Getting disability support in a language that you can understand

Last updated


The ability to understand what is happening when it comes to accessing support services is often taken for granted. 

Being able to connect with support services, understand the language, and connect with people from similar cultural backgrounds was important for John and his mother, Winnie, when accessing support in their home state of Western Australia. 

John was born in Malaysia, and was a happy and healthy baby. Winnie says there didn’t appear to be anything for her to be concerned about.
However, by the age of four or five, John was still not able to talk, and family suggested that they visit a doctor.

Winnie says, “We brought our son to Singapore for a medical check-up.  Despite having a MRI scan, the doctor could not determine any developmental abnormality in our son’s brain.”

“But he had two blocked ears so he couldn’t hear. The doctor said that we should check to see if there is a hearing problem or not. John then had to undergo a procedure to remove the ear crystals.

The move to Australia and a diagnosis

Even though there were challenges, John made small improvements, however he still wasn’t talking. 

“When he went to primary school, he still couldn’t talk. After about a year [of school] he could call us ‘daddy and mummy’ and could talk a little bit.”

The family then decided to migrate from Malaysia to Australia where John would have to learn to speak English.

In Australia, John once more was checked over by a doctor before starting school. This doctor also couldn’t find anything of concern.

School in Australia was a challenge for John. At home, his family would speak Mandarin, and at school he would be taught in English. 

“I think because of language differences, we spoke Mandarin at home, he couldn’t understand properly, so he started misbehaving,” Winnie explains. 

John would have meltdowns or get angry and his behaviour would escalate. This eventually meant that he needed to change schools more than once.  

The frequent changes contributed to John’s challenging behaviours as he found it difficult to cope with the changes. 

John’s parents were struggling to find a suitable school in Perth so they decided to take John back to Malaysia.

After 1.5 years living in Malaysia, John’s parents decided to give Australia another try as they wanted John to be close to his siblings.

After returning to Perth, the family was recommended to see a specialist, who once more assessed John. The specialist noticed that when talking, John would often repeat words. 

The specialist diagnosed John with mild autism, which came as a shock to the family.  

“It was a very difficult time because he was screaming and getting upset. It was very hard for the family.”

John was able to complete year 12 in Australia and through an employment program was able to find a job at Commonwealth Bank where he worked for 10 years. John has since moved forward and now has a position at Spotless. 

A language we understand

John’s diagnosis meant that he was eligible for government funded programs for individuals with disability. John was connected with a disability service provider for individual social support where a support worker would come and take him out every week.

However, John eventually lost interest and ceased this support service. 

His parents soon found John’s behaviours starting to escalate again and his parents found it extremely difficult to manage. John was later seen by a behavioural support team from the Department of Communities Disability. 

The team put in place a behavioural plan for John and his family so they could learn how to manage and de-escalate John’s challenging behaviours. 

John and his parents also attended counselling sessions with a behavioural therapist to both have a better understanding of why John reacts in a certain way and learn how John can regulate his emotions.  

Winnie found that after attending these sessions, John started to accept change more easily whereas in the past, John would not cope well if there was a slight change at work. 

Despite the existing support, John’s parents were still hoping to find a service provider that could offer the day-to-day assistance and communication in their native language. 

Understanding the parents’ wish as well as John’s needs for social and independent skills, John’s local area coordinator quickly contacted Chung Wah Community & Aged Care.  

Chung Wah Community and Aged Care (CAC) is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to improving the quality of life of individuals from diverse backgrounds, especially non-English speaking backgrounds.

The organisation offered Winnie and John the support they needed in a language they could both understand and were confident in speaking. 

“Because of the language [barrier] we couldn’t go to find other people, so we were under local coordination.”

With the supports made available through Chung Wah CAC, John has made significant improvements, including going out and about in Perth.

For Winnie, the fact that Chung Wah CAC offers support workers who speak Mandarin is also really helpful.
She explains that even though she can understand simple English, she struggles with more complex areas. Being able to speak with support workers in Mandarin helps her understand what is going on and what is happening with her son. 

“He has changed little by little…Now he can communicate with a lot of people and is very happy working.

“We now know how to calm him. I think being older, he is also more understanding and is more settled,” says Winnie.

From a boy who struggled to understand himself, John has become one of Chung Wah CAC’s favourite individuals who always brings the brightest smiles to the centre every time he comes.