One door slammed shut on Amber – then another opened
When Amber Lyons-Ormonde missed out on a teaching job due to her disability, she described it as a slap in the face.
“I’d applied to a local school for a job and got called in for an interview, and during the interview I discussed how my disability means I can’t stand for too long but that my disability employment service would be able to provide the workplace supports I’d need to fulfil my role,” Amber says.
“It was at that point the interviewers gave each other a look and one of them turned to me and said, ‘yeah, but could you do playground duty?’ Just the tone of his voice – he said they’d put me on their waiting list but I knew there was no chance.
“I’m a fully qualified teacher with many years’ experience in the classroom, RTOs (registered training organisations) and in early education centres, so to find myself rejected due to my disability was really demeaning.”
But as they say, when one door slams shut, another opens wide – and now this bubbly 35-year-old mother-of-two from Townsville is working full time as a SLES Coordinator for national disability services provider ‘breakthru’.
SLES stands for School Leaver Employment Supports and is a key plank of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), providing support and mentoring for young adults with disability transitioning from high school to employment.
“When I was rejected by the school, I thought to myself, if I’m being treated like this and I’m an educated woman, how are other people with disabilities being treated out in the workplace?” she asks rhetorically. “It’s just not fair.
“So when I was offered the role here at breakthru Townsville, I thought this is perfect. It marries my teacher training with my passion for disability rights.
“People with disability don’t want to be treated like second-class citizens in the workplace, they want to be treated as equals and they deserve to be.”
Three months into her new role, Amber says she is loving it, to the point she’s not sure she will ever go back to teaching.
Amber lives with osteitis condensans ilii, a condition which causes sclerosis of the iliac bone next to the spine and leads to chronic joint and nerve pain. She also endures lower back pain from a recent discectomy and finds walking difficult as she has subluxation and deformation of both knee joints from birth.
She can neither sit nor stand for prolonged periods of time due to the discomfort, which requires ongoing medication to manage.
Amber joined the NDIS as a participant in 2020 shortly after returning to Townsville with her partner, who works for the Royal Australian Air Force.
“With two young kids and my partner often absent for long periods of time, I reached a point where I realised I needed help to manage the demands of life,” she says.
That was when Amber met her Feros Care Local Area Coordinator (LAC) Andrew Bligh, who felt she would be perfect for the role of SLES Coordinator and put her in touch with breakthru Townsville’s Team Leader. The rest is history.
Amber manages a staff of seven but still spends around three hours in training sessions every day, supported by a facilitator, and is also able to work from home.
“Our SLES participants have all recently left school and have employment goals in their NDIS plans,” she says. “They stay with us for two years to build their employability skills, and we help connect them with both volunteering and work opportunities.
“We have participants with Down syndrome, autism, foetal alcohol syndrome, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), ADD (attention deficit disorder), other intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities as well.
“I did special education as one of my electives while studying to become a teacher and taught children with disability when I was working as a kindergarten teacher, so this job really matches my skillset.”
Amber says highlights so far include bringing employers on board to provide volunteering opportunities for the SLES participants “with a focus on their abilities, not their disabilities”.
“We’ve got 29 young people in our SLES class and they’re now all involved in volunteering out in the workplace,” she says. “When I arrived, we had roughly six in volunteering roles, so it’s a huge step forward.”
The SLES participants are taught a variety of key workplace skills to back up their volunteering, including customer service, conflict resolution, money handling and using public transport. They also get support to put together resumés and write cover letters to prospective employers.
“They come eight in a session, two times a week,” Amber says. “We’ve got the largest cohort of SLES participants in Townsville, if not Queensland.”
Outside of work, Amber says the NDIS has been wonderful.
“As soon as I got my funding I organised an assessor to come straight out to look at modifying my home, things like installing handrails and steps, and everything is now set up for me,” she says. “I can also access a range of therapies and assistive technology.
“To help at home I have support workers – if I didn’t have them, there’s no way I could work. Before I had the NDIS I struggled to get through my household chores, let alone think about getting a job.”
Amber currently uses a walking frame and a crutch to get around but, with more hip and knee surgery on the near horizon, her NDIS plan funding is essential for purchasing a wheelchair.
“Thanks to breakthru and the NDIS I feel my future is bright and I can definitely see a fruitful and fulfilling career ahead of me,” she says.