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Informal supports: how, when, what you can offer

By Fran Vicary - posted Tuesday, 20 May 2014

“Do you know want some help with that?” a stranger asked as I sat waiting with my sushi at a food court table while my support worker bought my coffee.

I could tell from how the well-presented professional asked the question that, had I said, “I need you to put the sushi in my mouth so I can eat it”, he would have sat right down and proceeded to feed me my lunch.

This got me thinking about how important it is to encourage the general public to understand the simple, day-to-day things they can do to assist people with disabilities to be part of community. This will though, require people with disabilities and the sector to help the general public feel confident in their ability to assist.


As a woman who cannot dress or feed herself, I have explored the boundaries of what it’s ok to ask strangers, aka the general public, to assist with and things that would be just pushing the limits too far. The basic guide I use is anything simple, that doesn’t take too long and doesn’t involve any kind of personal care support or bodily function…Which is why I was somewhat surprised when the person in the food court offered to feed me.

Usually it takes some time for people to know me, in the workplace, as colleagues, friends or fellow students, before they get that ‘assisting with/facilitating the trajectory of food from serving reciprocal to my mouth’ is all part of the tapestry of knowing me and being my friend.

Growing up on a remote cattle property in North-West Queensland with a road between two towns going passed the front gate, there were always people dropping by. My Mum would make several morning teas, lunches, afternoon teas, dinners and ask people to stay and not travel on along the dusty, dirt roads in the dark. While I didn’t help with prepping food or beds, I was expected to chat to these people. As a shy child, this was not fun.

My parents also encouraged aunties, uncles, cousins, people who worked on the station to feed me, push my pram (later wheelchair) and include me. So I got used to people around me helping out.

It wasn’t until I was five and a half and had to be in an institution for school-terms to receive therapy and what passed for ‘education’ in the 1970s, that I realised what a strange existence I had a home. In the institution, everything was done by paid staff or volunteers and we were shut off from the community. I was so glad to get out of there after five and a half years and return to living at home.

Agai, I lived in a different part of Queensland with my parents and there are photos of me being assisted to be part of life. At my sister’s 21st birthday party everyone was busy doing food and stuff so one of the blokes who’d worked for Dad and Mum as a station-hand ended up feeding me dinner.


I remember years later, we were doing renovations and the ramp was blocked off but we had to go to the cattle yards. My parents said to another station-hand, “help Francis get out the back and into the four-wheel drive”. He had to sit me on the clothes hoist landing, lift my wheelchair over the top and to the ground, put me under the railing and back into the wheelchair then get me into the four-wheel drive. I’m sure he thought moving cows was much easier because he was very nervous. But my parents had ‘normalised’ it by not making a big deal and just asking him to do that in the same way they would ask him to find the dairy cow for milking.

Having learned this matter-of-fact way of requesting assistance has really helped me throughout my life. I was once going to a dinner in Queensland, had no-one to go with and didn’t particularly want to rely on the support workers supplied. I rang a friend and he came along and fed me and had a great time.

As a person with disability, I understand the need for formal support with showering, dressing, food-prep and the like. But I am so much more independent than I might be because I will ask people in shops to get my wallet and credit card out and help with transactions, rather than taking formal supports. I’d go nuts if I had a support worker with me all of the time just in case I needed something.

On the days that I work in the city, if I get to work early I go to the café around the corner and get a cup of coffee. They put the coffee in a take-away cup with a straw, bring a glass of water with a straw and help me by getting my wallet and money out when I want to pay.

People with disabilities and organisation in the disability sector really need to get better at helping the general public to know that they can assist. You don’t need training to open a door, help someone get a cup of tea/coffee, buy a drink in a bar, put a hat back on that’s fallen off or cross the road. You just need confidence and a sense of being part of the bigger human picture.

This is not just important because it forms a more cohesive society. It important because it makes people with disabilities more included and safer; it saves on support costs; and it’s vital for the financial sustainability of the NDIS.

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About the Author

Fran Vicary is a well-known advocate for the rights of people with disability. She has a Masters in literature and is former CEO of the Queensland Disability Network. Fran was on the on the NDIS Advisory Group and the NDIS Expert Group and is currently Director Assistive Technology, Community Living and Learning for Yooralla, Victoria's largest disability service provider.

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