Knowing for whom and how is as important as knowing what you’re achieving

Settlement Services International (SSI) is one of the largest providers of Ability Links – a NSW Government-funded initiative that empowers people with disability, their families and carers to work towards their goals by building on their strengths and connecting with their local communities, and supporting local community and mainstream organisations to become more inclusive.

SSI has Linkers in over 40 LGAs, and works in partnership with Uniting and St Vincent de Paul NSW in all metropolitan Family and Community Services Districts as well as in Illawarra/ Shoalhaven and Southern NSW. SSI’s delivery locations include the Local Government Areas (LGAs) with the largest CALD populations in NSW.

From the state-wide evaluation of Ability Links, SSI knew the initiative was achieving positive outcomes for individuals and a return on investment for the NSW Government. What they didn’t know was how they were supporting outcomes for the diverse individuals and communities they supported.

In late July 2017, SSI engaged ARTD to evaluate their delivery of Ability Links – with a focus on benchmarking their performance against the program as a whole and understanding how they were supporting outcomes and what improvements could be made.

To understand the ‘how’ underlying SSI’s outcomes for all of the individuals it was supporting, as well as individuals from CALD communities, we used a realist-informed approach – identifying theories with an evaluation steering group and testing and iteratively developing these through a series of interviews with Linkers employed by SSI and community organisations, and finally a participant reference group.

The state-wide evaluation had already engaged with people supported through Ability Links, and SSI was engaging with the people it was supporting to develop a book of their stories (published in Our Community: Stories of Courage Strength and Determination) and conduct a longitudinal Participant Wellbeing Study. So we had to be careful to make use of available data to avoid creating an additional data collection burden, while still putting people with disability at the centre of the evaluation – following the philosophy of ‘nothing about us without us’.

We were able to do this with the participant reference group. With the assistance of two language interpreters, a physically accessible venue, and a discussion approach that was inclusive for people with a vision impairment – we were able to talk through, test and refine the emerging ‘theories’ about how SSI’s Ability Links supports outcomes with eight people who had accessed Ability Links, as well as identify improvements. This process helped to ensure the evaluation team interpreted the findings in context.

The evaluation identified a range of factors supporting positive outcomes, some of which were unique to SSI – such as their workforce of Linkers from diverse cultural and language backgrounds embedded within their communities – and some of which were tied to the flexible, person-centred and responsive nature of Ability Links. The evaluation also found that Linkers supported outcomes for individuals in varying ways – depending on their starting points, needs and goals. In some cases, people come with ideas and Linkers help to make these happen, while in others, Linkers help to turn people’s interests into ideas for community connections. Linkers can also build people’s confidence in varying ways: through the encouragement of a Linker or through social connections.

SSI is using the findings to inform its service delivery and recently shared its learnings at the DiverseAbility Conference. You can access a summary of the findings of the evaluation on SSI’s website

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