New program emphasises ability, not disability

21 November 2019

An Australian-first program at The Wesley Hospital is empowering young adults with a disability to gain experience in real jobs in the community.

Project SEARCH, introduced in Australia by UnitingCare, has had impressive outcomes in its pilot year, with five interns at The Wesley Hospital only weeks away from graduating.

UnitingCare’s Manager of Disability Employment Services Corinne McPhee said the ten-month program, for people aged 17-23 with developmental disabilities, focuses on the development of workplace skills.

“Interns complete three ten week rotations at The Wesley Hospital, across areas including patient administration, orderly services, food services and the mail room. The interns have learnt a broad range of transferrable skills through activities such as clinical sterilisation, rolling cutlery in the kitchen, transporting patients, delivering mail and performing administration work.”

Corinne said the program helps interns transition from school to productive adult life, with real prospects of stable and rewarding employment.

“Project SEARCH has had great outcomes internationally, with more than 73 per cent of graduates transitioning to employment in the open labour market after completing the internship.”

Project Search Job Coach Paul Davis is one of a team of three involved in delivering employability and life skills training in the classroom and coaching the interns in how to perform their hospital-based roles.

“The interns work from Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 3pm. The first hour is in the classroom where we go through lessons for the day - from financial planning to learning about nutrition and ways to treat your body well. The interns then go to work in the hospital sites where they learn the skills required for their role. In the afternoon we go through what happened that day - the good things and things they might have needed a bit of help with.”

Project Search Liaison and The Wesley Hospital Administration Manager Jessica Strong said the program has enriched the culture of the hospital.

“Any initial ‘fears of the unknown’ were quickly replaced with acceptance and compassion.

“Just because someone is a little bit different or socially different doesn’t mean they can’t do a job. But beyond that, its not just finding a job the interns can do… the interns are actually bringing more to our teams.”

A key example of this is evident in Project SEARCH Intern Nina’s work in the orderly services team.

“The team uses a spreadsheet to locate equipment which was a laborious process.  Nina took it on herself to refine the spread sheet, which has now been implemented by the team, cutting the time it takes to perform that activity in half,” said Jessica.

Jessica recalls the initial interviews where Nina said that her personality didn’t suit the hospitality industry, where she had previously worked.

“It provides a great sense of fulfilment - being able to show Nina that just because socially, things are difficult for her, that doesn’t mean she can’t work successfully in a team,” said Jessica.

Nina said she hoped to get a job in a hospital at the end of the program.

“I’ve liked working at the hospital, I’ve liked meeting people, improving on my communication, and learning lots of different hospital terms. I feel confident coming into work everyday and asking questions more and being more open, that I couldn’t really do before.”

Job Coach Paul Davis says he’s noticed a dramatic shift in the interns over the past months.

“Most of our interns came into the hospital looking down at the ground and shuffling their feet. Now it’s a totally different scenario; they walk through the hospital with their head held high and they’re happy.  It’s really great to see that their confidence has gone through the roof.”

Roslyn Webb’s daughter Tara is also interning in the program. Roslyn says that Project SEARCH has provided her family and Tara with hope.

Tara, aged 23, has been mostly unemployed since high school - but not from want of trying.

“With high functioning autism she fits into that bracket of not being quite able to get the job. Tara was really withdrawn in herself and needing confidence; this has given her a hope of future skills and future work, which means independence and living her dreams,” said Roslyn.

“For the first time in her life, there has been an emphasis placed on Tara’s ability, rather than her disability.”

Corinne said the goal is for interns to gain competitive employment at the completion of their internship, with ongoing support provided post-program. 

Project SEARCH is expanding to a UnitingCare site in Ipswich in 2020, with plans for ongoing future expansion. Applications are being accepted now. For more information visit:

Media Enquiries
Urgent or after hours: 0412 674 013

Cookies help us improve your website experience.
By using our website, you agree to our use of cookies.