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Improving disability inclusion in the water sector

As efforts to boost diversity and inclusion continue to grow across the water community, a Victorian network dedicated to connecting people with disability who work in water is aiming to ensure disability is part of the diversity conversation.

Launched in 2020 with the help of VicWater, WaterAble is a network of people with disability and their allies in the Victorian water community. The network runs a series of events every year, including a celebration of the International Day of People with a Disability (3 December).

WaterAble Chair and Goulburn-Murray Water Corporate Risk Coordinator Donald Hughan said the network is all about raising awareness of disability and its diversity of forms, whether it's a physical or an invisible disability.

“We encourage water corporations to look at what they can do to improve their workplaces for disability inclusion, including workplace access and recruitment programs. We partner with water corporations across Victoria and currently also have around 50 members who are employees in our industry,” he said.

“We recently introduced a new membership category: associate member. These members can be from anywhere in Australia, not just Victoria. Associate members will be able to come to our events and see the things we do to increase access for people with a disability.”

WaterAble Founder and Greater Western Water Board Director Llewellyn Prain said that, after a few years of operation, WaterAble is pushing for more tangible disability inclusion outcomes in the water industry, and for expanding the network in a sustainable and effective way.

“Disability often gets left out of the inclusion conversation. We want to make sure we are all having that disability inclusion conversation. And we want to open up our activities to people in other states and territories, as well,” she said.

“We are aiming to expand in a way that we can maintain. But we are keen to grow our membership and open up to people who might get a lot out of the work that we are doing. It’s been really exciting to see some of our WaterAble members  participate in advocacy and connect in our industry. There are still huge barriers for people with disability gaining employment and pursuing their careers and we want to reduce those barriers as much as possible.

“At the end of the day, WaterAble aims to be empowering and fun. Disability can be serious, but we are trying to bring people together in a way that they might not have been able to connect in the past.”

Inspired beginnings

While WaterAble launched in 2020, Prain said her decision to found the network was inspired by her lived experience with disability, as well as an appetite for change that had been developing within the Victorian water community.

“I lost my vision in 2014 and entered the water sector in 2015, when I was appointed to a water board. I wanted to do some advocacy work and I am committed to improving equity for people with a disability, particularly in terms of workforce participation,” she said.

“Then Pride in Water launched in 2019. And I thought: well, if we have a water network for our LGBTQI+ community, then we need one for people with disability, too. And there was strong support to do something within the Victorian sector. Our water utilities are great at working together.”

Prain said an important part of WaterAble’s early development was the leadership from VicWater in setting up a diversity and inclusion steering committee and leading a strategy for industry.

“That’s provided a process to get everyone to start measuring their disability inclusion stats. It’s exciting; it allows WaterAble to have a sense of our impact. But it's taken a few years to get that traction,” Prain said.

“Before I founded WaterAble, I hadn’t met many people within the water industry with a disability and now I’ve met all of these wonderful, talented people that have had similar – but different – experiences to me.

“We have been really fortunate to have Donald on board to help drive the whole thing. While it is great to have allies, it is important to have people with lived experience helping guide what we do.”

Day of Action Workshop

In 2022, WaterAble held its first Day of Action workshop, which was attended by 45 people across Victoria with the aim of devising three disability inclusion actions to be implemented by 3 December 2022 – International Day of People with a Disability.

Hughan said three simple actions were devised, with water corporations in Victoria challenged to implement changes in their organisations to increase inclusion and accessibility.

“One of the actions was to create a chill-out zone or quiet space for neurodivergent people,” he said.

“We had another action around inclusive language and processes on job advertisements. And then we also had an action to create a simple fact sheet about reasonable adjustments.’

“While we aimed to keep the actions simple, creating a chill-out zone was more of a challenge, as trying to do things with infrastructure is always going to take a bit longer. But many of our participating organisations still managed to achieve it on time.”

Prain said WaterAble supported participating organisations by providing a toolkit to help people implement these actions, with Melbourne Water and Central Highlands Water providing guidance on the toolkit, given their extensive work in disability inclusion already.

“It was an experiment in positive pressure: a little less talk, a little more action,” she said.

“And we have been blown away with the results of the workshop: 12 of the 18 water corporations have completed at least two of the actions, some of them all three.”

Leading change

Another key activity WaterAble facilitates is a pairing program, where water industry leaders are paired with someone working in water with a disability.

“We are really keen to connect people with disability with leaders who don’t have a disability. This is a great way to help leadership teams better understand what it is to work as a person with disability,” Prain said.

“We have been matching people for the past few years, which has helped us get more support among some of our leaders. It’s not a mentor-mentee partnership. It’s more of a peer-to-peer arrangement, where there is mutual learning and benefit on both sides.”

And while WaterAble is still a relatively new network, one that is still learning and growing, Prain said the results so far have been incredibly encouraging. There have been benefits not only for people with disability, but for participating water organisations as well.

“For me, this movement is about empowering people with disability and making sure we are included and valued in our workplaces, and making sure people are genuinely enabled to pursue meaningful careers in water,” Prain said.

“It’s also really great for our partner organisations, as it helps them to understand the communities they serve. We cater to customers with a disability everyday, but the network helps water companies understand what disability really is in all its diversity.

“I was hesitant at first in leading this movement. But, if not me then who? So I put myself out there with immense support from many allies who have been really committed to diversity within our sector.

“It can be hard to make change, but when you get people rallying around in support, the momentum grows.”

Interested in learning more about WaterAble and its new associate membership category? Take a look at what’s on offer here.

Image: WaterAble Chair and Goulburn-Murray Water Corporate Risk Coordinator Donald Hughan outside Head Office in Tatura, Victoria.