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Optimistic People Working with a Disability and Leading Change: WaterAble’s Hour of Optimism

“I think everything gives me a reason to be optimistic. Every outcome, whether it's good or bad, you can look for a reason to be optimistic about it. And so yeah, everything in life makes me optimistic, and it's just the outlook that I have.” (Matt Iverson)

"Our people are ultimately what makes me optimistic. And I think specifically for the water sector, our people and our capacity to create and respond to change is something that we should hang onto." (Helen Vaughan)

"what I'm optimistic most about is life in general and the choices that I can have as a person with a disability." (Heidi Biggin)

By Donald Hughan and Victor Perton

WaterAble is the organisation that brings together people with a disability working in the water sector and their allies. Last week, WaterAble partnered with The Centre for Optimism and VicWater to share an Hour of Optimism and the lived experience of working with a disability in the water sector.

The Keynote speaker was the realistic and infectiously optimistic Helen Vaughan, Deputy Secretary of Water and Catchments at the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP). The Panellists included Heidi Biggin, Culture Development Officer at Central Highlands Water; Matt Iversen, Quality & Training Consultant at Greater Western Water; and Paris McMullen, Planning Engineer at Greater Western Water.

This is an edited version of the proceedings: Watch the video for great inspiration.

Helen Vaughan

VP: Helen, what makes you optimistic and optimistic about our water sector?

Helen Vaughan:  First of all, Victor, Victoria is a big state, and we have a lot of challenges, but I have to say that we, across the water sector, are in a really good place.

What makes me optimistic and what makes me optimistic about the water sector?

In September last year, I spoke to your Hour of Optimism for the whole Water Sector. We were in the midst of Melbourne's sixth COVID lockdown with all of the ongoing disruption and uncertainty that came with that.

And when I was asked then about what made me optimistic for the future, I spoke about how I was constantly amazed by our people at DELWP, the water sector, and Victoria. We continued to find new ways to manage around the problems thrown at us, whether that be around dealing with supply chain issues, operational practices to keep our staff safe, or even just the uncertainty of managing our businesses.

Our people continue to fuel my optimism for the future.

We have powerful regard, respect and care for each other. We do want to do what's best for each other. Our shared values of commitment to public service helped us during that time to overcome adversity. And I still holistically believe that.

So our people are ultimately what makes me optimistic. And I think specifically for the water sector, our people and our capacity to create and respond to change is something that we should hang onto.

As I broaden it to the public sector as a whole, there's a real opportunity for the water sector to be exemplars and to lead by change, including increasing diversity within our workforces and boards.

We have an excellent track record for being at the forefront of reform. We have an opportunity in the sector to continue to lead by example on our social policies and our delivery of an essential service, water and sanitation.

And that really means including increasing diversity and inclusion in our workforces. So, that's what makes me optimistic, Victor.

VP: Helen, you and I both admire the WaterAble  leadership and what they're doing. Please tell us about diversity and inclusion, particularly in the water sector with people living with a disability.

Helen Vaughan: Another great question, Victor. It's an absolute priority in the water sector businesses to reflect the communities they serve. We all know this. Not only is it the right thing to do. There's also clear evidence that it makes for better businesses.

So, we really have to set ourselves targets to achieve more diverse organizations and to help improve our overall businesses because we want to be the employer of choice. And this won't just happen by osmosis. I know there's a lot of discussion about targets. Do you have them? Do you not have them? I used to be in the category of no targets. Now I'm firmly in the category of targets. You don't know what you're aiming for unless you've actually got those measures.

So, we've made some changes already in reflecting our communities that we serve. We've changed the level of female directors, for example, on water boards and Aboriginal representation on water boards and in our workforces. And we need to be able to move to address other areas of diversity that are of equal importance. So, whilst we've had some heartening progress to date, we've still got a lot of work that we want to do. We want to focus in the future on increasing the number of people identifying with a disability and increasing the number of young board directors across the sector.

