DEVELOPING AN ADVOCACY SERVICE FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

by Theresa Doyle

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The report Developing an advocacy service for people with disabilities is a result of the study commissioned by Comhairle in 2003, and carried out on their behalf by Goodbody Economic Consultants, to detail the necessary requirements of a comprehensive advocacy service for people with disabilities in Ireland. The report was commissioned in preparation for the awaited disabilities legislation, and aims to set out a strategic framework to achieve this over a five-year period, inclusive of the estimated costs involved.

The report is useful for those coming fresh to the concept of advocacy and those wishing to advance their knowledge in this area; it describes the principles of advocacy, the different forms of advocacy models and identifies their distinguishing aspects.

Figures presented in the report show that approximately 324,000 people in Ireland have some degree of disability and, most significantly, 14,800 people are in some form of institutional care. Of that number, 7500 are people with an intellectual disability. These statistics are of particular relevance for the delivery of advocacy services to this vulnerable and disempowered group, which is significantly greater than in other countries.

According to the report, advocacy services for people with disabilities are underdeveloped in Ireland, with limited funding and resources available. It is recognised that winds of change are emerging from a number of service providers in the voluntary sector who are supporting initiatives aimed at ensuring greater client involvement in decisions affecting their own lives. The report also highlights advocacy initiatives promoted by the Brothers of Charity in the Intellectual Disability sector.

Significant international on the development of advocacy services is presented, showing that the involvement of the voluntary sector is crucial, as many people’s advocacy needs can be met in the community with no need for intervention at a more formal level. This provides for a degree of independence in advocacy service delivery.

Experience in such countries as Scotland and Australia has identified the need for additional paid and professional advocacy services, to ensure that the complex needs of people with disabilities are met. The community-visitors programme in Australia offers a useful model in relation to people living in institutions; it comprises a monitoring and ombudsman role and a voice for the vulnerable. It is not acceptable that those living in institutions continue to have no form of independent or accountable representation.

The report’s recommendations reflect these factors—broadly with a three-stranded approach:

  • Continuing support for development of advocacy services in the community and voluntary sector
  • Directly providing a personal advocacy service staffed by paid professionals, and
  • Developing a community visitors programme for people in institutional residential care.

I consider the report to be comprehensive; it will contribute to the debate on advocacy and it delivers on its brief to provide for a strategic way forward for the development of advocacy services. The challenge for Comhairle will be to ensure the independence of such services.

A move forward by Comhairle with the above recommendations would make a measurable difference to the quality of life and the public voice of all with disabilities in Ireland. However, with every service there is a price tag. A phased approach is envisaged for the implementation of these services, with the annual budget expected to rise to approximately €5 million within four years. It is now up to the government to decide whether they feel that this is value-for-money, and whether the public purse can stretch to fund these exciting and innovative ideas.

The need is now.

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