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A person with disability meets with their smiling support worker.

Deep Dive into…support work

Irshad Haidari has been working alongside people with disability since beginning a traineeship in 2019. Trusted to work with very vulnerable National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants in Supported Independent Living (SIL), Irshad was awarded Trainee of the Year in the 2021 South Australian Training Awards, delivered by the Government of South Australia.

However, it’s not the awards or accolades that mean the most, he says – the most rewarding part of being a support worker is the professional relationships with participants and their families.

What inspired you to join the disability sector?

Like a lot of people in our industry, I had a personal connection to someone with disability. Growing up in Pakistan, one of my friends had significant intellectual and physical disabilities. Unlike Australia, he didn’t receive financial support from the government – he was just surviving day to day as people passed by, helping him with cash.

When we arrived in Australia, I got work as a baker, but I knew I wanted to do something with people, something more fulfilling. The traineeship was a fantastic opportunity and then, as part of my traineeship, I got work with Cara in South Australia and I’ve been with them ever since.

I can’t imagine ever leaving the disability sector.

What’s the best thing about your job?

This job is the most rewarding job there is. As support workers, we get the unique opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of people with disability. You develop meaningful and lasting professional relationships with customers, and you experience a feeling of genuine accomplishment as customers get to improve their quality of life.

As support workers, we also work every day as advocates for our customers. There will be times when we head off to a restaurant and the staff will talk to us instead of the customer, especially if the people we’re supporting are non-verbal. We can gently educate staff – you can say ‘how about you talk to the customer’, or you can ask them to show the customer the menu and they’ll indicate their choice with eye-gaze or with their finger. In this way, as support workers, we ensure our customers are valued and included.

What are some of the more challenging aspects of your work?

Being a support worker requires a lot of physical, emotional, and mental fortitude. It requires a great deal of patience and empathy.

Sometimes it can be challenging to manage people’s behaviour when it’s impacted by their physical or cognitive disability. Or there can be medical emergencies to deal with, where you also need to manage your customer’s comfort and safety.

As support workers, it’s important we also take time to look after our own health as well – you need to fill your own tank, so there is more energy to give. You need to rest and look after yourself physically and mentally. Despite the challenges, the meaningful impact we have for our customers is immeasurable to us.

How can people with disability, their family and supporters form good working relationships with support workers?

It takes time to form good working relationships. We need to be able to trust each other and give each other time and space so that the support worker can get to know and understand the customer. You cannot expect a support worker to understand a customer and their family in a single shift.

The longer support workers work with you, the more they will get to understand what you want, how you feel, what your thoughts are, how to understand and prioritise your choices, and how to engage with the community.

With time and trust you can empower customers and support workers to have good working relationships and for support workers to provide quality support.

What advice do you have for someone starting out as a support worker?

If you have patience and the desire to make a change, then it’s the right pathway for you. It’s about helping others and supporting someone because it’s the right thing to do, not just because it’s part of a job.

You need to support your customer’s choices, prioritise their life, and advocate for them. It’s about what they want, not what you think is best.

To people who are looking for a rewarding job, I would say this is the best of all professions for job satisfaction.

Educate yourself about people with disability – consume media from people with disability, read stories by people with disability, find their art, and educate yourself about disability pride and the rights of people with disability.

What’s something you learned in your training that you rely on in your work at every shift?

The physical part of safely supporting clients, manual handling, is something that helped me a lot and I’m always looking to learn more and deepen my understanding.

At some recent manual handling refresher training, the facilitator asked me to act as the customer. I was on the floor and the trainer put a sling around me and transferred me from the floor to the bed. I felt how vulnerable it is to be on the floor and relying on people who you don’t know. It’s so scary, you get the feeling you’ll fall down, the risk of harming yourself and others. Some people with disability keep that fear, and inner feelings, inside them.

It really reaffirmed the importance of reassuring people, while we’re doing transfers especially, supporting them emotionally and helping them to feel safe.

What’s something surprising about being a disability support worker?

