Episode 6- Dancing to Work

Hosts Dr Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos chat to Sue and Tonia from the Inclusion Foundation, a dual purpose organisation providing opportunities for young people with Down’s Syndrome to dance and to work. Inclusion Foundation was established by mom Cate Sayers after her 6 year old daughter was excluded from joining a dance class.

Speaker 1: Welcome to Loop Me In, the podcast community for parents and carers on raising children with disabilities. Join presenters Dr. Lisa Interline and Christine Cristopolis and their guests in sharing experiences, information and support ideas to help children with disabilities flourish. Loop Me In is brought to you weekly on platforms like Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Stitcher to name a few. You can learn more, connect to the Loop Me In community, and listen to more episodes on our website, loop-me-in.com.au.

Chris: Today, we speak to Sue and Antonia from Inclusion Foundation. Inclusion Foundation was founded by Cate Sayers who had a young daughter with down syndrome who wasn’t included in the local dance classes. Today, she heads an employment opportunities for down syndrome and dance companies throughout Victoria. Let’s welcome Sue and Antonia. Welcome, ladies.

Sue: Hi.

Antonia: Hi there. Thanks for having us.

Lisa: Do you like Tonia or Antonia?

Antonia: Tonia is fine.

Chris: Guys, tell us a little bit how the foundation started.

Antonia: I think I can take that one. Cate Sayers is a mother to four daughters. Her 19 year old, Alle, wanted to go to ballet classes, just like her older sisters when she was around about six years old, so that was around about 2009. Cate found it very challenging to find a service that was able to be fully inclusive and be able to provide an environment that her daughter could fully engage with and enjoy, because they just weren’t equipped to be able to deal with Alle’s needs. Cate Sayers, a very determined and a real doer, has gone and created her own dance school and found that there was actually a real gap in the market and found many dancers, so I think the first class was around about 40 children around about the same age, who really benefited from getting together and dancing.

Now, in terms of the dancing piece, the important part of the dancing piece wasn’t just to be dancing. It was the benefits that they got from interacting with other children and also the confidence skills that they built, the socialization skills. Emotion 21 really grew, which is the name of the dance class. Emotion 21 really grew into something of a community that was able to also benefit the carers of the children with down syndrome. It became a community of support and encouragement to develop the socialization and independence skills of people with down syndrome.

As Alle grew, they saw another gap in the market around being able to support Alle into employment, again, just like her sisters, and have those opportunities. Over the years, we know that people with down syndrome, just as capable with the right support, that they are able to contribute and be involved in the community similar to their peers. Inclusion Foundation was born a couple of years ago in 2019. Had a name change to reflect the values of the organization, that people with down syndrome should be treated as equal, active members of society and have the same opportunities and to live their best life and be included economically and socially in the communities. That’s how we started.

Chris: Yeah. It’s really amazing, isn’t it? I guess you don’t know the gaps until you’re living it yourself, don’t you?

Antonia: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the situation with the Sayers family. I suppose Alle wanted to achieve this and participate in the same things as to what her sisters were doing. She just needed a few tweaks, I guess, in terms of the support that was provided for her to be able to participate and enjoy that and get the same benefits out of it as what her sisters were getting out of their dance classes.

Lisa: We’ve met some amazing people, haven’t we, Chris?

Chris: Yeah.

Lisa: How many entrepreneurs who have either got family members who have had disabilities, brothers, fathers, sisters, and have created out of that some amazing businesses or support organizations? She must be an amazing person.

Antonia: Yeah. Absolutely. For Cate and the Sayers family, it really is also about building that community, because as we’ve talked about before, it’s about connecting with other people who are experiencing the same challenges that you are. Sometimes, you might not know how to navigate some of the challenges that you have, especially depending on what situation your family might be in. To be in a community that’s supportive and has access and understanding and knowledge of other services and opportunities, and just that real camaraderie in a way, to be able to support each other through those processes is really what the Inclusion Foundation is about. It’s really quite a normal situation, and everybody contributes to everybody’s opportunities and understands each other. It’s a really important part of the process, especially in the younger years of an individual who might be living with down syndrome.

Chris: I think with the Emotion 21, is it?

Antonia: Emotion 21. 21 refers to the 21st chromosome.

Chris: Okay. I think what you said before, it’s all about belonging. It’s not just the dance routine that they learn. It’s all about them hanging out together and feeling a sense of achievement when they do get to the concert or the end of the class.

