Change in the disability sector has been fast-paced since the launch of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in 2013 and was accelerated even further by the 2019 establishment of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.
If that wasn’t enough, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic forced support organisations to adapt and offer their services to clients remotely with limited warning or notice.
These factors have pushed disability into the news cycle over the past decade, sparking a new conversation that culminated in wheelchair tennis icon and multiple Grand Slam winner Dylan Alcott’s crowning as Australian of the Year for 2022.
Wallara Australia, a leading disability support provider, has navigated this environment while empowering clients and contributing to the public’s understanding of what it’s like to live with a disability.
As a strategic communications firm that operates at the nexus of politics, policy and public affairs, Michelson Alexander worked alongside Wallara to drive change over the past five years using a range of services, from strategic counsel to stakeholder engagement, content production and government relations.
Starting a new conversation about intellectual disability
Though awareness and discussion of the experiences of people with different abilities has undoubtedly increased in the last decade, Wallara CEO Phil Hayes-Brown recognised one major omission.
His daughter, Phoebe, has a moderate intellectual disability and is non-verbal. Because of this lived experience as a parent and his work at Wallara, Phil recognised that people with intellectual disabilities are rarely represented in the media or in popular culture, even though this cohort accounts for roughly 30% of NDIS participants.
The result was Invis-ability, a podcast hosted by Phil and former Paralympian Don Elgin, which explores and speaks to people from the ID camp to discuss what we don’t know when it comes to disability.
Michelson Alexander worked closely with Phil to plan each season and episode, identifying common themes – education, employment, sport, sex education, and more – that are rarely discussed with the ID community in mind. Our service included research, scripting, guest liaison, recording, post-production editing, promotion, and uploading via Whooshka, Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
There have been many significant highlights since the show launched, including a bumper live recording on International Day of People with Disability in 2020, which featured former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and Wallara client Stacey Edwards. The episode reached more than 200 unique listens.
Phil and Don have also been joined by ABC journalist Nas Campanella, the Shadow Minister for Education, Tanya Plibersek, and several parents and individuals with lived experiences of intellectual disability across the show’s first two seasons.
As well as launching Invis-ability, Michelson Alexander supported CEO Phil Hayes-Brown to position himself as a thought leader in the disability space. By drawing out his vast knowledge of the hot topics, including the future of the NDIS and the challenges posed by ‘Uber-style’ support providers, we helped Phil to identify angles and deliver regular op-ed content for newspapers, industry magazines and his own LinkedIn platform.
Throughout our engagement, Michelson Alexander worked with Phil to identify the risks and benefits of putting forward his opinion, especially regarding the management of stakeholder relationships. As one example, we worked with Phil on an op-ed about controversial changes to the NDIS that was published by the Nine mastheads and represented a vital contribution to an ongoing discussion about the future of the Scheme.
Growing Sages Cottage by engaging stakeholders and liaising with government
Wallara is first and foremost a support provider, and that means their facilities are of the utmost importance. Sages Cottage Farm in Baxter, about an hour south of Melbourne, is one of their main sites.
On the farm, Wallara’s clients learn valuable skills that help them gain employment and help them to lead better lives. They have the option to work on the farm or in the onsite café, which means they can enjoy time outdoors while gaining valuable skills.
Michelson Alexander spearheaded the Grow Sages campaign to raise money for more upgrades, We also crafted a comprehensive pitch document for the government, outlining the urgent need for more funding at Sages.
By leveraging our networks, Michelson Alexander organised meetings with both the Victorian Minister for Disability and the Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, who is also the local Federal Member for Flinders, in which the Sages Cottage is located.
This process involved liaising with several of Wallara’s stakeholders, including St Kilda FC, Frankston RSL, and others, to secure letters of support for the cottage.
Strategic counsel and crisis communications
As well as providing constant strategic communications advice, Michelson Alexander has provided crisis communications support and advice to Wallara throughout the challenging period that was presented by the Royal Commission on Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation of People with Disability. This strategic counsel included developing and executing crisis communications plans so that Wallara was ready and able to respond quickly and appropriately to any issues as they arose, while protecting the commercial interests of the business.
A key focus for this work was to ensure all key stakeholders were engaged and informed throughout the process and that Wallara’s spokespeople felt empowered to communicate with confidence and leadership. Appropriately, the lived experiences of people with different abilities informed all of Michelson Alexander’s and Wallara’s approach to sensitive strategic issues.
Wallara Australia is now in an incredibly strong position, with their operations and services continuing to expand to change the lives of more people with disabilities. They launched their online service, Wallara Online, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and today that portal continues to provide support services for people in regional and rural areas.
Sages Cottage has a growing waiting list and there are major plans for big developments on-site, while CEO Phil Hayes-Brown is a thought leader in the disability space and someone who can continue to change the conversations we have about disability in 2022.
Michelson Alexander is pleased to have contributed to Wallara’s success.