4 Disability Support Worker Skills You Need to Make a Difference
Many people choose to pursue disability support work as a career because they hold an innate ability to empathise, care for, and help others. Often people want to enter the field because they have a friend or family member with a disability.
They understand the experiences people have in the sector – both positive and negative – and want to make a positive contribution to the lives of people with disabilities.
Disability support workers provide direct care to clients, often in their own homes, to support them with a range of daily living tasks, improving their independence and quality of life. The precise duties will depend on the wants and needs of the individual client. You may also work as part of a team responsible for the client’s care.
If you’re thinking about becoming a disability support worker, chances are you already have a lot of the necessary skills and traits to thrive in it. Skills such as:
Breanne Drummond, Disability Support Worker at Coastal Residential Service in Burnie, Tasmania, shares her insights into how these skills come into play on the job, and why they’re critical.
As a disability support worker, you will be working with clients who have a range of communication styles, levels of mobility or use of mobility aids, symptoms, and sensitivities that are different to yours. Empathy is the ability to understand what life is like for your clients, and to ensure that clients’ needs are met and that they feel supported.
“I believe that empathy is critical for disability support. You have to be able to pick up on the cues and things that they’re displaying or showing. Without empathy, I don’t think that you would be very successful in the role — that’s my personal opinion. I feel that I probably use empathy every day, in different situations. You have to be able to just empathise with how they’re feeling or the frustrations they may be feeling from their various disabilities.”
You can build your empathy by:
- Following people with disabilities on social media such as Twitter or YouTube to get a sense of the different ways people understand their conditions and feel supported.
- Talking to a wide range of people, including young people and older people, and people with a wide range of different backgrounds. You can do this by joining a club for a shared interest or sport, or being part of an online discussion group.
- Reading stories about people who have experiences and world views different to your own.
The role of a disability support worker is not to tell clients what to do, or necessarily do things for them. Instead, it’s about helping people form and realise their own goals, and live as independently as possible.
You’re facilitating clients’ choices and individuality, not imposing daily activities and routines on them. You assist clients in making their own care plans and carrying those out.
“I had one client, and I noticed that he was in quite a lot of pain. I had to facilitate with him to realise that he needed to seek a doctor’s medical advice. And then I supported him through the process of knowing that, when the pain is too much, he can have that medical advice and pain relief.”
One way to build on this skill is through an awareness of different models of disability and how they may relate to your future clients’ lives. The medical model of disability holds that disability results from people’s specific conditions and symptoms. For example, if someone has had their leg amputated, they’re disabled because their condition means they can’t walk.
Unlike the medical model, the social model of disability says that disability occurs when society is inaccessible.
So, someone who has had their leg amputated may experience disability because there are no wheelchair ramps on the buildings they need to use.
The social model may help you and your clients identify where they face external barriers to doing the things they want to do in life. Things like installing access ramps, signage in braille, closed captions, and quiet rooms can make events and spaces more inclusive.
Facilitation may involve:
- Installing access equipment in clients’ homes so that they are able to do more things independently.
- Facilitating a client’s social activities by driving them to different places.
- Helping them articulate their needs during outings, to friends and family members, or to service providers such as disability employment service providers (DES providers).
The medical model can be useful in situations where different treatment options such as medications or therapies may relieve clients’ symptoms or discomfort. Here, facilitation in disability support services would involve liaising with other members of your client’s care team, such as medical doctors, allied health professionals, or other support people to help make daily tasks more manageable for clients.
Disability support workers need excellent communication skills to build rapport with clients. An important aspect of being a carer is building that relationship and acting as a friend or confidante to the client. Home support can be intimate and may involve helping people with their personal hygiene or mental health. It’s important that you have your client’s consent and trust.
Different clients will communicate in different ways. Some may not communicate verbally or may have impaired verbal communication. Some may be deaf or hard of hearing.
“You need to be able to communicate with the participants for their needs, their wants, their likes, their dislikes. If you can’t communicate with them, you’re not going to be able to fulfil their needs and make their life worthwhile. And these days, there are so many different ways you can communicate. There’s body language, there are gestures. A lot of participants have communication apps on iPads or cue cards. If you’ve got a nonverbal client, they can pick up their cue cards and point to whatever they’re feeling or what they want. If they can’t verbalise it with their mouth, you’ve got to make sure there’s another way to communicate.”
You can build on communication skills by:
- Learning how to communicate about disability sensitively by reading language guides.
- Learning Auslan, Easy English, and about augmentative and alternative communication. You can also learn about how to communicate clearly to people who are hearing impaired.
Your approach to each client needs to be tailored to suit them and will vary depending on their personality, age, interests, and disabilities. You’ll need to listen carefully, communicate clearly, and with empathy to get a sense of what approach will work. You’ll also need to be willing to change your approach as you get feedback from your client.
Adaptability can involve creativity. Since individual needs are idiosyncratic, you might need to try a few different ideas to see what works for them. For example, if a client doesn’t enjoy their exercises, you could help them brainstorm ways it could be more fun such as by incorporating music they like, or by going outdoors.
Adaptability involves constructively accepting the situation you find yourself in and thinking about it flexibly with creative problem-solving.
“You’re there to support them and what they want, what they feel like. And just like any normal person, they’re going to have days where they’re going to change their minds or not want to do something or have an off day where they just want to be at home. And you just have to be adaptable and go with them and change as they change.”
Some ways you can build adaptability include:
- Embrace all learning opportunities. It’s always useful to have a broad knowledge base to help you understand new situations.
- Ask friends and family members for their perspectives on different issues to see the different ways you can approach a problem or idea.
- Question the reason why things are done in a certain way rather than simply accepting them as inevitable or ‘just the way things are done’. In the disability sphere, for example, you could reflect on the ways various environments work to exclude people with different access requirements, and how these barriers could have been avoided with better design (and could still be avoided with modifications).
More disability support worker skills
Chances are, if you’re considering a career in disability support work, you’ll already be:
- Committed to facilitating people’s independent choices
- A good communicator who is sensitive to different communication styles and needs
There are many full-time and part-time employment opportunities promising a good work-life balance for people who are passionate and care about the disability sector. Other technical skills and soft skills include:
Many of the skills and traits required to make a real difference as a disability support worker are innate.
The industry is desperately seeking people with your passion and qualities.
Take the next step in your journey. Discover qualifications that will give you more capability to help others.
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