North West Disability Services - Deborah Mills OAM


Interviewee: Deborah Mills OAM, born 1954

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 11 March 2009

Transcription: Glenys Murray, March 2009

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

Now when you came to Sydney I guess you were looking for work? What sort of work did you find?

Looking for something that was close to home because I’d never driven in the city before and I was quite worried about driving in the city traffic. I applied for three jobs. I had gone back to university and had studied Bachelor of Social Sciences while I was still in the country. Really wanted to work in welfare I’d been in the Commonwealth Bank for over fifteen years at that stage. Before I’d left the country I was working with neighbourhood centres and teaching at TAFE also running Family Day Care. So I’d been introduced to the welfare area and was much more interested in that area and wanted to work in that area when I came to Sydney. I applied for three positions the position I chose in the end was the one closest to home and suited me best which was North West Disability Services. That’s how it started.

What did the North West Disability Services look like at that time when you joined them? How big was it and who were the people working there? Give us a picture of what it was like?

It was quite small there was three staff at the main centre and there was a few casual staff as well. Back in those days it was the Baulkham Hills Shire Association for People with Disabilities Incorporated. It also ran under the name of HADPAC which was the Hills Area Disabled Persons Access Coalition. The building was on the corner of the old David Jones building at Castle Towers and there was a little old white cottage there and we had a demountable out the back. It was quite a small service and the funding wasn’t that great. It provided a really nice homely feeling for the people that attended. We ran groups there on Monday nights, we had a group on Tuesday and a Wednesday, Friday group and a couple of weekend programmes. That’s about all it was at that stage and they’d just received the funding before I started for a respite accommodation service. That was opened at Castle Hill and they had that up and running just before I arrived.

North West Disability Services cottage next to David Jones building Castle
Hill before Castle Towers extensions c1994

What was your actual job there, your first job?

I came on as a manager I think the organisation was looking for somebody who had managerial experience which I brought with me. More so than the welfare experience. I suppose I had the happy blend of the two. They particularly wanted somebody who could then grow the organisation and take it forward.

Was that your first exposure to disability services as such?

It was my first involvement with working with a disability organisation. When I was in Dubbo there was a Westhaven organisation in Dubbo. I suppose there was a family connection in that I had a brother-in-law who worked with that organisation. I had spent quite a bit of time volunteering and had spent days taking people out on social outings. Taking them out to the river for the day and on picnics and things like that. So I had an introduction to disabilities in that way. Then my welfare training had introduced me to other areas. It was my first opportunity to work with disabilities. It was a bit daunting. I remember the first night I came home after my first day at work. I’d come in I’d had an orientation because the then manager she was leaving I think the next day to go overseas. She’d resigned and my orientation was going to be just those few hours we had together. The orientation was “well this is our building, this is where we are but we’re about to get kicked out of this building. They’re about to build Castle Towers over the top of us and they’re going to knock all this down. We’ve got a hundred thousand dollars in the bank and we’re working with Baulkham Hills Shire Council to try and find something else. Good luck”. So that’s what happened. That night I ran the Funday night group which was for people generally who went to work during the day. It was a recreational group in the night time. A few little dramas happened on that night. I was finding out that working with people with disabilities can be challenging at times. I think I went home feeling absolutely exhausted and thinking “oh my God what have I got myself in for”.

Did you have any second thoughts at that time?

I like to take on a challenge I think so it was more of a pick myself up, dust myself off and start the next day and see where we went from there. It’s been a real challenge and it’s been exciting all the way along ever since.

You didn’t get much of a briefing did you that first day?

No it was a bit quick and a bit brief. She gave me a lot of information about the organisation and where it was situated. I suppose it was a little bit scary to think “gee we might be out of a home really soon” as well. It didn’t manifest we stayed there for a couple of years after that.

Early construction of North West Disability Services building at Baulkham Hills 1997

Did you come here then where we are now?

