Over four million Australians (one in five people) have some form of disability. Yet for a sector that’s so important to the livelihood of these Aussies, the disability services sector often struggles to attract and retain good staff.
We spoke with Wayne Zahra, Regional Manager and Senior Specialist Psychologist at Disability Services Australia (DSA), as he described a typical day in his working life, as well as his predictions on how the industry will evolve in the coming years.
Checkpoint: How did you get into the disability sector? Was it a conscious decision at a young age or did you fall into it later in life?
Wayne Zahra: I transitioned from university into the disability sector through a university friend. The NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) required a temporary three-month position to reduce the waiting list for psychological/behaviour manager services.
I ended up spending seven years with FACS and worked in a number of psychological positions, working my way up through to management positions. I then moved into the non-government sector and have spent three years in my current position at DSA.
Checkpoint: What’s involved in a typical day on the job?
Wayne Zahra: No two days are the same. My schedule is fast-paced, involving leadership and management of my region. My day might include:
• Customers: Visiting our residential programs where our customers live so I can talk to them about what they have been achieving. We also have a small number of customers who attend our office weekly, so I can talk to them face-to-face and discuss their needs.
• Operations meetings: Discussing onboarding of new customers, recruitment of new staff, resources management, financial management and supervision of senior regional management staff.
• Organisational: Writing/reviewing policies, overseeing the region to meet quality standards, identifying gaps and implementing continuous improvement plans.
• Strategic meetings: Covering business planning, financial forecasting and tendering for new business.
• External stakeholders: Regular meetings with the National Disability Insurance Agency (the agency implementing the National Disability Insurance Scheme), FACS and Corrective Services NSW. Attending roundtable discussions about the current gaps in service delivery – from a service-provider perspective – to influence funding.
• Recruitment: Writing job descriptions and interviewing for senior positions.
“The best aspect of my role is knowing that I have made a difference in the life of a person with a disability. Also hearing the good news stories where a person with a disability has been able to achieve their goal and have a better quality of life as a direct result of our efforts.”
Checkpoint: What are the main challenges of working in disability services?
Wayne Zahra: One ongoing challenge is the change management for the transition of funding from NSW FACS and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA).
The three key challenges of the NDIA model are:
1. Pricing: The price per hour is too low.
2. Timing: Plan development and plan reviews take a significant amount of time to be received by service providers.
3. Payment: Significant delays in receiving Supported Independent Living (SIL) funding for group homes.
Another major challenge is recruiting skilled staff to work with our customers. There is a significant shortage of staff with the required skills to support people with complex needs.
Checkpoint: Is the support provided by the government and elsewhere adequate?
Wayne Zahra: The support from the NSW government is reducing as they are now focused on transitioning customers to the NDIA.
Both the state and federal governments are seeking support from service providers to build a system that works for all concerned. This is done either through roundtables to share a service provider’s point of view, or to provide services to people with complex behaviours of concern who are having challenges in finding appropriate support.
DSA has developed an outcomes based reputation for our expertise in supporting people with a disability who have complex and specific care needs such as behaviour, medical and trauma informed care. For example, I am currently working with the NSW government and NDIA on a potential new customer, where 27 other NGO disability service providers have refused to provide support to this person.
Checkpoint: What does the future of the industry look like?
Wayne Zahra: The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has a huge amount of funding coming into the sector, which will support people with a disability to have greater choice and control over their lives. It should also help them better integrate with their communities and the workforce.
Service providers are being encouraged to be innovative in their service offerings, and the opportunities for diversity and flexibility for people working in the sector are huge.
Checkpoint: How has technology improved the sector?
Wayne Zahra: For people with a disability, technology has allowed them to communicate through augmented and alternative communication software, which has significantly improved their quality of life.
For disability workers, the smartphone has allowed them to explore more options in service delivery. You have access to so much information and, importantly, it has reduced some of the barriers to service provision. The ability to search for information, access maps for travel and download apps to meet the specific needs of a person with a disability is incredibly useful.
Checkpoint: What can people expect in the near future for the NDIS?
Wayne Zahra: There’s a quote about the NDIS from 2014 that still rings true: “It’s like a plane that took off before it had been fully built, and it’s being completed while it is in the air.”
Unfortunately, the plane is still being built – and still has a long way to go. We have faith that the NDIS will eventually become the world’s leading disability support system but it will need a couple of years to overcome the implementation issues the sector is experiencing.
Checkpoint: What advice would you give someone interested in joining the disability services?
Wayne Zahra: This is a sector where you can have real job satisfaction. There are challenges, but the positives far outweigh them. You can go home at the end of the day knowing you have made a difference.
No two days are the same, and every person with a disability is an individual with different motivations, interests and attitudes. You can make a significant impact on the lives of people with a disability.
Checkpoint: What’s something people would find surprising about the industry?
Wayne Zahra: I think people would find the diversity of work options surprising – there is a real shift away from the traditional carer role to more of a mentoring role where you support a person to set goals, make choices and experience the joy of achievement.
There’s no denying the work can be challenging at times, but you can also get involved in a lot of fun and rewarding activities. You get a significant amount of enjoyment and personal satisfaction when a person you are working with achieves their goals.