It was straight out of high school that Melbourne’s David Bookman got involved in disability support work himself, volunteering and then working for a youth-led organisation that provides social opportunities and camps for young people with disability.
“I had never really interacted with someone with a disability before,” he admitted. “But I jumped on the opportunity and it ended up changing my life.”
Over the next four years, he noticed how a lot of young people like himself wanted to extend their passions for support work into more than just three or four days of volunteering a year.
“We saw first-hand how young people could play a really amazing role in their lives of other young people living with disability where previously, support workers were probably an older demographic,” he elaborated.
“We used to do home visits where participants were maybe 15 or 16 years old and their carer or support worker might be in their 50s. So we thought, ‘Isn’t it just more fun if they would hang out with one of us?'”
Driven to create a service for young people to get involved in this industry in the safest way while building connections with people their own age, David and his best friend Ryan Kagan created Buttons Support Services, a marketplace to connect NDIS participants with support workers.
Since launching two years ago, they have around 180 participants and an equal number of support workers signed up to their service.
“Buttons are a symbol for connection and that’s what we were aiming for,” David grinned. “A lot of other providers use words like ‘trust’ and ‘care’ but we wanted something fresh and fun to reflect the young support workers bringing a different kind of attitude and energy to an industry that was maybe a little stale for a long time.”
Building the platform
So what does a support worker do exactly and what is the training needed?
“A support worker’s tasks can include a variety of things but essentially, they help someone living with a disability whether it’s increasing their social participation or independent skills development, or helping them in administration and accessing employment services. It could also mean cooking at home, or finding passions, interests, and hobbies to explore with them,” David explained.
While the industry doesn’t stipulate specific training, Buttons provides introductory information sessions to help out young people who are eager to learn but unaware of what their role entails.
Individuals with prior experience go straight into Buttons’ screening process, where they take into consideration data points like location, age, and comfortability.
David elaborated, “We look at these aspects to ensure that it fits well with a participant’s needs, but we also want to see if there are mutual hobbies or interests between both parties.
“With a lot of providers, support workers are given a time slot and told ‘hey, there’s this availability on Tuesday’ and they can say yes or no. At Buttons, our process is slightly longer. We give them a lot of information on the role, and if they say yes, we set up a video with the participant or their family members to see if its a good fit. There’s real clarity about the expectations, what a good day or bad day might look like, and it really lets both parties know if this is the right role for them.”
In fact, building long-term relationships remain integral to Buttons’ process.
“We don’t want to give roles to someone who are only available for, say, two weeks. We want someone who can make the commitment for a long-term connection,” he added. “There have been many people who have expressed interest as workers but ultimately it depends on whether it’s a good match with the participants.”
Lessons from the business
Co-founders David and Ryan, both graduates of Monash Business School, notably started Buttons in 2020 just before the pandemic hit. While they “didn’t really have anything to pivot from”, it did mean that they had a few additional details to figure out in their line of work.
David noted, “We were lucky that support workers were an essential service so we were still able to provide our services, but we had to figure out things like ensuring all parties were comfortable going into people’s homes and remaining COVID-safe in all our activities.”
Moreover, having started the business at 23 years old, there was a bit of a learning curve despite their passion for the work.
According to David, one of the biggest lessons was figuring out how to cope when things are out of your control.
“It’s a life lesson broadly, not just in business, to not lose energy on things that are out of your control and instead focus on things that are. We chose to focus on the short-term, ensuring that we were delivering professional, quality sevices while still having fun and providing a good work environment. We wanted everyone in our team to feel their best self and comfortable when they walk into work,” he said.
“Another piece of advice I once received was from my grandmother years ago, who told me, ‘this, too, shall pass’. That really stuck with me since then.”
On being an ally
Despite existing interest in the disability support space, getting involved in this line of work can be daunting for many people who think they don’t have what it takes. David doesn’t subscribe to that notion.
“Everyone can be an advocate and ally for someone with a disability. You don’t have to be anyone but yourself,” he affirmed.
“That’s something I quickly learned when I started out at 18 years old. I was really nervous because I thought, ‘What if I don’t have the right personality and skill set? What do I really know about this?’
“But you can just be yourself. There are obviously common traits that would be good in a support worker like patience, respect, and dignity, but the way these qualities fits into everyone’s individual personality is different. Just be yourself, and our job at Buttons is to find the role that suits you.”