We then worked towards constructing our own purpose built building. The one hundred thousand that we had turned into one point three million with a lot of fund raising, with a lot of support. We had two amazing people that worked with us with that. We had an excellent board. John Barnard was on our board at that time, I think he was chairman of the board. We had Judy Woods and she was the Disability Support Worker at Baulkham Hills Shire Council and we had Ray Millers there as well. He was the Community Buildings Manager. Between the four of us we pulled together the funds and made this happen. At one stage it was going to be two demountable buildings connected by a hallway. That was the first design that was suggested to us when we looked at that. I think I said “no this is not good enough people with disabilities deserve the quality of construction and the quality of premises that anybody in any other area deserves. I don’t believe that’s fair and I believe we can do a lot better than that”. Judy and Ray and John agreed whole heartedly with me and so we said “well let’s design the very best that we can design and then see if we can actually get the money to make it happen”. When we designed this building that we’re in at the moment we designed probably three sections to the building. By the time we were ready to start building we had the money to pay for two sections and by the time we built the building we had the money to pay for the three sections of the building. It was an interesting process and the money came from so many different areas in that it was quite unique. We could get money from different levels of government. So much support from Baulkham Hills Shire it was amazing. We even had off shore money. The Paul Newman Foundation gave us ten thousand dollars too as well for the basketball court. Everybody contributed, the Rotary clubs, Lions clubs it was just amazing. The money just came from so many locations and it still continues to. To maintain and to continue to build other add ons to the building.

Now to put all this in a time frame you joined them in 1994 is that correct? At what stage do you think you moved into the present premises where you are now?

It was intended to be early in 1997 and it ended up being quite late in 1997. It was a slow process with the building. The architects that designed the building designed a beautiful building and it’s been designed on environmental line. Which was probably early thinking about what should be done and how a building should be designed. The problem was that they designed these lovely sloping ceilings. It took us about four or five months to find somebody who could manufacture the iron work to do the ceilings. It did slow the process down a little bit. We were very fortunate when we finally did move in.

What sort of programmes were running when you joined? You’ve already spoken about a fun day programme or a fun night was it? What other programmes did they have at that stage?

We had day programmes the Wednesday and the Friday groups. They were groups for people with physical disabilities. The Funday night or Monday night group was a group for people with intellectual disabilities. We also had a Thursday programme and a weekend programme that was for people with an acquired brain injury. It was very distinct in those days. Those funding packages or that block funding system is still current with our organisation. We still provide those services even though they have changed a little bit over the years.

Construction of North West Disability Services building at Baulkham Hills 1997

How qualified were the people that were working there at the time? What sort of qualifications did they have at that stage?

The managerial staff mostly had university qualifications but the general staff were people who were interested in disabilities and had either swapped it from another career or were Mums who had come back into the workforce. Generally there wasn’t a lot of qualifications with the general staff. That was something that we have changed over the years. We’ve worked really diligently to do that. The professionalisation of the disability industry has been something that we’ve really campaigned for. I believe we’re just about achieving it. I’m on a workforce planning committee for national disability services for NSW and just today we’ve been at a meeting where we took a vote to recommend that a minimum level of qualification must be implemented for all disability services right across the state.

But of course what’s important in disability work is the dedication that the people have. You may not be qualified to a degree but they have a tremendous amount of dedication and willingness to help. Did you find that?

We do and I suppose with North West Disability, well we’re now North West Disability Services. We changed our name some years ago when we were trying to raise the money to build our new premises. We found that our organisation's a little bit unique in that we were always a volunteer organisation. We’ve always had a lot of people volunteer for the organisation and we provide a lot of training for those volunteers. Unlike a lot of other disability organisations we’ve maintained that volunteer base. We now have forty five to fifty volunteers within the organisation at any one time. I think that’s where you really get a community feel in an organisation and that community involvement. I think that’s a quality within the organisation. A lot of the staff will come through the volunteer system with us as well. So they come onboard already as the type of person who wants to give back to the community.