So, at the moment, around 20% of the Victorian population identify as a person with a disability. When you compare this to approximately 1.4% across all Victorian government boards, about 2% of board members across the water sector, and then 4.5% of staff across the whole sector who identify as a person with a disability, you can see we've got some work to do.

So, there are some really broad initiatives across government that we are aiming to use to address this. And at DELWP, we work closely with the Department of Premier and Cabinet, who'll be leading the implementation of the new diversity on Victorian government boards guidelines. So, increasing these cohorts of diversity needs to be a real focus for us in the next water and catchment sector board appointments.

And the reason we focus on boards in the first instance, a lot of the time, is that our leaders reflect community diversity.

They become role models, and we open up the possibility and the optimism in others to become part of a sector that actually wants to bring about change.

So, that's part of the reason we focus on boards. Still, we really need to set targets to address diversity and inclusion, particularly for people identifying with a disability, across the board.

VP: That's brilliant. And as you know, on the Yarra Valley Water board, we have two Indigenous board directors. A real diversity. We took our meeting outside in our last board meeting and held a yarning circle.

Moving forward then, Helen, you're at the centre. Your vision is critical, and the vision you draw from other people. What is your vision, then, for the water sector, particularly for our WaterAble friends and those with a disability, be they young or old, for their opportunities to serve on boards and be a part of that workforce?

Helen Vaughan: WaterAble started in 2020. So already, in a relatively short time, it's made a significant difference in raising the profile and being one of those role models we want to see.

So, all of our water corporations and CMAs are expected to support their communities by providing tailored assistance and flexible payment arrangements for customers. And that extends to all Victorians that also have disabilities. So, for example, Yarra Valley Water has embedded its commitment to improving the accessibility of its services in its 2030 strategy, and I'm sure Victor can talk more about that. Yarra Valley Water has set a benchmark, I feel, in committing to inclusive and accessible services to ensure that everybody has the services they need. So, that's part of my vision. We want to make sure that we're hearing people, understand their needs, and build them into our strategies as we advance to make the service delivery a little easier.

So, I'm committed, personally, to creating a more equitable, inclusive AND safe workplace for our staff. And however that may happen, sector groups like WaterAble  are essential in their role for the whole water sector. They bring people together. They provide support across the organizations and are also excellent catalysts for further change through raising awareness, sharing ideas, and promoting best practices.

So, I want to see a sector where all people from all backgrounds and abilities can find their spot and find their way to how they want to contribute to public service. And we need to be able to provide those opportunities for people with a disability to step into roles, particularly leadership roles. And we want to give that support and confidence in their ability to reach their potential.

HEIDI BIGGIN

Helen Vaughan: Heidi, I'm interested to know from you personally, what makes you optimistic, and what you are optimistic about for the sector?

Heidi Biggin: Thanks, Helen.

So, what I'm optimistic most about is life in general and the choices that I can have as a person with a disability.

I acquired a disability when I was 22. I lost most of my eyesight 12 years ago. So, I've got a bit of a unique perspective of life before that and living with a disability.

So, at the time, probably the year after I joined the amazing disabled club, I thought my life was written out for me. I felt that my path had already been set. My future planned out. This is how you have to live. This is what is expected. And that's absolutely not the case.

So, yes. I can have choices. I have career choices. I have travel and family. I don't have to do what's already been planned out - society's planned out for me.

I can have career aspirations and write my own story in this disability workforce world.

And that disability can also be seen as something to be celebrated, proud of, and used as an asset.

I might not be able to see, but my hearing is amazing. It's a bit of a superpower, along with my sense of direction and my emotional intelligence.

There are so many assets that come with disability, and I think that it's exhilarating that people are starting to see that now, that we're not just a box to be ticked, or a quota to be made, or a nice thing to do is to hire somebody with a difference or a diverse need. So, it's really exciting that there's a focus on that now.

And I guess within the water industry as well, I've only worked in the water industry, so, 11 years now. So, that reflects how good we are if I want to stay and make my career here.

