Episode 9- What Ability!

We welcome another entrepreneur and warrior for disability in Steve Dresler, founder and CEO of What Ability. Hosts Dr Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos chat to Steve about his inspiration to bring happiness to people with a disability and challenge them to be the best they can be.

Speaker 1:                        Welcome to Loop Me In, the podcast community for parents and carers on raising children with disabilities. Join presenters, Dr. Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos 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.

Speaker 2:                        Steve Dresler was one of the rising stars of the NRL with Parramatta Eels until his career came to an end before it even began. But he turned his life around and created a foundation called What Ability and we are super excited to have him on our podcast today. Hi Steve, how are you?

Steve Dresler:                  Hi, thank you for having me.

Speaker 2:                        Now tell us about your time with the NRL.

Steve Dresler:                  So I grew up to play in the NRL and I played sport my whole life and especially rugby league and my dream was to play in the NRL and it got cut short due to several knee injuries and operations on that. But I didn’t quite get to the NRL, I played with the Parramatta Eels in SG ball, twenties and reserve grade signed and was due to start preseason in six weeks with NRL and done my knee for the third time. So unfortunately that got cut short a few weeks early, but yeah, obviously set up What Ability now, which is a business that looks after people living with a disability and yeah, it’s super simple but exciting.

Speaker 4:                        What motivated you to set it up, Steve?

Steve Dresler:                  In the NRL role and coming through the juniors, I played in the NYC competition, which is the National Youth Competition. And they had a rule in there that you had to work or learn to be able to play. So boys would study or boys would do laboring jobs. And I had become a teacher’s aide at an autistic school called Giant Steps. And at that time I was the first player to go there. And then by the end of my time there, after four years, the club had about 10 boys there and they had a great relationship and a partnership with the school and it was an exclusive right sort of thing.

So then some of the boys wanted to work on weekends. So then I thought, look, why don’t I start a little disability service to help them boys out for some work? And it was only supposed to be small. And then from there on it just grew and grew and grew. And parents were… Young male athletes and young males working with people with disability. It was unheard of, and it was not very common. So then that’s how it’s just grown, as just parents who just wanted support. And now we’ve got about 140 support workers in Sydney and we’ve got not full timers in here and it’s growing rapidly.

Speaker 2:                        And I think what I love is looking at your social pages, the smiles on the guy’s faces.

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah.

Speaker 2:                        They’re having the best weekends.

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah.

Speaker 2:                        Doing exactly what they should be doing, but obviously, probably wouldn’t be able to do that with their parents.

Steve Dresler:                  Exactly, right. And everyone plays their vital roles in these people’s lives. From therapists to teachers, to doctors, to parents, to siblings, to support workers. And we’re just an extension of that. And we do very well in terms of, we just focus on community access. And you’re right, parents are scared or parents find it hard to take their kids to them places because they’ve got them relationships and their routines with them that might not necessarily be the best outside of the home environment. So it’s a little bit easier for us to come in and be that sort of touch and go service and be able to give these kids and people opportunities in the community. But yeah, and with our [inaudible 00:03:52] , we love to showcase what these people can do because they can all jump, run, swim, play, go on jet skis, go swimming, go surfing, bush walks, go go-karting and do all this.

Yes. Some of them can’t read or write or talk or… And then some of them have jobs and everything like that. But they can all do them fun things in life that we did as kids and that we can do. And we do every single day, whether that’s going to the football or going to an event or going go-karting and doing all them things. So that’s where we like to showcase it and where some people and the old way will sort of hide it. Whereas we love to just get it out there.

And that’s one thing that the athletes are great at. We’ve got a lot of professional and semiprofessional athletes that work with us. And then we’ve got a lot of people that aren’t athletes that just want to work and have full time jobs and it’s amazing. But that’s what makes us unique, is some of our support workers are professionals and professional athletes. And that’s where the athletes, especially the professional ones are so good because we’ve got, for instance, Angus Bell that goes out with a young kid with Autism or Maddy Proud that goes out with a young girl with Cerebral Palsy and they can go out and they’re seen, and they’re known by the community. They play on TV, they play for their country. So how can they help us break down them barriers and them stigmas around people with disability and that’s helping every single day is using them athletes, so.

