Build Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander participant, workforce and community capacity within the NDIS context

Build Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander participant, workforce and community capacity within the NDIS context
Organisation: Synapse Australia Limited Partner: Griffith University

This Cairns project developed and evaluated a model for delivering ‘Proper Way’ supports to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have complex support needs in a new purpose-built residential environment.

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The Context

Synapse’s early intervention residential complex for First Peoples with complex disability (ie. acquired brain injury, intellectual disability, and/or mental illness), located in Cairns, is the site for this project.

The Problem

Synapse knew that little research had been undertaken about delivering disability services to First People’s in a culturally safe and appropriate manner (‘Proper Way’). They saw that the clash between European and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of doing this were most starkly evident in rural and remote settings where traditional practices were more strongly maintained. In addition, retention of First People’s in the social and community sector is a well-known problem.

The Solution

Synapse wanted to learn and share what delivering Proper Way support to this client group entails, and how to build a strong and skilled workforce.

The project strategy was to design job roles for managers, support workers and a cultural mentor to work in the new facility. The roles were accompanied by recruitment and training, and the design was an iterative process, adapted over time. In contrast to traditional workforce design where service delivery is primarily focused on personal care, assistance with daily living, and to a much lesser extent, community access, the proposed innovative, culturally safe design involves roles that emphasise the social and emotional wellbeing of participants and workers.

The cultural mentor role is particularly innovative, as it will be responsible for tenant and staff mentoring and involves an external consultant to maintain a necessary sense of separation between the mentor function and Synapse as a whole.  

Expected Impact

The project set out to achieve the following:

  • Novel job design implemented with new workers, the majority drawn from the local community
  • A high level of First Peoples involvement in the design of jobs and service delivery
  • A residential centre model that can be replicated across the organisation.

The new roles were evaluated in terms of:

  • Impact on worker engagement and social and emotional wellbeing
  • Consumers demonstrating a relatively high level of self-direction (individual capability, confidence, responsibility for self and control over decisions about supports) in a cultural context
  • Consumers reporting high levels of satisfaction, feelings of empowerment and social and emotional wellbeing

Stage and Spread

A new two-stage approach was used to successfully recruit local Aboriginal workers to work in the facility. First, two information sessions were held to introduce the concept and intent behind the Warner Street centre. These were run informally, with yarning discussion groups to discuss the Synapse approach and help people understand the needs of the future tenants. The 35 attendees were offered help, either on the day or later, with preparing a written Expression of Interest. Of these, over 20 completed an EOI and nine were selected and started work, with another successful round undertaken a few months later.

Candidates who decided to proceed with their employment application understood and were excited by the workforce design and service delivery model. Usual employment considerations were superseded by a genuine interest and desire to be involved in Warner Street.

Nine months later there has been good staff retention, with only one person leaving. Various roles have been trialled at the coordinator/facilitator level, but success has been achieved by employment of a ‘cultural mentor’ who speaks with staff regularly and helps create a safe space for them to raise personal and/or community issues fairly. They avoid coordination matters and refer these back to the facility coordinator.

Lessons and Insights

Synapse staff have found the project to be very confronting, even if issues are sometimes ‘under the surface’. ‘The wounds of the past are still fresh and it doesn’t take much to dance in the scars of what has happened in the past’, said project coordinator Kellie Sentinella. The ongoing evaluation results are also fed back to the leadership so they can be listed to and acted on quickly.

Roadblocks and Risks

Aboriginal and Torres Strait workers have wanted to emphasise their understanding and custodianship of community knowledge, and at times this has conflicted with appreciating the scope residents need to have their own individual choices and decisions. Other problems have come with getting the new roles bedded down, and clarifying how much time the cultural mentor can spend with each person.