Dwayne Fernandes: Mind's at play

With many of us now returning to work, actively seeking employment or thinking about a long-awaited holiday, we felt it was timely to shine a spotlight on disability inclusion and diversity, with a special focus on employment, entrepreneurship and public transport

For this week’s guest blog, we have the pleasure of hearing from Dwayne Fernandes, Co-Founder of ‘Minds at Play’, and Diversity and Inclusion Partner at NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.

You are a powerful advocate for disability inclusion and diversity, particularly in business, employment, entrepreneurship and on public transport. How has your lived experience influenced your journey and career?   

I was born with a severe bone defect which left me unable to do the things most of us take for granted, I made the choice at 11 years of age to have both legs replaced with prosthetic limbs. I wanted to give myself the best chance I could to adapt to being a double amputee and to build as good a life.

So, I am a 35-year-old Sydney-based Diversity and Inclusion Partner, working on driving disability inclusion in the areas of employment, infrastructure, and customer service within the public sector. 

I am also a multiple world record holder, having competed in 9 international stair-climb marathons including the Empire State Building in New York. In 2008, I ran my first international vertical marathon, completing the 1,504 step Sydney Tower climb in 23.49 minutes. This achievement was not only a significant personal goal for me, but also set the first world record for amputees. As Indian born Australian, I have partaken in a variety of tower climbs around the world to raise awareness of the capability of people with disabilities (PwD).

I believe I am in a rare position for a PwD, I am financially independent with a family and 2 children. However, I do not see many people like me in the same position.  I believe it has gotten progressively worse over the last 5 years, with lower rates of employment, dismantling advocacy groups, inaccessible housing, and a national disability scheme that affected 1279 PwDs with extensive delays, 50% of the prison population being PwDs, and the drafting of a religious discrimination bill that allows further discrimination of these people. I see many people struggling to survive in an inaccessible society, underemployed, socially ostracised and pushed to extreme edges to barely be seen or heard.

So yes, I am influenced by my lived experience.

You are well known for your work in assisting businesses build their Disability Inclusion Action Plans. Can you tell us about your consulting and advocacy work in this area? 

I have so far engaged and influenced on 3 public sector agencies Disability Inclusion Action Plans (DIAPs). Depending on who (usually HR) is delivering the DIAP in the business/agency, it will usually end up heavily focused on disability employment, with no targets and no responsible person or division to delivery.

When I provide feedback on DIAPs, I steer the conversation to establish a DIAP with an 80% focus on external and 20% focus on internal. I believe the 3 key delivery focus areas should be: 

  • Inclusive Infrastructure, 
  • Inclusive Service Delivery and 
  • Inclusive Employment. 

You can see from just those topic headers; you can get the right people in the room to figure out appropriate actions/steps to take to work towards an accessible future. I believe if the public sector agencies and business can get Disability Inclusion correct with the right metrics and KPI, we will end up with an accessible and inclusive society.

How can businesses support and grow entrepreneurs with disability, particularly tech start-ups? 

The answer is simple. Buy from them! If you are large organisation with complex procurement processes… Stop it! Create a simple way to procure from “disability-owned business”. If that cannot be done, then establish a 10% to 20% weight for disability-owned business in your procurement practices. Finally, show them how to jump through your procurement hoops to supply to you. Once you do this, you will realise all those hoops are reasons disability-owned business don’t get through.

The Dignity Project team is working closely with the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads to improve access and accessibility for people with disability and reduced capacity.  Can you tell us about your experiences and advocacy work in this area? What was the outcome?   

Inclusive infrastructure is a big and important piece of work. In 2018 Queensland Department of Transport learned an expensive lesson with the NRG trains, for what can happen when you don’t focus on disability inclusion.

When you are an organisation creating “user facing assets” that will last years or decades (trains and buildings etc) and you have not focused on the “social model of disability” in relation to those assets, you can expect that you will be dealing with significant retrofitting costs and reputational damage, thanks to legislation in favour of disability inclusion.