Speaker 4:                        That’s a fantastic idea. Isn’t it? I hadn’t really thought about that. That you’re actually addressing stigma by using these…

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah.

Speaker 4:                        Models for inclusion.

Steve Dresler:                  Well, exactly. And for instance, Angus goes out with Jojo that’s non-verbal. So he doesn’t understand sport, he doesn’t understand who Angus is, but he loves, and he is able to connect on that energy level, that athletic level, where they can run and jump and swim and play and do all them things that an athlete can do, but not necessarily needs to be trained in. And then for instance, Maddy, she’ll go out with Bianca and she’s known in the community, she’s on TV, she’s on all of these platforms. And how can a girl that’s neurotypical see that and go, oh wow, that’s cool. Maybe I can be a support worker or maybe it’s a person with a disability is actually cool and they can hang out in our group. So that’s how and why the athletes are so vital and important. And some of them know it and some of them don’t understand that’s what their job is. And some of them don’t, you know what I mean, what I’m trying to say, they’re not really they’re connecting with it, which is amazing.

Speaker 2:                        That’s such an awesome opportunity for both. I mean, it’s an awesome opportunity for your support workers as well, that are out there doing that in the community.

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah. And it’s super important to get out there. There’s this, one of my coaches once said to me, it’s about getting these people around more people and more places, the more people and more places they can be around. It expands their horizon and expands their knowledge. And they’re able to be more comfortable. And that, some days you might have to bring that back in and some days, and some weeks you might be able to expand that. And our goal as carers and as a provider is to get as many best friends or as many carers that will act like best friends, and are actually known by the family and the participants and the staff is in that core group, which we prefer super simple.

Speaker 2:                        And I think the other thing is the exercise you’re doing. Because that’s the thing, I have a son called Matthew, 22 and Lisa has Louis. There isn’t a lot of exercise that they do and I see you guys go on hikes, you play footy or NRL or something. It’s awesome that you’re doing that outdoor stuff and not just indoor stuff.

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah. And it’s obviously tricky for people with the disability and families to have that sort of fitness influence. Whereas you can get fit by doing things, whether that’s swimming. And that could be just going to the beach and swimming in the water and doing that. Or it could be going to the pool or it could be going for a Bush walk and going to a waterfall and making it a cool activity where… Because some people go, I’m not getting fit. I’m not doing that, that’s boring, I’m not. But if you can try and change the motive about what it’s actually going to do, or even jumping on the train, playing at Flip Out or Sky Zone or bowling, like it all plays that impact into a healthier lifestyle. We’re actually close to, fingers crossed, landing a partnership with a company that’s going to help roll out a national fitness and a national nutrition program. People living with disablilty, which is going to be pretty cool. So that should be soon.

Speaker 4:                        Yeah. I mean, and there’s a big opportunity hopefully with corporate Australia, supporting companies like yours. Where we know that there’s a link between physical health and mental health and that’s a great, also social purpose activity for…

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah.

Speaker 4:                        Staff or their employees to get involved in. And it’s a really good relationship there.

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah.

Speaker 4:                        Or opportunity there for you.

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah. There’s plenty of opportunities within that. And it’s about using the community, but also then businesses to try and create an inclusive Australia as well. It’s up to everyone, it’s not just up to the families to try and do it. I think that this is where, we’ve got both entities, we’ve got What Ability, which is the business. Then we’ve got What Ability Foundation, which unlocks experiences. And that’s where a lot of companies and corporations can be inclusive because sometimes people don’t know how to be inclusive or they’re too scared to hurt them or upset people or things like that. So we’re sort of giving companies an opportunity to donate money and unlock experiences. Like last night I took some participants to the Socceroos verse Japan game, the qualify. We had 20, we had a box of 24 there. And for instance, a company paid for that.

