Simone Masters creating links between GSSC students with a disability and industry

By Madi Chwasta

Greater Shepparton Secondary College's Simone Masters hates the word disability.

She much prefers “diversABILITY”.

“Because everyone has an ability, and it’s about finding that,” Ms Masters said.

And that's exactly what she's discovering as GSSC's Inclusive Industry Engagement Coordinator — a specialised careers counsellor for students in Years 7 to 10 who are living with a disability.

Whether the student has a physical disability, is on the autism spectrum, or lives with debilitating anxiety, Ms Masters works with them one-on-one, discovers what they want from a career, and creates links with workplaces for placement.

“These students bring an amazing culture, and a different perspective to a workplace,” Ms Masters said.

Ms Masters’ role was created as part of a new Victorian Government pilot established across only three schools in Victoria.

The program has the potential to change lives; students with a disability often don’t have the same networks as others, and need that extra support to secure employment.

These students also may feel like they don't fit in, and being shown employment opportunities can bring extraordinary benefits to their wellbeing.

“Work builds independence, self-sufficiency and self-confidence,” Ms Masters said.

“These students want to do the same things as their family, and to be no different to everyday students.”

Ms Masters uses some creative thinking and her connections to industry to make these opportunities happen.

“We have students who love animals, or landscaping, or anything that has a routine,” she said.

“If they want to be a builder, we take them out to a construction site, and if they're interested in law, we figure out what's their level within that.”

It's careers counselling, but through a “disability lens” — a lens Ms Masters has developed throughout her life.

She worked at GOTAFE for close to a decade, where she established the Skills and Jobs Centre, and helped adults who were unemployed or living with a disability.

Before this, Ms Masters was in the commerce world, where she worked in business development and ran a small business of her own.

But she's also a mother to Nate, 15, who has high functioning autism.

Her family began fostering Nate a couple of years ago at the suggestion of her partner Darren, who's a social worker at Verney Road School.

Ms Masters said being a foster parent had been an amazing experience which had involved helping Nate navigate the world of employment.

“He wants to be a hairdresser, so we chunked it down and he's doing a salon assistance course.”

When Ms Masters finished up at GOTAFE in March, it seemed as though the role at the college — combining careers with a disability focus — was a custom-made fit.

“It's been a great, lovely transition,” Ms Masters said.

She started in mid-May, and while remote learning has made things trickier, her ambitions haven't been shaken. Ms Masters aims to develop a partnership with Verney Road School, and when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted she looks forward to getting students out on excursions and placements, and hopes they land employment as a result.

But she needs the community's help, and is asking local businesses and industry to get in touch if interested in supporting the program.

“We have to find organisations willing to take on students,” she said.

“Even if we get the student out on placement one day a week, I want to take the fear away and support the placement.”

It's all aimed at a bigger goal of changing lives and attitudes in the community, by showing that everybody can not only fit in, but can thrive.

“It's been amazing promoting the positives,” Ms Masters said.

“Some students are just the happiest kids on earth, and it has been so rewarding.”

● To get in touch with Simone Masters, contact her by phone on 0492 859 047 or via email at [email protected]