And I've noticed that there's a difference in what we have to do, whether it's being compliant, and then there's a shift into what we should do, of best practice.

And then there's that shift we're aiming for, especially within Central Highlands Water, which is the best experience. So what do we actually want to do in this space? And to aim higher and to make the best experience.

So, when our customers walk in the door, whether our website, people applying for a job or people working within the water industry, what are we doing on the ground? What are we talking about? What are we working towards?

You can have high-level strategies and framework, but when you actually walk into a door, is there a hearing loop system available; is there a safe space to take your dog to the toilet, or is the website accessible so that you can actually pay your bills?  They're the things that excite me the most.

And we've just newly formed or breathed new life into our diversity and inclusion committee at work. And to say that that kind of space fills my cup is an understatement.

It's really kind of magical working with such a like-minded group of people, all working in the same direction that they just want the best out of people, and people to be their true, authentic selves at work. So, it's a really exciting space to be. Can you tell I'm optimistic?

VP: You talked about a superpower. Heidi, you have an optimism superpower in a world often shrouded with a fog of pessimism.   You are a superwoman.

Heidi Biggin: I'll take that.

VP: And your cup is half full. You are so inspiring.

At WaterAble  you've got strong allies. Helen's passionate. We at the Center for Optimism are passionate about supporting you; VicWater is passionate about supporting you. So, what makes you optimistic for the future of WaterAble, and what's next on the agenda for WaterAble?

Heidi Biggin: Everyone joining us today and being involved in WaterAble is extremely passionate about disability and diversity. I'd love to see it branch out that more allyship, or more people that this isn't really on their radar, or this world isn't their world. It's absolutely everybody's business; it is accessibility, inclusion, and equality. So, I'd love to see more involvement over the whole. That everybody can get involved. That disability access or rights isn't just a disabled person's issue.

It's exciting that WaterAble has a real focus on this, and I guess my hope for the future is that we won't need these conversations. We won't need these different advocacy groups. People will just be people. Everyone will have inclusion access and a diverse workforce and community.

WaterAble is definitely a safe space. So I've been privileged to be a part of some of the meetings. And it's just...I'm about eight feet tall those days. So it's really lovely to see a group of people working together—the same goals, and what amazing goals to have.

Matt Iversen

Heidi Biggin: What makes you optimistic, Matt? I'd love to hear.

Matt Iversen: Just, as you said, life in general is a reason to be optimistic.

You said, Victor, that there's a fog of pessimism clouding people’s outlooks, and I must admit that I think I'm a naturally pessimistic person. At least, I used to be.

I don't think I ever really got anywhere being that way.

It wasn't until I was able to sort of change my perspective and look at the positives and look at all the great things that I have in my life that things really started to happen for me.

I have an acquired disability, it's a genetic thing that didn't come on until later in life about 12 years ago. And at that time, I was really down and out.  However I look now, and all the best things in my life, like my family and my career, have all come since then. And it shows that the outlook that you have can influence the success that you have beyond that.

So, I think everything gives me a reason to be optimistic. Every outcome, whether it's good or bad, you can look for a reason to be optimistic about it. And so yeah, everything in life makes me optimistic, and it's just the outlook that I have.

All my personal experiences since I joined Western Water five years ago have been good, through the way I've been treated as someone who's only able to work part-time due to my disability. I've never been excluded from opportunities to grow and advance my career. I've never been left out of anything at all, and I've been provided with every opportunity that I need to be the best version of myself.

And everything I've seen personally in the water industry shows that many people are doing a lot of work to promote inclusivity, not just amongst disabled people but amongst all people. And that's really inspiring, and that is a reason to be optimistic.

VP: That's wonderful. You've talked about working part-time, Matt, and that hasn't been an impediment. So, do you want to discuss the practicality of working at Greater Western Water with a disability?

Matt Iversen: So, for myself, I walk with a cane. I can get around and do most things as anyone else would, but I have some limitations, and those limitations have always been met head-on by Western Water and Greater Western Water.