Is there much training of volunteers?

Yes we have a core module base of training and we encourage all the volunteers to do that. I think there is about sixteen modules in that. It does take a while to work through all those modules and we encourage people to do that.

Do you take all people with disabilities? Which cases for instance are eligible?

For our organisation we’re open for all types of disabilities. We take people with physical, intellectual, psychiatric disabilities. Acquired brain injury which is a large part of our service also people with sensory disabilities that might couple with those disabilities. We’re open to the full gamut of disabilities and usually they’re life long disabilities. At one stage we were providing services and a specific programme to people who were recovering from stroke. That’s one of the few disabilities that we’ve been involved with that is a short term disability and hopefully people recover from that.

You take people with schizophrenia?

Yes we do quite often it’s coupled with an intellectual disability as well. With the post school programme that is a large part of the organisation now. It brings people straight from the schooling system out into adult life and supports them either in community participation programme or a transition to work programme. We quite often pick up people with schizophrenia through that.

When did you actually become the CEO of this organisation?

I suppose that’s been a bit of an evolution. I started as I think originally it was co-ordinator and that moved into a manager and then CEO. Really I’ve been in charge of the organisation all along. The name has changed as the organisation has grown. It has grown because it was an organisation that was funded five hundred thousand a year and now we have four million dollars in funding a year.

Basketball court HADPAC North West Disability Services Baulkham Hills

What sort of innovations or developments of programmes have you been able to introduce to the service?

Our organisation has been fairly innovative over the years. We pride ourselves on having a culture that is innovative. Our staff are quite open to change, probably not as open as I am, at times. I think I frustrate them at times that we have so much change in the organisation. What I probably introduced from a very early stage was business practices. Even though we’re very much focussed on the individual and the support of the individual, we’ve brought a lot of business ethics into the organisation. Individual funding and budgeting for people so that it was individualised and very much with our staff situation the training and development of staff. Key performance indicators for staff and encouraging staff through that system. Our organisation actually pays bonuses for staff which is quite unusual in the community services sector whatsoever. We feel that it’s a way of acknowledging staff that are performing well and that are really trying to develop themselves. We’ve only just paid a bonus the other day and the staff are very appreciative of that. That bonus comes out of the extra development we do with staff and the large number of traineeships that we put staff through as well.

You said that you had modules for the staff training? They have to attain a certain level of expertise is that Certificate III that you’re talking about or is it something else?

It draws into Certificate III. We have a process of induction with North West that staff when they come onboard they go through an orientation process. They then complete a range of core modules. We call it our core module training. Its face to face training not so much hands on training. From there they move into competency based training and they’re assessed on their performance under a competency system. Those competencies feed into Certificate III Disability Studies. We pull the staff into those certificated courses and then they roll from Certificate III to Certificate IV and then to the diploma. We’ve been quite fortunate over the last few years that we’ve been able to support staff at university as well. We’ve put four or five staff through university over the last three or four years.

I guess that’s one of the big changes isn’t it? They’re getting a level of professionalism into the staff?

Very much yes and people don’t realise that a large number of the staff in the organisation have university qualifications and they are quite highly skilled.

So if you compare now the level of professionalism of staff in 2009 with that of 1994 what’s been the difference do you think?

I think there’s been a expectation where once upon a time disability services were funded and the government was happy that those people were supported in a programme that they were kept safe in that programme and that they had an enjoyable day. The expectation nowadays which is rightly so. Individuals are funded the government is paying a lot of money to provide theses services. People should grow and develop and we should be nurturing that growth through the disability service. So staff where they once were, I hate to use the word baby sitting, but it was more of a support programme. We supported their physical needs and tried to support them emotionally. Now we’re very much focussed on skill development and helping people to develop the skills so that they can flourish I suppose within the community. We get them out into the community as much as possible and help them to become more individualised and I suppose self sustaining in the community in their own way.

