, she worries that the cuts will have a considerable impact. “It’s a system with great potential, and it’s worked really well for my family, but I think there’s a disconnect between what’s realistically happening and the new price guide.”

“The NDIS has addressed service delivery, but it’s not addressing the quality of the service per se.”

L–R: John Blaze, Sue Adams and Craig Bennetts. Photo credits L–R: Darren Tindale, Meredith O'Shea, Supplied.

John Blaze worked at Lower Plenty service provider Araluen Centre for over 12 years. He assisted staff in developing and implementing communication tools. “It was a lot of hands-on stuff because that’s the best way to get good practice – role-modelling it,” he says.

He relished his role as a union rep at Araluen. “I think my grandfather probably instilled in me that you’ve got to step up.”

Sadly, his role was made redundant in October last year, and he worries that the lack of NDIS funding for an equivalent service will have a severe effect on service provision. “The NDIS has addressed service delivery, but it’s not addressing the quality of the service per se. That’s where having people in my previous role is important, because it actually helped the staff to deliver a good service. And that’s going to the wayside. You’ll get speech therapists who will come in and support staff for an hour or two now, and then they’re gone. My role offered ongoing support.”

Now looking at other options, John worries that the sector will face more major hurdles, particularly in intellectual disability support provision. “When you’re working with someone with an intellectual disability, you also have to be a guardian. So, it’s a lot more complicated work and the NDIS doesn’t recognise that, never has. The support, in that regard, is not there.”

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