Antonia: A hundred percent. We celebrate individuality. We talk a lot about enabling our participants to be individuals and the best version of their own selves. And so, we have concerts, and the concerts are also to demonstrate to the outside world as well as their community about their unique attributes as individuals and how special they are, just like anybody else. We talk about quirky characters or individuals. We’re always encouraging others to be themselves, and this is a really important part of the community that we’ve built in Inclusion Foundation because we find that our participants are each other’s best champions. That sense of belonging, that sense of understanding, really catapults the participants to be themselves amongst their peers. And then, of course, the courage to do that in other elements of the community as well.

Chris: I watched a great video on your website where Shay, I think her name was, graduated and got a job at JB Hi-Fi, and just loved watching how happy she was because she had a job in a place that she’s probably familiar with. I know my son would love to work in JB Hi-Fi as well. Tell us about the graduation program.

Sue: The Impact 21 Program?

Chris: Yeah.

Sue: Yeah. As Tonia said, Cate’s been very adept at seeing the needs in this space. You’re probably aware yourself that you have to be your child’s advocate, you don’t know what’s out there until… That’s the response we get a lot. The Impact 21 Program was developed to assist in open employment, and it has come along and it’s gone through a few iterations. This year, it is also going into a blended model where there’s some online component to it as well, recognizing, I guess, the way education, best practice in education, is delivered. It’s 13 short courses and it all works to building up into being ready for employment by the building of emotional independence and self-regulation, the know yourself. The first trimester is all about thinking about your self-regulation, your self-management, then looks at practice labs and experience in hospitality, customer service and administration.

That is very much where we start to link and have relationships with our employer partners. We quickly recognize that we have two groups that we’re bringing together and we need to educate both group. We have, in conjunction with Deacon University, we’ve developed a program for our employees as well. In that space, there’re modules for both colleagues and also for supervising. It actually then forms potentially part of the credential with Deacon University. The aim of that program is to really build confidence in having our participants come and work in that environment. It’s really providing strategies and techniques to assist in that space. The Impact Program, our participants start from trimester two to spend increasing amount of times at these workplaces doing increasingly complex tasks so that it’s building up their knowledge of “Yes, I like that one. I might like this skill.”

We have a very strength-based approach, and we also really encourage the building of that growth mindset, because this is often the first opportunity our participants have to actually try something and go, “I can do that.” This year, we’re also implementing a variety of micro credentials for our participants so we can really provide employers with evidence of learning. “This is the skillset that we have seen in that participant. This is why we think they would be a good match for this role.” We have two iterations of the course, has participants in open employment. They graduate through this course in March. We currently got another group going through who are starting to commence their orientations and task experience with our employer partners.

Lisa: Can you explain what open employment means, Sue?

Sue: It means that the role has accommodations made, but a minimum wage is paid and they go through an interview process for that as well.

Lisa: Fantastic. I work a lot in diversity and social inclusion in a corporate sense, and a lot of the work that I do talks about employees feeling included and a sense of belonging and promoting diversity. This is the step that organizations need to take as their next part of their journey into this space, is to include people who have different needs and capabilities. We’ve done a lot in [inaudible 00:11:16] diversity. What are some of the challenges that you think, or some of the blockages from employers getting involved in these employment programs?

Sue: I think unknowns. I think apprehension about “How do I manage? How do I support? How do I build growth?” That’s why I think the provision… We don’t just provide inclusion confidence training online. We also, with our employer partners, we have a team that provides regular workshops, uses scenarios that they’ve seen as teaching moments, and works through it with our employer partners. It’s a very supported process of, we have job coaches with the participants for as long as that is required. They’re able to say, “Maybe if the task was done this way or if you provided this resource, this will be of assistance.” I think we’ve got credentials in this area about knowing. And so, we’re able to support and guide a concept of true inclusion. I think we work from that space.

Antonia: Can I just add to that as well that I was recently visiting an employer partner? We often say that it’s very easy to make an inclusive workspace and it’s not just something that would improve the business aspect or the output for the individual for the person that might be working for them. Some of the knock on effects that are created when you create an inclusive workspace, extremely beneficial, not only to the culture of the organization, but also to the output of the organization. When I recently went and visited a factory scenario, or not a factory, it was a warehouse scenario, we were looking at some adjustments that might need to be made to the workplace to be able to accommodate some of the tasks that would be allocated to the employee that would be working there, we talked about there were rows and rows of boxes that were just plain boxes and they had these tiny little codes underneath them to be able to pick the product out of the box and pack it to be shipped off to the customer.

