I AM

Gerard Keane reports on the IAM Conference held in Stillorgan at the end of April.

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A conference-focussed ‘day in the life’ of a fledgling process or network is an important event. A coming-of-age, in a sense. For the I AM consortium, however, priority is being given to the challenges ahead—which is a pilot workable advocacy service for adults with intellectual disability in the South Dublin and north Wicklow area.

It doesn’t have a logo. It has a visual ‘identity’, which was created by people with intellectual disabilities at image making workshops. It doesn’t have a hierarchy. It has a synergetic network of people and agencies that are interested in promoting the use of advocacy for and by people with intellectual disabilities. It doesn’t have a business plan, or a vision statement. Not yet at least. Instead it has a grounding in the challenges and aspirations of people with intellectual disabilities who live and attend services in the South County Dublin and North Wicklow region, combined with a wish to promote and support choices, rights and empowerment.

Wednesday, 30 April 2003, was the day when the I AM consortium ‘went public’ by way of a Launch and Information Day for about 120 people in the Stillorgan Park Hotel, in South County Dublin.

I AM consists of a consortium of seven organisations in the south Dublin, north Wicklow area. Philosophically and functionally it seeks to create an advocacy ‘service’ or ‘network’ for people with intellectual disability who live or avail of services in these areas. This advocacy service, while drawing from the experiences and supports of the relevant agencies, will seek to transcend possible agency-specific limitations with a view to achieving increased independence and impartiality in its offerings to those who may benefit from availing of it.

‘I AM’ stands for Inter-agency Advocacy Movement. The title is also analogous to underlying values of advocacy, which is ‘nothing about us, without us’. The member organisations of the I AM consortium initially came together following a Comhairle regional consultation meeting in September 2002, with ongoing support and encouragement from the local Comhairle representative.

The programme for the day was a full one, including a mix of launches, speeches, poster exhibitions and workshops, facilitated by people from around the country.

The keynote speech was delivered by Máiríide Woods, Comhairle’s Advocacy Executive. In a presentation which allied advocacy with individual rights, Mairide identified the three-sided dimension of advocacy:

The enabling side – self-advocacy, speaking up for yourself,

The representative side – speaking up for people who can’t,

The lobbying side – making the case for political change.

Her perspective was that guidelines for good advocacy practice should include independence from individual services, the setting and monitoring of national standards, appropriate training, support and supervision of staff involved, and effective operating links and partnerships between voluntary and statutory agencies.

In identifying Comhairle’s current focus in the role of advocacy, Máiríde highlighted the importance of making advocacy part of the information process of community information centres, familiarising people with their entitlements, and supporting advocacy projects in the community and voluntary sector.

In a timely and challenging presentation on the findings of a research project on self-advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities in Ireland, Liza Kelly from NAMHI identified a long list of expressed obstacles to the development of self-advocacy in agencies. Included were lack of resources, communication, accessible materials, and lack of an external facilitator. ‘Self-advocacy at the moment is a hotch-potch of local, regional and national schemes, largely uncoordinated and unregulated’.

Other presenters included Marlene Boissel, Stephen and Lisa Browne, and Aime Richardson.

Following a post-lunch performance by members of the Shadow Box Theatre Company, facilitated parallel workshops formed the backbone of the afternoon sessions, and participants were offered the opportunity to reflect on the earlier mixture of presentations and to offer opinions on ‘Where should the I AM network go from here?’ Ideas and suggestions are currently being analysed and reflected on.

A model which the I AM consortium is currently looking at is that being used by the Brothers of Charity Services in the Southeast of the country. Within the Brothers of Charity Services advocacy is organised and supported at three levels—local, regional, and national. Johanna Cooney, Martha Lombard and Ned Sullivan, refreshed after their previous evening’s long drive from Waterford via Cashel, highlighted how advocacy is a key principle of the Brothers of Charity services. It includes a full spectrum of activities from individual supports to networking with other advocacy groups such as People First, and affiliating with the Irish Council of People with Disabilities.

The next formal ‘outing’ for the I AM network will be at the Celebration of Participation and Inclusion conference which is being organised by the new National Learning Difficulties Institute in Trinity College Dublin at the end of June. Meanwhile, creative and empathic minds are at work…..ensuring a positive future for the I AM network.

When people not used to speaking out are heard by people not used to listening, then real changes can happen.’ – John O’Brien.

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