Anything I've needed, any reasonable adjustments in my working space have been offered, and some things that I've had to ask for. People have put thought into how I can best fit into an environment, and I appreciate that.

I don't have to think about how I need to work because it's all just taken care of, and that's a great thing. And that's one of the main reasons I wanted to join WaterAble. I've been on the organizing committee for, I think, nearly two years now.

And I know that my experience in employment, not in the water industry, but employment, is not the same as a lot of other people with disability, and I want everyone to have the same opportunities I've had since I joined the water industry. And that is being in an environment where I don't have to worry about my disability. I don't have to worry about what I can achieve or not achieve because it's thought of in advance. So yes, I think the practicality is that I get treated like everyone else, and my reasonable adjustments are met, which is fantastic.

VP: That's super. Thinking about WaterAble and how the friends of WaterAble and the industry can best help you achieve the vision you've got for WaterAble, where do you see WaterAble going, and how can we best help?

Matt Iversen: Well, I think everyone's been really receptive to advances. Everyone has been willing to listen whenever we've approached organizations within the water industry. I think that's fantastic. Water is a ubiquitous resource. It's for everyone, and I don't think you can say that about much else. So, we really should be reflective of everyone in the community.

I think we're all making great strides. We have outstanding leadership in the industry, whether that's people at GWW or people like Donald, Llewellyn or you, Victor. I see Jo Lim from VicWater contributing in our Zoom chat. Brendan Moore from Pride in Water. We have great people in the industry leading the charge to really promote that inclusivity. The work is being done with Indigenous people and First Nation people. Everyone is trying to foster an inclusive environment, and there may be work to be done, but leaders are willing to take us on that work journey.

So, that's what I think is most hyped about being in WaterAble at the moment: we are leading the conversation, perhaps, in this disabled sector. And so many people are doing great work across our industry to become more inclusive and truly reflect our community.

VP: That's brilliant and impassioning. In preparing for this hour of optimism, I have concluded Waterable is the global leader in this space. So, it's not just Victoria. I think you are a worldwide leader. And now, we've got Paris McMullin, your workmate at Greater Western Water, joining us. So, Matt, I wonder if you could ask Paris what makes her optimistic.

Paris McMullin

Matt Iversen: Paris, what are you optimistic about in life and the water industry?

Paris McMullin: Thanks, Matt. I think I'm really optimistic about the fact that we are having these conversations at all.

I feel like disability, for the longest time, was discussed as a nice to have, but there was not a lot of meaningful effort to include people in not just the water industry but in any industry. And now, more than ever, people are so receptive to change and to seeing the benefits of people with disability, diversity, and how much it benefits them and those people.

So, it brings me a lot of joy to see that: I was born with the disability that I have, and it reared its ugly head when I was around 12. So, that was a good 16 years ago. And at the time, the school counsellor was like, "Oh, I can't help you." So, I was like, "What? Really?" Because that was the prevailing attitude at the time was just like, maybe you'll finish high school. Perhaps you won't. And I'm like, "Oh, cool. Awesome. Sick. Great."

But I did finish high school, and I went to university, and that was such an inclusive environment, and there was a lot of thought and effort on how to support people. And coming out of that, coming into the water industry, and at the start, there weren't many conversations. But now, there are a lot of conversations. There are events like this. WaterAble is coming on board.

And there's a real push in the drive to make a change. And that change and that discussion of change is really what makes me the most optimistic.

VP: Paris, you are inspiring. So, would you share your insights into the practicality of working at Greater Western Water with a disability and your disability? How does it practically manifest itself?

Paris McMullin: It's interesting because it's become a lot easier, ironically, because of the pandemic. The pandemic was a real blessing in disguise in some ways. And you might look at me like I have two heads and ask, "What the hell is she on about?"

But honestly, before then, it was unthinkable for people to work from home every day. And that is the most comfortable environment for me because my disability is physical. I am in pain most days, if not every day. Sometimes I also need a walk with a cane, and having to go to the office every day is painful and difficult. And there wasn't that culture of working from home more than one day a week, especially not for new starters where it was deemed essential to be in the office to get that learning environment.

