The Ascent Group CEO Kevin Mead is a national leader in improving the lives and prospects of people with disabilities. He tells FOCUS he came here to head Challenge Armidale (renamed The Ascent Group in 2007) because he was attracted by its successful strategies and innovative approach, which continue to this day.
What brought you to Armidale 12 years ago?
I came to Armidale to join Challenge Armidale (as it was then known) as CEO, because it was one of the country’s leading and most experienced disability service providers. It was innovative, progressive, community based and achieving outstanding results then, and it still does. Prior to that, I worked both in Sydney and the Hunter Valley, heading other disability services.
I was also attracted to the region and the benefits of living in Armidale with all it has to offer, after attending many residential schools while I was studying for my degrees in Social Science and Special Education at UNE.
What in your view made this organisation’s services so innovative and effective?
The organisation was started by a group of parents in 1955 at a time when there were virtually no services at all for people with disabilities. It has never lost that original passion and pioneering spirit. Those founding families had very few resources, but they made up for that with their determination, and they kept innovating. In 1987, Challenge Armidale was one of the first services in Australia to introduce a Community Living Service, providing support for people with disabilities to move out of home and live independently in the community. The next big step was starting Network Employment & Training Solutions, which has enabled hundreds of people with disabilities to find full and part-time jobs.
That network is now the largest regional provider of open employment services for people with disabilities in NSW, with offices in Armidale, Inverell and Glen Innes, with outreach to all areas of New England.
What was behind changing the name of Challenge Armidale to The Ascent Group?
There are two reasons. The first is that we had expanded beyond Armidale and wanted our name to be representative of all the communities we serve. The other was that our neighbouring service provider Challenge Tamworth changed its name to Challenge Disability Services, which led to some confusion for people about whom they were dealing with.
We held a competition to find a new name, and the word ‘Ascent’ was chosen to represent continuous growth and improvement, as well as our aspirations for our clients and staff. The word ‘Group’ was added to indicate the wide range of services we offer.
We provide accommodation support services for 32 people with a range of disabilities and Supported Employment Services for 35 people in our own small business enterprises, which include printing, packaging, mailing and recycling. We are an Open Employment Service Provider, supporting another 150 people across the region to find employment.
We provide a range of day time LifeSkills Participation Programs for 40 people with significant disabilities to gain skills and participate in activities like music, fitness, art, craft and gardening. Those people attend our centre Leone’s Place in Dumaresq St, named after a founding client who is still a part of our services and particularly signifying longterm commitment to our clients and families as their needs change. We offer individual programs for people with disabilities, Transition To Work programs – a two-year work preparation program for school leavers wanting to enter the workforce. There is also a range of Carer Respite Services at our respite house in Armidale and also flexible respite.
Uralla Home & Community Care provides transport, centre based day care and social support for people who are frail aged and for people with disabilities in the Uralla Shire.
What is it that drives your continued work and innovation with The Ascent Group?
People in this organisation have always had a passion to improve the lives of people with disabilities, and that is an exciting environment in which to work. We generate a lot of ideas and new approaches to improve the lives of people with disabilities and their families.
Life for people with disabilities has improved enormously since I first entered the sector 40 years ago, and there is something so heartwarming and rewarding about being part of this change. We firmly believe that finding local solutions to our issues has proved and continues to prove best practice.
What do you see as the challenges and opportunities ahead?
Strong support is gathering for a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to extend funding to provide for all people with disabilities, as many still miss out. A big change being proposed is self directed funding, allowing people with disabilities and their families to select the services they would like to receive.
Our philosophy has always been founded on person centred planning principles and flexible delivery of services. We are in a strong position to respond positively to these initiatives.
Another issue of great concern has been to provide for the ageing of people with disability. The Ascent Group has been a pioneer in placing the issue firmly on the national agenda and developing pilot programs to provide support and accommodation for people with disabilities, to ensure they have a healthy and active retirement.
Tell us about your family and what you do in your spare time.
My wife Catherine and I have two children, who have now left home. We have a small property west of Armidale, where we run sheep and alpacas, grow vegetables and have an orchard and chooks.
It has been a great joy to us, but at the moment we are in the process of downsizing, to give us a bit more spare time to pursue our other interests and grandchildren!