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Deborah takes action to support her family and her future

Devoted mother-of-three Deborah Kirk has taken steps to turn a subject close to her heart into a rewarding career where she can make a difference to the lives of others by helping people with disabilities regain their independence.

The number of people choosing to pursue a rewarding career in the disability sector is on the rise, with TAFE Queensland experiencing an 87 per cent increase in students enrolling in the Certificate III in Individual Support (Disability) (CHC33015) over the course of the 2020-21 financial year.

According to data published by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, the demand for skilled welfare support workers is projected to grow by 17.7 per cent nation-wide over the next five years, likely fuelled by the completion of the Queensland NDIS rollout in late 2020.

The Sunshine Coast and Wide Bay are leading the charge in producing a pipeline of skilled workers, with TAFE Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and Wide Bay Burnett regions reporting an incredible 163 per cent increase in Certificate III in Individual Support (Disability) (CHC33015) enrolments during the 2020-21 financial year.

Nambour resident Deborah Kirk, 50, is among the growing number of residents who have chosen to develop their skills in disability support. A devoted mother-of-three, Deborah has spent the last 25 years as a full-time carer for her eldest child, who has autism and is intellectually impaired.

Deborah said she has tried studying before over the years, but had to withdraw to focus on her family. But when her husband was diagnosed with end-stage heart failure and chronic kidney disease, Deborah knew she needed a long-term plan.

“Eventually my husband will pass away and my son will become independent and able to live well enough on his own with support – that is our goal. But what about me?” Deborah said.

“That’s why I chose to further my study, so I can use my skills now to help my family, as well as be employable in something that I’m very knowledgeable about – it allows me to work to my strengths.”

With this goal in mind, Deborah decided to enrol in a Certificate III in Individual Support (Disability) (CHC33015) at TAFE Queensland’s Mooloolaba campus in 2019.

“TAFE gave me flexibility and is more cost-effective, especially for those who are trying to rebuild their skills so they can go back into the workforce,” Deborah continued.

“I can’t say enough about the quality of the staff. They were so inspiring and enriching, and I could go to them at any time and go, ‘Can I just get some clarification on this?’. They were really good at embracing every students’ uniqueness and bringing it to the table so we could all learn and grow from that.”

Having developed a foundational knowledge of the industry and confidence in her ability to learn, Deborah decided to advance her knowledge further in 2020, by undertaking a Certificate IV in Disability (CHC43115) online in order to broaden her options.

“I had a car accident two-and-a-half years ago and can’t do super physical work, so another reason I went and did the certificate four is that it includes information about the NDIS side of disability – that way, if I physically can’t do heavy lifting, I have a desk-side knowledge of the industry.”

Deborah graduated in June 2021 and while she is not yet working in industry due to the risks COVID poses to her and potential clients (she has a medical condition that means she is unable to be vaccinated or wear a mask), the knowledge and skills she has gained throughout her studies have already been of great benefit to her family.

“I have helped my son renegotiate his NDIS plan based on the information that I know, and for my husband, we got an aged care package approved based on what I now know. And that’s the important part for me – to ensure that those who I took the courses for in the first place are reaping the benefits of my knowledge.”

Deborah is now looking to study a Certificate IV in Mental Health (CHC43315), in order to complement her skills.

“I don’t think there is enough mental health support in the disability industry, and I think it will complement my study. Coming from my own personal experience, but also going into an industry where COVID is really hitting those with disability hard, I just feel that people with disabilities and their families are more vulnerable,” she said.

“Carers – and those who go into the role of carer – have already got their heart in the right place, but I think sometimes they need a little bit of support. We do it because we love that person and we want to help that person, but we need support too.”

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports as many as 18 per cent (or one in six) Australians have a disability, with approximately a third of that figure experiencing severe or profound disability. But despite how common disabilities are, Deborah said we are still lacking when it comes to inclusion, understanding and accessibility.

“These are people who want to be able to participate and contribute in our society, and I think we need to encourage and support them to achieve, which we can do if we have just a bit more personal knowledge,” Deborah said.

“My studies have basically balanced my life. I still have goals for my son but I have the knowledge now to support that and I am able to ensure I’m respectful of his rights, respectful of his confidentiality and respectful of his choices – because he has the right to make choices.”

Deborah said she is extremely proud of what she has achieved, and encourages anyone considering a career in the sector – or even just expanding their knowledge and skills in the sector – to take that step.

“You’re never too old to learn, and TAFE gives you the perfect environment to do that. You get support to get through the assessments, and you can gain greater knowledge to be able to support that vulnerable loved one you’re supporting.”