Something surprising about the profession is the significant emotional attachments that can form. In many cases, support workers spend considerable amounts of time with customers and form meaningful relationships, which lead to a sense of pride and fulfilment.

And that’s why it’s so important to maintain professional boundaries. We have to strive for a balance of compassion and professionalism. We aren’t our customers’ friends or family, we are professionals there to work, and we never take the place of friends and family.

You’re trusted to work with people who use wheelchairs and who are non-verbal. While everyone is different, what are some ways you’ve found that help communicate with people who don’t use words or their voice to talk?

It’s about getting to know the customers little by little.

Don’t expect that everything is written in the care plan. The care plan gives you the health needs, but working with customers gives you the understanding of what they want and how they want to be supported. These are things that you can only learn while working alongside a customer.

You can’t get all the skills in just one day, you have to have that desire to learn, have compassion, and get to know the people you’re supporting.

What are some of your customers’ favourite things to do?

One of the most interesting things that we both enjoy is painting on a canvas. I think it’s the colours that really engage them more with the activity.

We put some soft music on in the background, the customers choose the colours, and we support them with the painting with hand-over-hand. You can see the focus on their face, their focus is on the canvas and how the colours spread out as they are holding the brush.

We also use a lot of sensory toys. There are toys where you can record your voice and make your voice or their voice and make games out of it – the occupational therapist and the speech pathologist have used them.

If a client can’t talk, we can use their device to communicate and you can record words, a sentence, a joke, a command or request. I enjoy what the customers enjoy!

Out of the house, there are so many places to go! One of the women I support loves bowling. We encourage and cheer and we make it into a competition. Another loves shopping, even window shopping. When we go into the city and are surrounded by people, she loves the energy of the crowds. Or we’ll go into shops and help her choose dresses and nail polish.

Going to the pool is another thing. While sometimes it can be challenging with noise, swimming has made such a positive impact on their bodies and their lives. You can see how it helps them to stretch out, and afterwards you can see how relaxed they are as they go home ready for a nap.

What do you love doing in your time off work?

Last year I went back to Pakistan and got married! I spent three months there, but it was so short – I’m going back again this year. My brother also got married at the same time, so my whole family was there. We had such a great time.

Now, my wife is sharing my day-to-day – my problems or stresses, and my excitement. I can tell her anything and it eases my mind. We have started the immigration process for her to move to South Australia, but it takes time.

I still do a bit of hip-hop dancing, but less these days because I spend more time talking to my partner and planning our life ahead.

You were named the Trainee of the Year at the South Australian Training Awards in 2021. What was the experience like, especially the opportunity to shine a light on the career opportunities in the disability sector?

I still remember the night of the award ceremony, sitting in the crowd after we had all received our finalist certificates. I thought, ‘we made it here, it’s a great achievement’. There were so many good candidates in the room, I thought I didn’t have a chance.

Then, when they announced my name, my heart went from the ground to the roof! It will be one of the best memories of my life.

Since then, I’ve had many people approach me for advice about working in the disability sector. People listen to you and take advice from you, which is a great thing. Now I’ve got four years’ experience in the industry, as well as my traineeship and the award, and it gives more words to the people around me.
I’ve convinced my brother to get into the disability sector as well. He did a traineeship and he is working for another provider. I’m like a one-man recruitment agency for the disability sector!

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

I’m studying my Diploma of Community Services, and in the future I would like to work in more leadership roles, but I don’t want to completely stop working on the floor as a support worker, I want to do a few shifts every fortnight supporting customers.

There’s wide scope in this course with what you can do – you can be a case manager, you can be a service manager, an advocate, or you can even become a support coordinator.

I do see myself in a leadership role, but I don’t know where. But I’m sticking with working in the disability industry, for sure. It’s the most rewarding sector in the world and I always want to be able to be an advocate for people with disability.

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My Plan Manager acknowledges the objectives of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

My Plan Manager acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia, and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to them and their cultures, and to Elders both past and present.
© My Plan Manager 2020
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