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After 14 years, I left the disability sector. Money alone can’t fix its problems

October 1, 2023 — 4.00pm

A few months ago, I left the disability support industry that I had worked in for 14 years behind. Despite finding the work hugely rewarding, supporting a young family on the industry’s wages was becoming harder, so I made the difficult decision to leave.

Among the 222 recommendations the disability royal commission handed down last week was the need to strengthen the workforce within disability services, which have reached what the commission said were “crisis levels”. Along with the NDIS fragmenting and the casualisation of the sector’s workforce, the commission noted the lack of clear career paths, which leads to more and more people like me leaving the sector.

13-year-old Quaden Bayles made a huge impact on the roayal commission, saying he was forced to move schools after being bullied for his disability.

13-year-old Quaden Bayles made a huge impact on the roayal commission, saying he was forced to move schools after being bullied for his disability. Credit: Dan Peled

Sam Petersen, a person with a disability who spoke at a commission hearing, said that, among other things, “there is a lack of perceived job importance” within the sector. When I first began working in disability support, the work felt like an in-between job; something I would move on from when I became more qualified for something else. To my shame, I often felt self-conscious about the work, despite how intrinsically satisfying it was because it didn’t meet the societal ideals of going to university and getting a salaried office job.

No doubt, huge government investment into the sector will come following the recommendations because throwing money at problems is what we do in a capitalist society. But sometimes in doing so, we fail to diagnose the underlying conditions that have created the problems in the first place.


According to British author David Goodhart, many of our current social woes stem for the creation of a powerful “cognitive class” – that is, the people we see as intelligent. Those deemed to be the best and brightest, he says, “trump the decent and hardworking.”

Breaking job types into the categories of head, heart and hand, Goodhart explains that “head” workers are highly qualified academic types (or “pen-pushers” as my husband calls them), while “hand” workers are those in manual labour, and “heart” workers are those in sectors like healthcare and education.

With the knowledge economy ever expanding, “head” sector workers are steaming ahead and being hugely rewarded both financially and socially for their contributions, while “hand” and “heart” sectors have become increasingly undervalued. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic and the global spotlight it shone on the importance of these industries and the workers within it, little has changed in terms of social or financial remuneration since then.

In the disability sector, I often met people who were highly emotionally intelligent. These were people who could diffuse violent behaviours, understand complex issues quickly and had the ability to genuinely change someone’s life. But emotional intelligence cannot be measured as easily as productivity can, and when placed in a meritocracy that rewards cognitive ability, suddenly, it doesn’t seem to count for much.


The support centre I worked at was at a converted warehouse, located in an industrial backwater. We all made the most of it, but it didn’t inspire a feeling of value in the work we were doing or the people we were doing it for.

Financial incentives may help the sector’s retention issue, particularly amid the current cost of living crisis, but other solutions are also needed if the aim is to attract the right people and have them stay for the majority or entirety of their careers.

A society that prioritises productivity and academic intelligence fails to acknowledge that to be cared for adequately and be treated with dignity and respect by those providing the care, runs the serious risk of losing its heart. But if we honour the most vulnerable members of our society rather than treating them as a problem to be solved by giving dignity and status to those who support them, we create a better outcome for all.

There’s no doubt that in the wake of the royal commission, millions and millions of dollars will be directed to the care sector in a bid to solve a myriad of problems. But instead of throwing a lump sum down and hoping that will solve the problems, we need to use this exceedingly rare opportunity to invest with consideration and, more than that, invest with more than just money alone.

Though I have left the sector, what I learned in those 14 years and the people I met along the way, will never leave me. I just wish I hadn’t been forced to choose between supporting my family or supporting those most in need to begin with.

Cherie Gilmour is a freelance writer.

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