It was a funny situation. I suggested that we would need to potentially put photos of the items on there, or pictures of the items on there, with the size very clearly labeled on the box. Nothing that wouldn’t cost anything. It’s just a photocopy job, basically. Photocopy a few, stick it on the boxes. The warehouse manager looked at me almost incredulously and said, “Wow, what a good idea.” Wouldn’t that be, everybody would benefit from that? Everybody would find that such an easier process to be able to work with. We often have that two-way conversation with our employer partners. It doesn’t cost anything just to make these small tweaks to the business to be able to benefit everybody. That’s a really important, important message because I think that sometimes, businesses might feel like it’s going to cost too much money.

Sue: We work with employer partners, yes, and they usually are national, very well-known companies who have a real commitment to true inclusion and diversity. And then, there is a process by which we call it discovery. Our employee liaison team spend quite a lot of time building that relationship with the employer partner. And then, they will actually go out to the organization, they’ll do a walk through of what they’re thinking about, the potential role. They’ll look at the environment. They’ll, again, what Tonia was talking about, those suggestions, those “If we take this bit or we could put this bit in.” And then, through a series of these task experience and job experience, it might become really obvious that there’s a level of dexterity there that we hadn’t anticipated that probably not going to… Could we swap it out for this or could we do it this way? That’s when it becomes really collaborative, and it has to be a commitment to certain number of hours and a certain… The minimum wage is what’s involved as well.

Chris: We have a business where Matthew actually comes to our factory and we had some two other boys come with him for about two years and they both had down syndrome. It was just also not them that were rewarded by being there. It was also the staff that were there who most had no experience being around anyone that was different. I think they get a lot out of it as well, just understanding that you do have to speak differently to some people. They learn, they say to me all the time that we learn so much from having them there at the factory.

Antonia: Yeah, that is definitely one of the values of the organization, is to embrace individuality because that’s the reality of life. Everywhere you go, you’re going to come across and experience different people who think differently. We get a lot of feedback as well that our participants are enriching their workplaces. They’re enriching their communities. We’re looking at developing a volunteer program as well, because just like everybody, I think when you give someone an opportunity, and especially someone who grasps it with both hands, that the recipient is getting so much more out of it, that they are reaching their full potential, to see environments where, culturally, people actually ban together. They’re actually galvanizing because they have a common purpose. They are sharing the same values of inclusivity and celebrating individuality. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback. Just the opportunity to meet someone, like you suggested, that’s not someone that would ordinarily end up in your world is a really good thing, I think, for individuals in and outside of the workplace.

Lisa: How did you, Sue and Tonia, get involved in this? Why did you get involved?

Sue: For myself, I’ve worked in this preparation for workspace for a long time. I have as one of my key values when I seek employment is the transformation power of education. Across sectors, there’s core things that are the same and this building of independence, this encouraging of critical thinking, this growth mindset, “You can do it”, it’s worked in most environments I’ve been in. I was very drawn to the opportunity to provide that, to bring my experience to this space and encourage this inclusiveness. I just thought it was, as soon as I saw it, the role, I was very drawn to it for that reason.

Lisa: I mean, that whole “Can, can’t” perspective is really important, but can you explain a bit about what a growth mindset is?

Sue: Often, our participants have… Not often, but sometimes, I find for our participants, their education experience to date has often involved a focus on their limitations, a focus on what they can’t do, and we really encourage throughout the program that development of a mind that “I perhaps can’t do this yet” and “What is another way you can do it?” Or if you work in a team, how you can do this really well and the other team member can do that. Let’s put those skills together and see what happens.

We did some more work on that. We launched a holiday program in the school holidays, and we brought together alumni and current participants, letting them mix and get to know each other. We did some team building skills in the morning, and we went out in the afternoon on an Amazing Race type experience, and they were just really, “This is my team. Let me introduce my team.” It’s all those experiences that actually get them to consider and go, “Actually, I might be able to do this.” Even travel training, when they get to the university where we have the class by themselves for the first time, their faces, just the sense of achievement when they walk in is just the start of a “Can do” mentality. We really encourage that.

Chris: I think it’s like what you said before. They also see their siblings going to work and they know that they also probably should be doing something like that. They must feel really proud that they’re also in that sort of environment.

Sue: Absolutely. Absolutely. And also, get to know the people in the coffee shop at the uni, or feel a part of you… Just walking down and walking out or interacting, I think that’s all a growth experience. Getting themselves on public transport, to and from each day, there’s a real sense of achievement in that.

Lisa: Tonia, what about you? How did you get involved?

