Driving independence in our youth with disability


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By Melissa Keogh

Northern suburbs woman Cathy Ryan remembers being only five years old when caring for her father, Kevin, who was left paralysed after contracting the crippling polio virus.

With the disease robbing her father of the ability to use his arms, a school-aged Cathy would stand on a stool to reach him, helping brush his teeth, shave, and comb his hair.

Her childhood ignited a desire to improve the independence of people with disability, and now Cathy is behind Empowering Futures, a learning environment helping to “fill the gap” in the disabilities sector.

“I could see the grief in Dad’s face when he had to ask me to do something,” she says.

“It taught me of the importance of helping people with disabilities to become as independent as possible.”

Based in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, Empowering Futures gives participants one-on-one training in everyday life skills, teaching them to live independently and reach their full potential.

Cathy has worked in the disability sector for more than 30 years.

Cathy says her business offers the only ‘simulated training house’ of its kind in SA, allowing people with disability to learn to cook and practice personal hygiene in a home-like environment.

The house in Salisbury East replicates the style and layout of a typical home so that people with disability can recognise similarities between the facility and their own residence.

About 40 people are signed up with Empowering Futures, the majority of them having intellectual disabilities, autism or Down syndrome.

Participants take part in programs, including the Independent Living Skills, Self Advocacy, Young Women’s and Young Men’s programs, to improve self esteem and confidence, carry out meal planning, cook, manage their finances and use public transport.

Empowering Futures also works with the Northern Adelaide Disability Workforce Hub to run work-ready programs to increase opportunities of entering mainstream employment.

Cathy says parents of young people with disability are often unaware that their children are capable of living independently if given the right tools and support.

“Parents are not always aware of what their children can do, they’re often quite surprised,” she says.

“So it’s about working with parents and the public as well … there are a lot of barriers we need to break down.


The Empowering Futures participants outside the simulated training house.

Cathy says she’s hoping to kick-start a Healthy Options course that teaches participants how to grow their own vegetables and herbs, plan meals, cook, and share meals together.

About 30 people are already on the waiting list, and she’s seeking a sponsor to help fund the program.

“I saw my father struggle and have seen different people struggle throughout my career, and I’m always asking myself, ‘why are there people living like this?'” Cathy says.

“I want to help people find their voice, make their own choices and take control of their own future.”

Cathy welcomes the continued rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in SA and says it will provide people with disability greater choice in accessing support programs and community activities.

“I think it will be really good for people who don’t necessarily have complex disabilities, but need to learn independence skills,” she says.

“It will allow them to get out of the house, be a part of the community and give them direction.”

Empowering Futures gives youth a chance to make friends and take part in new experiences.

Cathy began her working life as a student support officer with children with Down syndrome and autism at a Melbourne school.

She later spent 15 years at Domiciliary Care, working with the elderly, before heading to Disability SA for another 15 years.

Cathy is also passionate about improving the quality and skills of the disability sector workforce.

Her soon-to-be-expanded Disability Support Worker Training Program aims to quash stereotypes about working with people with disability and teaches employees to always ask before offering help to clients.

She says working in the disability sector “brings you back to reality”.

“You realise that life isn’t that bad,” Cathy says.

“People with disabilities just get on with it – a lesson we could all learn.”

Visit I Choose SA for Industry to learn more stories about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.

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