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Expanding WaterAble: a national network for people with disability and their allies

As water organisations work towards creating inclusive workplace cultures, WaterAble has grown its reach and is now working with people from right across Australia to improve disability inclusion.

Initially a Victorian initiative, in August 2023 WaterAble became a national network within the water community and now establishes and facilitates partnerships with organisations nation-wide.
WaterAble has a new Chair, South East Water Community Grants Program Lead Anita McKenzie, who brings a neurodivergent perspective to the network, championing the necessary development of inclusive and supportive workplace cultures.
Anita_McKenzie_photo“My background is as a human resource manager and I have worked across many industries and sectors. I have two daughters, and both of my kids are neurodivergent, too,” McKenzie said.
“I have worked through a lot of therapies with my family and have been involved in early education programs for quite a few years. I have a real passion to work for the community and advocate to the government to change outcomes for people.
“In my role at South East Water, I am leading our community grants program and customer and community advisory council. I get to see firsthand the difference that funding makes to individuals and the community. I absolutely love my role.
“I have been on the Association for Children with Disability Board for three years now. Advocating for change for children in Victoria has really won my heart. I have seen that it makes a difference when we are willing to speak up and advocate, it creates practical change on the ground. This has inspired me a lot.”
McKenzie’s journey towards her own diagnosis was informed by advocating for her daughters and learning about the difference that open representation can make to help others feel included and supported.
“There is an organisation called Yellow Ladybugs, they exist for girls, women and gender diverse individuals who are autistic,” McKenzie said.
“This organisation has helped to grow my understanding about what it means to be neuro affirming, and how neuro inclusive environments are better not just for people with a diagnosis, but for everyone.
“Over time, my understanding has grown and it has helped me to realise different models of disability, and that the approach of people and organisations can really change outcomes for people.

“Learning more and being exposed to more helped me come to a point where I realised I was just like my daughters. Only last year, I pursued a formal diagnosis. While I identified as neurodivergent before, the journey towards this diagnosis has really helped me a lot.
“Now that I understand all of this better, it has just fuelled my passion for this advocacy even more. So often we see people unknowingly saying or doing things that aren't neuro affirming and this can adversely impact people that have not openly shared their diagnosis.
“I am now trying to build awareness around how people can feel and perform better in the workplace and in society by broadening our awareness and understanding of people’s neurodiversity.”

Deepening the network

While WaterAble has gone national, McKenzie said the work the network facilitates is still all about creating connections within the water community for people with disability, as well as supporting partner organisations to become more inclusive and disability aware.
“My new role at WaterAble is evolving, but I’ll be looking at what needs to be done to deliver value for our partner organisations and members. This will include considering what planning an organisation needs to be empowered to deliver the best outcomes,” she said.
“We are trying to support better implementation of reasonable adjustments. This year, our workshop with our partners focussed on this, providing best-practice examples and talking about barriers.
“My role is about listening and steering the ship to ensure we keep adding value. We are considering a survey of our partners, to gauge what their expectations are and where we can make more of a difference in supporting them.”
McKenzie said WaterAble also facilitates a leadership development program for people with disability working in water.

“Now in its second year, the program is about building pride in disability and enabling people to grow their leadership skills and impact,” she said.  

“But it's also about creating opportunities to make the industry more disability inclusive. By working together we learn from each other and share all of this information.”
This year the program has 10 participants from across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

Shifting the dial

McKenzie said there are a lot of really simple things that can be done to make an organisation disability inclusive.
“There are plenty of tweaks that are simple but very, very impactful and, a lot of the time, very low cost. But unless you sit back and think about how you can improve those processes, you don't automatically know what you need to do,” she said.
“We are all about having these conversations, listening and learning from one another and being on the journey together. Many organisations are trying to achieve a lot with minimal resourcing. But we can achieve economies of scale by learning from others.”
McKenzie said her experience in advocating for her daughters within schools has enabled her to see how people think about disability, and that understanding the complexity of disability needs to grow over time to raise awareness and help improve outcomes.
“I come to this work with no judgments. Because of my background and experience with my daughters and myself, I know we are all different with different capabilities. For me, I am still learning and will always be learning,” she said.
“We want to support organisations to know what questions to ask and what types of support make a difference to individuals with disability. By doing this work, we can shift the culture within organisations and understand the value of our employees representing the communities they work with and for.
“This is all about making the organisation culturally and psychologically safe. We know there are a lot of people working within the water sector that are sharing their disability. But we have to assume our organisations are representative and that there is a gap between who is sharing and who isn't.”
McKenzie said finding ways to bridge that gap are crucial for developing inclusive workplace cultures, and nurturing environments where everyone can come to work as their authentic self without fear of discrimination.
“Nobody has to share their disability, there is no obligation, but this is part of why I got my formal diagnosis. I wanted to feel confident in sharing and supporting and helping others to share, I wanted to be the brave person that sends a clear message: it’s okay to have a disability.
“We all have strengths and weaknesses, including those with disabilities. Often our society has judged disability for being less, rather than just being different. Yes, we are different, but we are not less, and sometimes we are much more.”
Interested in learning more about WaterAble? Take a look at what the network has to offer here.