The progressive inclusion of Advocacy Groups in the decision and policy making within the Brothers of Charity Services in the Clare region has been steadily increasing as a result of a greater commitment by management and staff, and a more vocal and focused representation of service users. Advocacy Groups have been developing and gaining in strength across the region for the last five years. Their progress has been evidenced in videos, radio programmes, and audiovisual presentations. West Clare self-advocates have now twice attended Inclusion Europe conferences at Madrid and Brussels and regularly link up with their European Platform colleagues. Back at home, Clare self-advocates meet with the Service Directorate every three months to bring to their attention infringements of individual rights or authoritarian practices.
In an effort to weave the service-users’ influence into the fabric of our services even further, Advocacy Groups have taken part in the interviewing process for frontline staff and area managers. In West Clare the Advocacy Group was involved in the interviewing of residential staff and day-centre supervisors. In the early stages their role was merely consultative, but didn’t necessarily determine the outcome.
The opportunity to move this process forward came last June when the post for Area Manager in the North Clare Services became available. For the first time a representation of service users was asked to form an interviewing panel whose decision would effectively elect a manager of their own choice. I was asked to support the group and travelled to Ennistymon a week in advance to get things ready. First I explained to an incredulous audience of service users what was happening, and the significance and implications it would have in the running of their service. We then discussed what more they would like the services to do for them, the areas they would like to see developed further, the issues where progress had hardly been made or where the services had been reluctant to devolve power over their own lives. Out of this open discussion came the topics which became the questions for the job candidates Four members of this group volunteered to sit on the panel, and each of them took one question. These dealt with their everyday living experience—how they feel perceived by others, how much are they being heard, how much control have they got over their money and the limited opportunities they have for socialising.
The interview was done in two stages. The candidates were interviewed by a panel of three professionals in one room; then they moved to a second room where the four service users asked their questions. For example, one question read: ‘I would like to have more control over my own money. How can this happen?’ another one read: ‘I’d like to go out more. How can you assist me?’ After each question the candidate had to answer in simple, direct terms what they would do, in the manager’s position, if confronted with these very real and important issues.
Six candidates of varying backgrounds attended the interviews. They were scored from 1 to 5 in a scale that went from poor, not great, ok, good, to excellent. The next step was for both panels to meet and compare their results. Previous to the start of the interviews the Director of Services had vowed that both interviews would carry equal weight. That meant that if the two panels differed in their choice, the interview would be repeated between the top two candidates until unanimity was reached. As it happened both panels had chosen the same person as the most suitable and competent for the job, to the joy and relief of everyone involved.
I think this experience demonstrated how people with learning disabilities, if given the power and confidence, can make decisions relating to their own lives that are far more sensible than we are often prepared to admit, and that they can show a deeper understanding of the issues that affect their well-being . I hope what I’ve written transcends these pages and that we might see more and more people with learning disabilities gaining control over their lives and playing a more central role in the shaping of services in the years to come.