It cost far less to engage accessibility consultants and the disability community for feedback at the planning and design stage – where issues can be resolved with stroke of the pen – in comparison to the cost of digging up concrete for being noncompliant. If planners listen to disability experts and use their feedback, assets will be more inclusive, and may win praise for being “ahead of its time.”

Tell us about your business Mind’s at Play and how gaming works to help children and young people to foster communication and social interaction through imagination and play.

At Minds at Play we foster communication and social interaction through imagination and play through role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Some benefits are:

  • Development of decision-making skills
  • Build STEM skills
  • Socialise in a safe environment
  • Inspire imagination and creativity
  • Encourage conversations
  • Develop teamwork, collaboration and conflict resolution skills
  • Make new friends
  • Gain self-confidence
  • Explore self through characters
  • Safe outlet to express and learn strategies to manage frustration
  • Learn about consequences in a safe environment.

Our group program can be NDIS funded and align with the school term.

I have a godchild with ASD, which is why I created this program and started this business with my friends Dan Papallo and Jeff Ozog to ensure all who want to benefit from D&D have the chance to do so. We have grown in leaps and bounds as a company and have seen some wonderful changes with our members since they started the program. 

What does dignity mean to you? 

I would love to live in a society where we can understand each other and our needs, go anywhere regardless of mobility and access what we want and need safely and with respect, without feeling like I am burden on a person or society.

Dignity in disability to me means the eventual end of the term “special treatment” from our language.

I believe this formula sums it up:

Equity in Access = Dignity in disability = Equality in Inclusion.

However, we are not there yet, so we need to keep engaging key stakeholders to move the needle towards respectfully inclusion.

Do you have a specific incident relating to dignity that you would like to share, or feel others would resonate with and learn from? 

As high school teenagers, I would travel with my friend Damien to his holiday house in Ettalong Beach for a weekend away. We would take the train from Erskineville to the regional stop Woy Woy. We would carry our bags and head out on a Friday evening. Facts about us: I am double leg amputee and Damo is a proud man with spina bifida and a wheelchair user.

There are always few undignified moments in our travels: 

  • Erskineville Station has 40 stairs to the platform – 2 proud guys with disabilities, 2 bags and a wheelchair. Damo would end up with dirty clothes coming down those stairs with his chair, however, would never let anyone help him.

  • Using the old Intercity fleet: 
    • There are heavy manual doors to open.  
    • There is no space for a wheelchair in the carriage, so we would sit in the passageway for the 1.5 hour journey, often during the winter cold.

We got to where we needed to be. But could have travelled without feeling like we did not belong? Probably. To fix this problem you can see it will take years and separate projects. It is worth doing? Yes, because we would not be the only 2 people feeling this way, taking this type of journey multiple times a year.

What work needs to be done to ensure everybody is treated equally and equitably in all aspects of life, particularly on transport, employment, hiring practises and entrepreneurship. 

There will be an endless set of tasks to do, to drive inclusion and dignity. The goal posts will keep changing as the interaction and environments change over time. To achieve the work to obtain “equality and equitability in all aspects of life” almost a monastic devotion is required by the people doing the work.

Hence, I have created a mantra for the people doing the work:

“May your mind be resilient; may your heart be inclusive and may you forge the accessible future.”

You need to learn to be resilient, as you face the endless hurdles of ignorance, apathy, and bureaucracy. You need to learn to be inclusive, not only of your type of diversity, but of all, this will be difficult, because diversity is diverse. If you want an accessible and inclusive world, you need to build it, however the work will never be over – hence the focus on the accessible future!

Do you have any advice you would like to share with our readers? 

Do what makes you happy and improves society, because you will then do it better than doing anything else. People will see that in you, and you will grow and be known to be improving society and doing what makes you happy!

This will not be easy, many people will oppose you, but it will be worth it!


More information:

Visit our website: https://mindsatplay.com.au/

See a video with some of our current gamers: https://youtu.be/igNhk4BaDWY

Feature article highlighting how Mind’s at Play’s work helps the ASD community: https://ideaspies.com/posts/create-jobs-based-on-special-interests-of-autistic-people.

Tags: Dwayne Fernandes, Minds At Play, Diversity, Inclusion, The Dignity Project, Dignity

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