And that’s their way of being inclusive at a distance. And that’s another reason with the sporting clubs and athletes where they get opportunities and things in that. I took a kid last Friday to the Roosters game and he got to run on the field with the ball and you don’t get that unless you’re an athlete, unless you’ve got connections within a sporting organization or if you can get a ball boy, other side of the field or things like that. And that’s another way, and another avenue that our athletes are helping us break down that stigma and break into the inclusive world.

Speaker 2:                        And I think that’s great. Because the other thing you do is you kind of combine people together. So they’re with their friends, but they also are with the support worker that’s with them.

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah, exactly. And that’s where another thing that makes us different is 99% of our company is under the age of 25. So we’re really trying to… Obviously it is a job and the support workers are there for work, but how can they create a friendship or how can they be more of a friend and a buddy instead of it being a job or being a boss or a teacher. And that’s again, our job’s to have fun and give people opportunities in the community. And like I said, everyone plays their roles in these kids lives and people’s lives from doctors and OTs and speeches and everything like that. And we just play off that and our specialty is having fun and just community access, which makes us unique.

Speaker 4:                        And have you changed personally since you’ve started this company?

Steve Dresler:                  I grew up on a farm. So I grew up, always thought I was going to do a trade or hopefully play football for the rest of my life. But that didn’t work out. And obviously it’s changed me as a person. I first started at Giant Steps at 17. I got there and did a few days. And then officially when I was 18 at end of the year, but I was in the complex unit. So we, because us footy boys were quite bigger and stronger. They thought all right, you can go in the complex needs unit. Where most of them participants had behaviors or couldn’t read, couldn’t talk, couldn’t do any of them things. So I got a very big shock to what disability was. Because I didn’t know what a disability was. I never knew, I never had an… I’ve got a cousin that’s got Autism, but he is very high functioning.

So I’d never really seen a disability and it’s opened my eyes up to what’s what’s out there. And I suppose that again, we’ve got a company jet ski, so these people can do whatever I do. And if not, we give them an opportunity to do it and fail and try again and fail and try again until they get it. And you see the impact of what that sort of fun stuff does on these families and these kids. Because it ultimately is the families also that you’re impacting and giving them opportunities because we’ve had families that can’t go to the park with their kids, but then because that we’ve done it with our support workers and built that routine. Then now they can take their kids to the park. And that’s what it’s about is creating an inclusive world for both families, participants, community and everything else involved.

Speaker 2:                        And the other thing is some families probably can’t afford to take their kids to the football every week or…

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah.

Speaker 2:                        You know, Dreamworld or Sea World because you are in Queensland now?

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah. We are opening in Queensland. So we’ve got What Ability, which is just in Sydney. But we’re opening Queensland per this year, but we’ve got the foundation which unlocks experiences because you’re right. Parents with people, with disability, with kids with disabilities. Is yes, the NDIS is incredible, but it only pays for speech therapy, OT, doctors, supports and behavior stuff. It doesn’t pay for a ticket to Luna Park or Dream World or the movies or the football. So how can we also help that? So that’s where and why What Ability Foundation was set up. And that is national, we’ve unlocked experiences across the country and that’s unlocking games. And last night we, I took 12 participants and then there was two families that I’ve never met before that had a kid there with disability. And that’s what it’s about, is unlocking experiences and paying for experiences that some people might not be able to afford. And that’s again where companies are being inclusive because they can give that stuff or they have that stuff on tap. So how can they play their part, and they are.

Speaker 4:                        How do you find your support workers or your friends?

Steve Dresler:                  We don’t really have shortage of it. We’ve got, well because of what we do. We’re very different in the disability space. And because we’re not a massive organization, we’re able to make decisions and do stuff. That obviously, we’ve got an advisory board and things like that help us with decisions and stuff. But ultimately it’s up to us and we are changing that disability space in terms of what we can do. So a lot of people are coming to us and wanting jobs. And the good thing is, again, the sporting world. We’ve got a lot of athletes on, that share our content and they’re the most influential people in the world. So they’re able to help bring in support workers and bringing people and things that help us able to achieve that.