But all of a sudden, because of the pandemic, everyone could work from home, and it's all possible. So, that is hilarious, but that's the way it is. And yes, it's still a struggle for me, just because Greater Western Water is about to release its accessibility policy. So, we're still working towards that, which is excellent. But for me, it isn't straightforward. It's not a perfect system.

VP:  Paris, you're working together to achieve great things in the new environment.

By way of example, at Yarra Valley Water, we produced the YVW Hybrid Playbook The Way We Work Now setting out the expectations of how the worker should work in hybrid, how the manager should work, and how the leader should work. So, I think we're all working towards it, but it's a significant, profound point you make.

And one of the things we worked on at The Centre for Optimism coming out of COVID was “A Better Normal.” Not just a new normal or going back to normal, but a better normal.

And you have inspired us with your insights on how being able to work hybrid has improved your life.

Paris McMullin: It has, significantly. My quality of life, my work performance, everything.

VP: And so, thinking about WaterAble, I think you are the global leaders; what makes you optimistic for WaterAble, and how can the rest of us join in on that effort?

Paris McMullin: What makes me most optimistic about WaterAble is having a central group of people with diverse disabilities and being able to collectively give their worldview on how their disability affects them and how we can best make a change. I've said this a lot to people. I am only the expert on my disability. There are so many different types of disabilities. There are so many different reasonable adjustments that need to be made for people.

And having a central point in the industry where we can get all of those viewpoints, and make the change that affects everyone, is just a fantastic thing, making me feel really good. Because in any organization, as you said, there's only one or 2%. So, that might be four people that have a disability, and that is not an excellent collective representation of people with a disability as a whole.

So, having that presence, I think, will only do good things for the future, making me really optimistic.

Donald Hughan to the panellists: How do you see your organisation changing over time? Are you seeing a shift between not knowing how to approach disability inclusion and how they're progressing to make an individual organisation better place for someone with a disability, whether a new starter or even a current employee? Matt?

Matt Iversen: Thanks, Donald. I'm thinking about what Paris was talking to, about the pandemic making it a better place. Working from home is such a godsend because I also have pain issues. That's why I work part-time. So, working from home is fantastic.

But before the merger of Western Water and City West Water to form Greater Western Water, Western Water was looking into working from home technologies in 2019, I believe, to try and look at some flexible options for different people. And that was accelerated through the pandemic. So, I think reasonable adjustments and things like that, Donald, I see that everywhere, and I love this sort of new way, this better way of working, as Victor says.

I think the inclusivity, once people are onboarded, is fantastic, and the range of options available now is fantastic. But, I think it's the hiring that potentially needs to improve. So, that's kind of the area where I think we need to work on. But besides that, I think everything is going great at the moment, regarding getting people to work.

And I will also say that I was contacted as a WaterAble member by people from Greater Western Water as they were drawing up the corporate plan to try and include that as a core tenet of our corporate plan, which is still ongoing. So, this merger has been a very long process. But so, hopefully, there will be something there to sort of really push that inclusivity, and the needs of people with a disability, and how we sort of onboard them. So, yes, I think there's lots of great work being done, and it's hard to kind of talk about everything, but there are just a couple of things that make me optimistic.

Donald Hughan: Fantastic. Thanks for that, Matt. It's great to hear that your organisation, Greater Western Water, is aware and developing strategies to help a person with a disability and is willing to partner with WaterAble, which is absolutely fantastic. Heidi, would you like to add anything to these comments?

Heidi Biggin: I completely agree with Matt. And something else that I've noticed as well is the collaboration with people with disability or the consultation in these processes. So, when they're looking at changing an application on the computer system or software and adding something to the physical office, there is that meaningful conversation, and what we've got to say and contribute is heard and listened to.

I know Central Highlands Water does it brilliantly, but looking at processes that aren't necessarily working that well and not just continuing to do them just because they always have. So, questioning those kinds of things.