Service users cooking in HADPAC kitchen 2 North West Disability Services Baulkham Hills

What sort of qualities do you look for when you’re recruiting new staff?

We quite often don’t bring staff on board that have been working in the industry. Quite often we bring staff on board that are completely new. They might have very little interaction with people with disabilities beforehand. So what we’re looking for is a person who has a desire to see a movement in a person from one point to the next. We want somebody who has an innate desire to develop something in a fellow human being. That desire is to take somebody who mightn’t be able to make a cup of tea to a stage where they can make a cup of tea. They can look after themselves and they not only make a cup of tea but they could cook a whole meal for their family. They encourage I suppose, that self actualisation, that comes with that. The opportunity for people to be completely independent and develop skills that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise developed. To get a staff person on board that has that desire to teach somebody and develop them is quite unique. We usually pick up fairly quickly that, that person is that sort of person.

Is self reliance a very important quality that you look for?

Most definitely they have to be flexible because we’re in an ever changing environment. We’re working with other people so we have to be flexible. They have to be able to respond to people. They have to be able to read people. Often when I’m teaching staff and bringing staff onto the organisation. I’ll talk about communicating at a heart level rather than a head level. We can communicate at a brain level and our brain can tell us just about anything. As we all know our brain will tell us we’re too fat or too old or too lazy or whatever. But when we start communicating at a heart level then we’re going to communicate with real honesty to another person. If you can connect at that level with a person with a disability then you’ll really be able to read them and support them at a level they really need to be supported. And what they want to happen in their lives as well. It’s a bit innovative I suppose.

Gemhill Cottage Castle Hill is a respite facility for persons with an acquired brain injury

Let’s talk about some of the programmes that you have, there are many, many programmes I’ve noticed. Can you outline some of the programmes? For instance the day programme what does that consist of?

A Day programme is basically a funding model of programme. Day programmes generally run from Monday to Friday. They’re in business hours. They’re a programme that supports the individuals through the day. We have respite programmes that are at night time and on the weekends. We have a respite accommodation service which is Gemhill Cottage. We have post school programme which is the community participation and transition to work. More recently we’ve brought on board Leisure Link which is a programme that introduces people into leisure activities and tries to get them self sustaining in those activities. We have attendant care programmes for people who have a brain injury or a spinal chord injury that might need support in the community. We’re basically an organisation that’s here and anyone can come and purchase services from us as well.

The day programmes you said run from Monday to Friday what sorts of typical day programmes are there?

With our day programmes they’re more of a recreational based day programme. The Monday to Friday post schools programme they’re more skills based. Each of the different programmes have a different focus and a different desire for those individuals to be involved. Also the funding that comes from the department stipulates the type of programmes and the individuals that are in the target group of those programmes as well. So we have to meet those as well even though we can stretch those limits to meet individual need. So if we have somebody who has a particular desire to undertake a certain activity or engage in some type of community event then we can usually stretch that programme to meet those needs as well.

How do the respite programmes work?

I suppose that is an unusual word for a lot of people but most people are getting very familiar with it nowadays. Respite is about giving the carers a break. Our respite accommodation service stretches right across NSW. We bring people from all over NSW to Gemhill Cottage for respite. That gives their families an opportunity to have a break. They might have a two or three week trip or a holiday, go somewhere. We would bring that individual to Gemhill Cottage and we would look after them there. The support we would provide would be whatever that individual needs. We’d try to develop things for them while they're there as well. They would actually then plan their own day as well. They would plan recreational outings and they’d trip all over Sydney and do lots of interesting things while they’re here. We had one fellow that came all the way from Bourke and he’d never been to the football. While he was down for his respite opportunity they took him to the football and made some connections and got him into one of the executive boxes. He had a fantastic day at the football. Those are the sort of things that we can offer that might otherwise not be an opportunity for somebody.

Go To Part Two