Future Challenges for Disability Support Services in Australia: A Look Ahead

31 May 2023

We had the privilege of speaking with Heather Watson, an experienced Non-Executive Board Director, Chair of the Board at Uniting in NSW.ACT and valuable member of HG’s Board Set. She is a specialist charity lawyer with a wealth of experience in the non-profit sector. Heather’s expertise spans various areas, including aged care, health and community services, affordable housing, and Aboriginal communities. With an impressive background, Heather served as Non-Executive Board Director and Chair of a variety of large and complex organisations with large workforces, multiple locations, business model transitions and large property and infrastructure portfolios.

Join us as we delve into Heather’s insights on how Uniting encourages and supports its team to promote the guiding principle of inspiring people and bring it to life in their work.

Inspiring people so that everyone is valued is a guiding principle for Uniting. From a governance perspective how do you encourage and support the Uniting team to promote this principle and bring it to life in their work?

Uniting is responsible for the social Justice, community service and chaplaincy work of the Uniting Church across NSW and ACT. With more than 10,000 staff we serve and connect with more than 100,000 people across the State and Territory.  We proudly describe ourselves as a “people workplace” and it’s in this context that we value the guiding principle of Inspiring People.

Our board sees its role as setting the environment and stewarding the resources we have available and together with our executive leaders (our Uniting Leadership Team) we work to embed our values across our Board, it’s committees, our ULT and staff. We have a 10 year strategy that calls out our values and how we intend to align with these across our organisation, its activities and investments – with clear targets and measures and which supports the Board’s oversight.

Practically we want our people to be actively living the behaviours and principles through the work that we do in serving our communities. Every person across the organisation has a role to play.

We acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of our teams, recognising and appreciating that each person brings unique perspectives and contributions. We have four Diversity and Inclusion employee Networks – celebrating Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD), Aboriginal (Ngumbadal), Disability and LGBTGIQ+ which govern and implement the activities within our Diversity and inclusion strategy. We have Executive Sponsors who lead each of these networks.

We have intentional leadership and staff development frameworks – Continuous Conversations (an appraisal and monthly reflections framework that supports the assessment of team dynamics, inclusivity, and adherence to organisational values) and Uniting Leaders 360 degree program focussed on providing leaders feedback against Uniting values.

Our board and ULT gain feedback from our employees through an Employee Voice Survey – measuring engagement and participation of our workforce and how we can do better.

We have a comprehensive enterprise-wide learning and development programs – Leading with Heart and Living Values.  Board members are often involved in sharing their own leadership journey as part of these programs.

We share and celebrate client and customer stories – a significant program led by our CEO with board participation is ‘With Hearts Awards’.  The program directly links to our values recognising the great work our teams do on the ground in their communities each and every day.

All of these activities are routinely reported on through the rhythm of our board and committee agendas – and supports the board’s oversight in ensuring our commitment to Inspiring People is well evident and embedded.

How does Uniting ensure its services are accessible to People With Disability and support full participation in society

Uniting is a large employer of People With Disability (PWD) ensuring our workforce has lived experience so they can support and understand the challenges of the people we work with across all of our communities.  For example in our NDIS Local Area Coordination services, nearly 16% of our workforce have a disability helping support over 51,000 people in NSW into the Scheme.

We intentionally encourage people with disability, lived experience and carers to join the Uniting family through our attraction strategies, working in collaboration with Disability organisations and Peak bodies.

We seek the voice of PWD as we co-design our programs and services, supported by deliberately inclusive policies, and work with a range of Advisory groups who represent our customers, clients and residents.

We deliver a one of a kind Diversity & Inclusion Mentoring program where People With Disability, mentor other colleagues with Disability with particular focus on leadership development and governance capability. We are now sharing this program with other organisations outside of Uniting to encourage others to employ and support PWD

We are currently supporting some of our PWD leaders through scholarships in partnership with AICD in order to encourage participation on our diversity networks and on boards bringing to light the challenges and to incorporate a change in attitude and thinking in our society. We have training programs that aim to educate all our staff to increase their cultural awareness and understanding of disability-related issues. This helps to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for disabled individuals and improve service delivery.

Finally, we regularly assess and evaluate our services to identify areas for improvement in accessibility and inclusivity. This is done through feedback mechanisms, surveys, and engagement with individuals to understand their experiences and make necessary adjustments.

Looking ahead what are some of the key challenges, generally speaking, for disability support services in Australia

It’s important to recognise the growth in population of People With Disability in Australia – 1 in 6 people have a disability and of these numbers – 1 in 3 with profound disability.  Together with our ageing demographic, the growing number of people whose lives are impacted challenges us in how we best support them through housing, health, justice and other services

Experiences emerging from the Disability Royal Commission tell us that we, as a community, have not always responded well to this challenge and it’s important that we should be ensuring the right protections and safeguards are in place and regulated for vulnerable people.

It is also apparent that there are growing numbers of children with Autism and related conditions, and how we can support these children, families and carers with innovative new approaches is a gap.

Predictions around the prevalence of dementia across our ageing population is another future change that will require a determined response and will fundamentally require a shift in the way we organise supports for people and their families both through residential care models as well as support in their own home

In responding to all of these challenges, having a skilled workforce with the right capacity and in the numbers that we will need requires more focus and investment.

Uniting is looking forward to the outcome of the NDIS review panel later this year to see how we can together address these challenges and better understand how we support all PWD, not only those who meet eligibility into the NDIS.  We all have a role to play.

What do you see as Uniting’s role in addressing these challenges?

We have a loud advocacy voice with talented leaders and connected networks that allow us to draw on the breadth and depth of our service experience and insights. As part of the UnitingCare Australia network, we are able to draw on our collective experience.  This capacity enables us to draw attention to inequalities and emerging issues, to influence policy change and to offer practical and evidence based solutions.

We don’t work alone and routinely partner with others as it’s through collective collaboration that we can contribute to better outcomes for PWD.  This often translates into co-designing and bringing innovative solutions. We have established and participate in cross-sector partnerships and Communities of Practice that foster collaboration and information sharing between disability support services and mainstream systems

We also recognise the value of research and with research partners pursue opportunities to build a body of evidence that contributes to sector capability and offer new solutions to government.