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Industry: In Conversation - Geoff Blackwood, CEO, Barkuma

CEO Geoff Blackwood

Tell us about Barkuma. 

Barkuma was established 50 years ago by a group of ten parents looking to develop services in Adelaide’s north. We started out with 20 clients and have grown to now work alongside more than 700 people living with a disability in South Australia each year. Essentially we provide assistance to adults with intellectual and other disabilities to maintain an independent, happy and healthy lifestyle in the community and at home. We like to think that we are here to help people put their lives together the way that they want to.

What are some of the programs and services you provide?

Our largest service offering involves helping people who want to be active members of the community through meaningful employment, be it open employment in the community or supported employment at one of Barkuma’s SAPAC sites. We also offer school transition options, called Better Pathways, which includes supporting a person coming out of high school and into the workforce or further study. We also offer our Support and Family Education (SAFE) program which partners skilled workers with parents who have a cognitive impairment and children aged under five. Many people don’t know that Barkuma is also a registered training organisation helping people build a career in the disability support sector. We are also gearing up to support people through the NDIS.

How long have you worked at Barkuma and how did you come to this role?

I have worked with Barkuma for just over three years. I grew up in Adelaide’s north where we continue to have a strong footprint, so I’ve always known about Barkuma. When I was growing up I had friends with brothers and sisters that were clients of Barkuma. In 1968 when I was just six years old I was part of a Barkuma Christmas fundraiser, I got to play the role of one of the Three Wise Men. I also did a placement with Barkuma in high school and again when I was at uni. I was working for a great organisation called Barossa Enterprises when I was approached to apply for the Barkuma role and after my interview I was offered the job. When I started it was like walking into a place I already knew.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

I absolutely love the position of my office actually, I’m right in the middle of the action and I can hear clients, laughing, making friends and talking about what they are learning and how they will put it into practice in their own life. I really like it when we’ve listened to the client and we’ve got it right, they are achieving their goals. Working with the Barkuma board is also very rewarding, they are fantastic mentors and there is a great synergy between them and the executive team, a real zest for the work that we do.

Barkuma is celebrating 50 years in 2017. How are you celebrating this achievement and what have been the main changes to the way you operate during this time?

50 years of Barkuma is a really exciting achievement. To us, it means we are doing many things right. We’ve been through many eras, changes of government and the way funding is delivered and now we are standing strong with the implementation of the NDIS. On February 24 we held a fantastic anniversary event with over 300 people in attendance, including some of our founders as well as many current and past clients and supporters. The way we connect with people has changed, people used to have to find us and now it is imperative that we are letting people know that we are here and we can help them. There’s also been a great shift in how we deliver services - a cultural change that requires us to modify to suit the individual’s needs and not the other way around. One thing has always remained the same, if someone chooses to come to Barkuma, we must respect that choice and really listen to them.

In your opinion, what are the top three issues facing the disability sector?

The full implementation of the NDIS; making sure we (the sector) get it right for families; and that we continue to listen. Likewise, increasing accommodation options that are appropriate and inclusive with variety and character. Someone living with a disability should be able to select a home based on their personal tastes, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Also, creating opportunities for advocacy in regards to education, employment and recreation. If a person is trying to make a decision and they don’t have an advocate to support them through this process, how can they move forward?

Regarding the NDIS, what has been your organisation’s experience to date?

It’s been interesting. It’s early days, the information is certainly there and we are all navigating together. We are supporting families and sharing our knowledge not just with our clients but with other like-minded organisations. We anticipated having some referrals by this stage but we have had over 30 so it is a very good thing that Barkuma is NDIS ready. 

If you were Prime Minister for the day, what one thing would you do to benefit people with disability?

I’d really focus on inclusiveness for all people. I worry that we are fragmenting society too much and this will have real implications for people that fall into several categories that are considered marginalised. I would work on passing a bill making it a requirement for all people to embrace inclusiveness and peoples differences in the community, work place and in schools. I’m really excited by the new AFL Women’s league, this to me is great evidence that we are progressing, we are making a point that you can do whatever you want.