Making a difference in the community

Posted on 06 November 2017

Marianne Hubbard remembers the day one of her customers told her, "I just burst into tears because my child who was never going to speak said, 'I love you Mum.'"

After nine years as chief executive of Pinarc Disability Support, Marianne could tell stories like these for days. There are so many, she says, because everything her staff does makes a difference. "The people we support are genuinely wonderful people who've been overlooked by the community. It's that classic line: get to know the person and the disability drops away."

Her journey to Pinarc was a veritable road trip of support services – as a registered psychologist she worked in mental health, particularly with victims of trauma and crime; she oversaw mental health programs; case-managed long-term unemployed; set up a program for homeless youth; moved into aged care; at Ballarat hospital she honed the skills needed to run an organisation. Arriving at Pinarc in 2008 she felt all of that experience come together in heart-warming symmetry. "Truly, from the first day I sat down and felt, 'I've come home.'"

Pinarc's beginnings were humble – four families with children in wheelchairs in a church hall doing what they could to make their lives a little easier. Marianne loves that those people are now "life members", with rooms at one of two new facilities named after each family. The original site – a bland, brown brick 1970s classic of its type – is a marker of how far they've come. It was purpose-built for people with high support needs; the ceiling hoists, ball pits and hydrotherapy pool remain, but in mindset and attitude all has changed.

The biggest shift at Pinarc has been cultural, starting with language. Staff across the organisation no longer treat or refer to those they help as clients. "Purposefully we use the word 'customer' to keep reminding people that these are people who are in control of their money, and are making their own choices. We are walking alongside them, supporting their goals, helping them to do whatever it is they want. They're the best decision-makers."

In driving top-to-bottom change at Pinarc Marianne introduced "lean thinking" to accommodate the arrival of the NDIS, and a new social enterprise called EasyTech Living which grew from a brainstorming session in which a staff member mentioned the home automation her electrician husband was working with. She sought the guidance of Central Queensland University, developed a business plan, and formed partnerships. The result is a social enterprise that sends 100 percent of profits back to Pinarc, and which Marianne calls "a deal-breaker".

She cites a water-obsessed child on the autism spectrum whose mother found him in the shower – mercifully standing under cold water. Now, if he turns the water on an alert is sent to his mother's phone, and she can choose to shut it off immediately no matter where she is, or investigate in person if she's close by.

For children prone to running away, or customers with dementia, a GPS tracker can be worn that allows carers to pull up a Google map and locate them at any time. A mobility-challenged customer who used to worry that her door was left unlocked to allow support staff access can now use her phone to see who is on her doorstep, and let them in without moving.

Marianne's efforts were also acknowledged recently when she was shortlisted for the 2017 Telstra Business Women's Award. At the Awards ceremony on October 10, Marianne's category was won by Katy Barfield, founder of a sustainable food program that prevents food from going to landfill. Hubbard could not have been happier for her. Her only regret was not being afforded the winner's platform to send a message to a huge room filled with business leaders.

This is what she would have said:

"We all know, somewhere, a small child that makes us smile for just being themselves. Now imagine this child excited, in their best clothes, ready for their kinder photographs. After the first group photo, the child you know is taken away to play somewhere else, while a second photo is taken to be sent home to parents. This is heartbreakingly a true story, and the type of overt discrimination that many people with a disability experience repeatedly throughout their lives.

"Less overt is the discrimination that comes from our personal attitudes and expectations. We can't assume that a person with a communication difficulty does not have something incredibly interesting or important to say. Neither should we expect that a person with a physical disability also has an intellectual disability.

"We have to start by assuming nothing and see each person for who they truly are, with their own strengths and weaknesses, commonalities with us and individual differences.

"And to the little girl excluded from the photo I want to say: Don't listen, try not to let this knock you. Dream your biggest dream and go for it. You have just as much right to it as anyone else."