Speaker 2:                        And I also noticed you’ve got some vans now going out. So what, tell us a day, just for example, Matthew’s coming tomorrow. How does the day go?

Steve Dresler:                  We’ve got a few now, we’ve got 14 here and we’ve just ordered another five for Queensland so it’s becoming quite big. But a typical day out would be 09:00 till 15:00, usually. That way it’s enough to do two activities and get lunch. So usually you’d pick them up, you might go get a coffee, go get food, depending on the ability of the participant. And then you’d go to Flip Out for an hour and then you go get lunch and then you’d go to the beach and then you’d go home and drop them home. So that’s what a typical day looks like, generally two activities and lunch between. So whether that’s going to the football and then going swimming, or whether that’s going golf, that’s going to bowling. And then whether it’s, whatever that is and depends on the participant and their capabilities also. We’ve got a lot of participants that are two on one and have a lot of challenging behaviors and quite complex.

And that’s what makes us different because we give them opportunities and chances. And that’s generally what the cars are for, it’s for them more complex participants that need the space between the carers and them, so. And they’re just six hours with them. We’ve got participants that might do a shorter booking, but to build that relationship. And then the goal is to have them out for as long as possible, our goal and our goal for parents is to give them a six hour break. Whether that’s every single day, whether that’s twice a week, whether that’s four times a week, whatever that is. And our goal is to give them a break and the siblings a break. So they’re able to go and do things that they want to do.

Speaker 2:                        Yeah.

Speaker 4:                        Sounds fantastic.

Speaker 2:                        I know. Hurry up and come to Malvern. So what’s the next plan? What are the plans now for yourself and your company, what’s next on the list?

Steve Dresler:                  Well, just keep on doing what we’re doing. I think that what makes us unique is the simplicity and the fun that we sort of do. But again, going across Australia and keeping up that standard and helping families, like you guys and participants, out and helping that in every state and doing that. And then just unlocking more experiences and doing more fun things with these [inaudible 00:16:29]. I think that’s our mission is to bring happiness to people living with a disability. So we just want to do that on a bigger scale and be able to help more people around Australia.

Speaker 4:                        I think we’ve seen that we’ve interviewed quite a few entrepreneurs in the disability sector and Dan Cohen and a few more, I can’t know…

Speaker 2:                        Laura O’Reilly.

Speaker 4:                        [crosstalk 00:16:49] and fantastic. And I guess they’re a bit like you, Steve, in that they kind of want to keep their, or at least keep the proposition reasonably simple and deliver great quality outcomes rather than getting overly complex. What I also like about them is that they also give opportunities to build the ecosystem for other disability companies and startups and opportunities. Do you work much to support other disability companies around you and what you do?

Steve Dresler:                  Yeah. So with What Ability, obviously it’s a business. But then the foundation, for instance, we had the launch at CommBank Stadium where we had 140 participants on the field scoring trials, running around playing sports, and we put a cap on. So then we invite Northcott, Hireup, Giant Steps, Mable. Every disability service has access to that. And that’s how every disability service and family has access to that. So how can we create an impact with other providers? Because it’s all about creating an inclusive Australia. Yes, there’s no competition in what we’re trying to do. There’s, we’re all trying to help families, and there’s in Australia, there’s more than enough people to split and there’s 4.4 million and there’s 468,000 on the end area. So there’s a lot of people and there’s not enough good providers to do all that. So it’s about other people setting them up and doing more and being more and helping achieve that goal.

Speaker 2:                        Yeah. Well, I think you’re awesome and I love your foundation. I can’t wait for you to come to Malvern. Thank you. I know you’re a busy guy and you’ve got another appointment coming up, so thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.

Steve Dresler:                  No, thank you very much for having me. And I’m really excited for when we get down there. We’ll have to catch up.

Speaker 2:                        Yeah, no problem. See ya.

Steve Dresler:                  Perfect, thank you.

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 loop-me-in.com.au. If you’ve got any feedback, please let us know so we can improve and cover issues you want.

And of course, if anything in the podcast today has raised concerns for you. You can contact Beyond Blue on 130-022-4636 or Lifeline on 13-11-14


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