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Changemaker  |  Social Affairs

Building an Ordinary Life

6 March 2017 at 8:45 am
Wendy Williams
Matthew Wright is the branch manager of design and inclusion at the National Disability Insurance Agency focusing on co-design. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 6 March 2017 at 8:45 am


Building an Ordinary Life
6 March 2017 at 8:45 am

Matthew Wright is the branch manager of design and inclusion at the National Disability Insurance Agency focusing on co-design. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Wright, the former CEO of the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations and spokesperson for Disability Australia, joined the NDIA in October 2016.

He brought with him more than 20 years experience in the disability sector including a strong background in leadership roles with service providers, advocacy organisations and in the private sector.

In his own words, he has worked “from the floor through to senior management” within the sector.

He also has personal experience of disability being partially deaf and a part of Australia’s signing deaf community (fluent in Auslan).

He is a passionate believer in the dream of the National Disability Insurance Scheme for people with a disability to live “an ordinary life” as part of the community.

In his role as branch manager design and inclusion, his team consults with individuals, stakeholders and peak bodies to ensure that their views and opinions are reflected in NDIS projects and key decisions.

In this week’s Changemaker Wright talks about accepting his disability as a part of himself, the importance of being part of the community and the individual stories that drive him to do better.

Matthew Wright headshotWhat attracted you to the disability sector?

I am partially deaf and part of Australia’s signing deaf community and I think my motivation for wanting to work in the disability sector is really wanting to see all people with disability have the same career opportunities and life opportunities that I’ve had.

You know many people with disability are chronically disempowered for a whole range of reasons and I think this wish that we have with the NDIS to include people as part of the community and live an ordinary life is just wonderful.

When I started out I did a lot of grassroots jobs and I think those jobs are really critical, some of the jobs that you enjoy because you are picking up what working with people with disability is all about.

So I’ve worked on the floor as a carer and just the simple joy of assisting someone to put their socks on, that can be a very rewarding experience. And assisting other people with disability take them out of their comfort zone. I have worked as a cook in a kitchen supporting people with psychosocial disability. I must admit I’m a terrible cook but that experience did help me to improve a little bit. And I had a fabulous job transitioning young deaf people, who were considering tertiary and employment options and trying to lift their ambitions to do different things.

And so I’ve worked all the way from the floor through to senior management and CEO of an organisation, before I became the CEO of the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations and then onto the NDIA in design and inclusion.

Probably one of the other experiences that really shaped my thinking around disability was working as residential manager for the Oakleigh Centre, where 42 people with intellectual disabilities lived within a space of about 20 meters. And that experience really led me to believe that we had to break up the segregation of people with disability and really drive community outcomes.

What is important about the NDIS?

The most important part is that we are working to include people with disability as part of the community. Rather than in the past where we had a segregated system where we separated people with a disability and there weren’t opportunities for employment, or to be part of the community in terms of going to the local gym or having hobbies and interests and friends and social connections, the NDIS’s overall aim is to build that ordinary life.

Why is it important to involve people with disability in the decision-making process?

I think if you have lived a life of having a disability then you understand all of the challenges that people have. You know, all the way through school, getting the reasonable adjustments, the equipment necessary to get through school, the challenges in finding work, and also overcoming some of the typical issues that each person with disability faces. So I think that’s where some personal experience really helps.

What was one of the biggest challenges you have had to face?

I think the biggest challenge that I had to overcome was when I was a young person being quite shy about having a disability and being very self-conscious. And at the age of 21 I decided that I wanted to accept that I was deaf and so therefore I started learning sign language, being involved in the deaf community and that was a watershed moment to accepting that part of myself and that becoming part of my identity.

What do you like best about working at the NDIA?

I love what this scheme is doing for people with disabilities. Many people are maybe unaware that 160,000 people of the 460,000 coming into the scheme have never received supports before. And I’m passionate about the mantra we have of an ordinary life. And that is an ordinary life as part of the community, not as part of a segregated system.

I think the NDIS is slowly building the community support and the community understanding of disability so that to live a life as a person with a disability is just like living any other life.

What does a typical day for you entail as branch manager of the design and inclusion team?

My work is in the community linkages and engagement team and it is codesign, so I am looking at opportunities for us to include our key stakeholders in the decisions that the NDIS makes, the projects that we operate, and really learn from that valuable personal experience that you were alluding to before.

Through your work what is your ultimate goal?

I think to continue this journey that Australia has begun which is to include people with disability, to have a world class system of support so that the right adjustments are in place, for people with disabilities to find employment, to have home ownership and realise the same dreams as everybody else. You know it is going to be a long journey but to be part of that journey is always very exciting.

What are the organisation’s current priorities?

I think the current organisational priorities are around bringing on 460,000 people across Australia, something that has not been done in the world before, in a very short period of time. So in the next three years, and bringing on those people with disability and their families, many of whom have never been provided with support before, bringing them into the scheme but at the same time providing opportunities and innovation around community inclusion. So really having a strong focus on how we can build an inclusive community for people with disability and their families to be a part of the everyday life that everybody else leads.

What are some of the challenges?

I think you would say it is a huge piece of social change. So that when you are doing a large piece of social change in a very short period of time, from time to time, there will be ups and downs, and so you know we’re all here, very focused on that big picture and really making a difference to the lives of the individual people with disability and keeping very focused on achieving our targets to bring as many people onto the scheme as we possibly can in the shortest period of time.

How do you stay motivated?

That’s a great question. Look I think when you actually see the difference that the scheme does make to individuals and when you see people with disability who for the first time have got a job after 15 years of trying or for the first time do a community class and get great joy out of it, or for the first time maybe try something different with their accommodation, moving into a house on their own or develop some independence. I think it is all of those individual stories that really drive us to do better. Because when you can see that the scheme is having a big impact, you just really think of the potential of what the NDIS could be for people with disability in the future.

How do you spend your free time?

I have a wife, Tammy, and two small children, William and Madeline, and along with the NDIS they are the great loves of my life.

I get great joy from being at home and spending time with them. And so for me it is equally important to be involved in this hugely important scheme but also family time is critical and I’m sure lots of people with young children would also empathise that that time is critical. So I have a 16-week-old boy and a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

The other thing is, my wife is profoundly deaf and we use Australian sign language in the home, and one of the things about young kids when they are three and four, is their sign language is very cute with those small hands.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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