Antonia: I’ve been working for various different charities for many years. I would say that Inclusion Foundation almost found me. I’m very much about celebrating individuality and telling a story, and I feel my primary role as a charity worker is giving a voice to our participants. The experience that I’ve had so far in working with the Inclusion Foundation and people with down syndrome has been an extraordinary experience. I remember the first dance class. We were doing a viral video, and I used to consider myself quite the dancer back in the nineties, but there was absolutely no way that I could do what our participants were doing on the day. I naturally asked, I said, “Do you think that this might be a little bit complicated? Maybe we’d need to tone it down somewhat.” The response was, “Of course not. They’ve been dancing for years. This is their thing.”

It really struck me that it’s not about meeting in the middle in any situation. It’s actually potentially meeting on someone else’s level, because we have the opportunity to make choices. There’s so much available for me to be able to choose, but our people with down syndrome are often forgotten or overlooked about what they can do. Just like what Sue was saying around that growth mindset, I’ve learned a lot about myself as an individual from a group of individuals who have always had to work a little bit harder than everybody else to be able to achieve what they do. I think that is an individual trait. It’s not necessarily something that can be homogenized across a certain group of people. I think being able to celebrate individuals for what they are, what they can contribute as an individual, is something that really resonates me.

That’s how I’ve ended up here. I’ve made a real commitment to ensuring that our participants and people with down syndrome have a voice, and that they can use their voice as an individual, in their way, to tell their stories in their way. I think it’s a really important part of the work that we do. The dancing is an important pathway into the employment process, I think, because you build that confidence, you build that sense of worth and that sense of self-esteem. I think that’s a really important thing from someone who’s always struggled with that myself. To see someone else experiencing that in a different way was something that was really important to me, so that’s how I ended up at the Inclusion Foundation.

Chris: How do you start up, if people listening out there who have probably children around 18, would you say, years old, out of the school system?

Sue: This year, we launched a second program and that’s the foundation program. That’s for 16 to 22 year olds. And then, the Impact one is 22 to 35.

Chris: Okay.

Lisa: Do people tend to, once they’ve got a job, do they tend to stay there for a period of time? What’s your experience? I know you’ve had some people graduate and pick up some jobs. What has their experience been?

Sue: COVID has impacted that somewhat. Yes, we still have a lot of participants in the original role that they were in. It may have been modified somewhat if it was a hospitality role or an office environment where no one was going. That has impacted certain roles, but others have been there for periods of time now.

Antonia: I think it’s important to note that the adjustments that had to be made are the same adjustments that would had to be made for anyone. I know I onboarded onto this role remotely. I found that challenging. Our participants also onboarded remotely into their jobs, but they had the support, not only from the Impact 21 program, their job coaches, and of course the community, the Inclusion Foundation community, behind them every step of the way saying, “How can we help? What can we do to be able to facilitate your success?”

Chris: Yeah. I feel like we could talk to you all day about this because it sounds amazing. We’ve obviously both got adults that would definitely like this experience because it’s all about fitting in and doing what everybody else is doing, and you guys are definitely doing that for the down syndrome community. I really appreciate you both coming and being on our podcast today. We’ve really enjoyed it. We hope to hear more about it in the future.

Lisa: The concerts, do people… Can anybody go? Are they on YouTube? How can we connect to those?

Antonia: Absolutely, they are. If you’re in Melbourne, in Camberwell, on the 18th of September, you can come along to the concert. We’ve got two. It will be advertised in our website, inclusionfoundation.org.au, or look at us on Facebook, Inclusion Foundation. Yeah, everybody’s welcome. They can come along. We’ve got a great YouTube channel as well with lots of dancing and we also have virtual classes. A lot of our participants do both. They come to classes, and then they also come on virtually as well. There’s definitely an opportunity to get involved, but the concert in September is going to be amazing. We also have got some shows in the Fringe Festival in October. [inaudible 00:25:51], I think it’s called, that will be available and open to the public as well in October across various locations in Melbourne.

Lisa: Fantastic. I look forward to that. Nice to meet you, Sue. Nice to meet you, Tonia.

Antonia: Nice to meet you. Thank you.

Sue: Thank you for having us.

Chris: Thanks, ladies.

Antonia: Bye.

Sue: Bye.

Speaker 1: Thanks for being part of the Loop Me In community today and joining our conversation on raising children with disabilities. Join us for the next episode on some of your favorite platforms like Spotify and Apple Podcasts. If you would like to support us, please recommend the Loop Me In podcast to your network of parents, carers and providers. If you would like us to cover a topic or invite a guest to chat, please email us at contact@loop-me-in.com.au, or go to our website at loop-me-in.com.au. If you’ve got any feedback, please let us know so we can improve and cover issues you want. Of course, if anything in the podcast today has raised concerns for you, you can contact Beyond Blue on 1-300-2246-36, or Lifeline on 1-3111-4.

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