Panorama spoke to SHARON HOLZ, a Community Connector with the Physical Disability Council of NSW (PDCN) about what made her interested in Mental Health First Aid. We discovered that people with a lived experience of different categories of disability have a lot more in common with one another than they might think!
SHARON: “I never stop learning from the people I have met. I am in awe of what people can achieve. It is important that people with different types of disabilities come to know each others’ challenges.
“As a community connector I work with people who have physical disabilities and also with people who have an intellectual disability. I also come across people with mental health issues, too. That is one reason why I recently did the Mental Health First Aid course. You never know; one day you might have the opportunity to help!”
“Everybody has a gift or asset, something they have that they can teach the world. Though it might take some time, you can have a life you’re happy with.
“People cannot be defined by disability. To me, the person comes first. Disability is an afterthought. Lack of confidence and self-belief can be a big barrier to flourishing. At PDCN, we aim to foster self-belief so that people can move on with a fulfilling life. Just because a person has challenges doesn’t mean they don’t have the same hopes and dreams and wishes as others. So why not build their capacity so that they come to believe in themselves?
“I was born with Cerebral Palsy due to premature birth. I have mobility issues, and my coordination is also affected. That’s never stopped me having goals, dreams or aspirations.”
“The National Disability Insurance Agency has funded the PDCN to establish peer support groups in regional areas. My job as a community connector is, firstly, to establish the groups, then to facilitate them within the Illawarra area. I have four groups altogether: two groups in Nowra and two groups in Wollongong. The best number within a group is less than ten, because you get better engagement and people are more comfortable with a smaller group. The meetings take place once a month.”
So why be in a peer group?
“Firstly, it is a chance to build peer networks, with other people with disability. You have an opportunity to build both individual capacity and group capacity, by learning from each other. It is a space to understand and engage with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) through the provision of information and resources.
“It’s a collaborative approach to engaging with and educating the local community to enhance community inclusion.
“Eventually it’s hoped that facilitators will take over from within the groups so they can become self-managing. It’s about community inclusion, building up peer networks, and building up people’s capacity. It’s about living life your way. With the people in these groups, I see so much growth in their confidence to speak up. Some of them would not even speak before. As a facilitator, this is inspiring to witness. Eventually they will come to flourish in other areas of life, too.”
The peer-to-peer connection
“As a facilitator of these groups, my lived experience of a disability is an asset. The group members trust me because they know I’ve had a similar situation. ‘Sharon’s been there, done that, Sharon understands.’ The groups give people a chance to hear the stories of like-minded people. ‘If he can do it, I can do it!’
“I have always had help to do things. My parents tended to be very protective, which is understandable. However, this had the unintended consequence of my becoming quite withdrawn and shy and always requiring help. When my mum died, I found myself in a situation where I realised I had the freedom to try something different. I started with baby steps.
“Empathy isn’t about feeling sorry for people. Pity is the worst form of patronising.”
Getting a paid job
“I am a client of Essential Personnel and Training, an organization that assists people with disabilities to find employment. They suggested I update my computer skills, so I enrolled in a course at TAFE. While at TAFE, I received an email from The Physical Disability Council of NSW. I wasted no time in sending my resume to them. I was granted an interview and eventually received the best news: Sharon is now employed! It was like Christmas, birthdays and all the great occasions in my life put together a thousand times over! I got my first job at the age of 56 and I felt amazing!
“If you are told something negative often enough, you start to believe that your life will amount to nothing. If you have determination and drive, you’ll get there. Never give up. Never listen to people who say NO YOU CAN’T. They have no right to say that. It’s your life. I have advice for professionals out there: SEE THE PERSON FIRST. You can’t rely on a textbook to give you all the answers. If I know a hundred people with Cerebral Palsy, then I know a hundred people each with their own different condition. Don’t focus on disability, get to know the person and then you will learn so much more.
“I’m content with my life. Yes, there are still challenges, but they have made me stronger, and more determined. I wish to thank all the people who have been on my journey to this day I couldn’t have achieved my goals without their belief in my ability, and for their unwavering help I will be forever thankful.”
Some tips for working with people who have other types of disabilities
“People are well-meaning. Sometimes they will offer help to a person with a physical disability when it isn’t really required. I accept help or I thank them for offering and say I’m OK I can manage. By and large people are very capable because they have adapted and nine out of ten times they will ask you if they need help.
“Be careful about language. E.g., cerebral palsy not “spastic.” A person with an intellectual disability is not “retarded.” Language is powerful and can cause lots of damage if used incorrectly. Don’t judge people, get to know them.
“People are people, not diseases or disabilities.”
-Sharon spoke to Warren Heggarty
Physical Disability Council of NSW, St Helens Community Centre,
3/184 Glebe Point Road Glebe,
Within Sydney: (02) 9552 1606 Outside Sydney: 1800 688 831