Why can't we create a quiet space for people with anxiety or processing disorders?

Why can't we change our job ads? If I look at job ads on Seek, I can't meet many of the requirements: I don't drive a car, I can't work independently, and I can't access some parts of my community.

But why can't I be a valued member of a business?

Why do we always have to do these things because they always have been? We can be more inclusive.

And our water businesses are changing: Not change just for change's sake, but looking at people's experiences as a whole and how they can improve. And often, they're just the littlest things, but it's so lovely that we're even looking at them. So, yeah. My workplace is excellent.

Donald Hughan: Beautiful. Thank you for that, Heidi. That's fantastic. And it just recognises that you can do things. You don't need to shy away. If you want to do it, there'll be a way, whether or not it's the way someone with an able body does it. It may be a little different. And still, there are endless opportunities for people to do what they want to achieve.

And there's also support for people who want to achieve great things, which I know all of you three panellists are doing and doing fantastically.

I'm uplifted today and absolutely inspired. We all said today, all the panellists have said, and so did Victor, that he's probably about eight inches taller, filled with optimism. I think I'm about the same. Unfortunately for me, I'm short anyway, so I am probably still short (shared laughter from panel)

The passion is there for disability. Disability inclusion is there within our water industry. Our water industry is willing and accepting of someone with a disability and wants to learn more and ensure they provide the proper support. The reasonable adjustments are in place. And just making sure that the person they're dealing with has a disability, whether physical or invisible, that they're fulfilling their dreams of contributing to society, being out there and doing what they love.

And also, just actively engaging with people, which is fantastic. I know, for one, when I got offered a traineeship, it was probably the best day of my life. So, just having that sense of belonging, which is fantastic. So, thank you, all three of you. Always awesome. You guys are what make WaterAble who they are today, and also, the other wider membership, which is a privilege to me to be able to call myself the chair and lead an awesome bunch of people.

Wanda: Well, thank you for all the wonderful insights and takeaways. How can we learn more about what can be done in the broader small business economy to promote and develop a more disability-confident culture? Small businesses represent a large number of our workforce and simply do not have the resources that larger corporations, like our water companies, tend to have." So, any ideas on this for the small business sector?

Matt Iversen:  Yes, absolutely. Wanda, I think if you are advertising a new role, if you have a position in your small business available, it would be great to go and talk to a disability recruiter and just try and consider what it is, how your role can be achieved because there are a lot of people with disabilities who can achieve great things with minimal adjustments, or with maybe just some reasonable, small adjustments that you can meet.

So, having those conversations with someone who can recommend people and also recommend those adjustments is something that'll be extremely valuable to you. Because there are lots of things that can be done now, especially in this more digital world, since the pandemic. And particularly if that role doesn't need onsite presence, that opens up the world of opportunities for a bunch of people with disabilities, who can accomplish far more things in a role that they can do from their home, like Paris had talked to earlier.

So have a chat with a local disability recruiter. There are lots all over the state and country, and just see if you have a role that can be adapted and if there is someone who can meet those needs who's looking for work as well.

Donald Hughan: I thank Helen for joining us. It has been absolutely fantastic from WaterAble's point of view just to recognize that someone or an organisation at the high level of the sector is interested in what we do and embraces what we do. So, thank you for taking the time and joining us today. Much appreciated, and I look forward to engaging with you further. And also, a big shout out to VicWater, who is a partner with this event today. So, Jo Lim and your team at VicWater, thank you very much for everything you do for WaterAble and the support you provide us every day, which is fantastic. So, thank you. And once again, thank you for the wider WaterAble membership. You guys are wonderful. You are making a difference within our sector, and you will continue to make a difference. So, for those people out there wanting to learn more, please contact us on our website or we're on our social media, through Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. You can contact us. Look at joining if you would like to become a member. We're always on the lookout for new members. So, please reach out to us.

Donald Hughan is the Chair of WaterAble. Victor Perton is the Chief Optimism Officer at The Centre for Optimism.

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