by David Whelan, Assistant Planner, Regional Disability Services, Midland Health Board


The ‘Imagining Better’ Seminar held at the Tullamore Court Hotel on 22 April was organised by The Midland Health Board, APT, The National Disability Authority and Comhairle. Approximately 140 people attended the one-day seminar.

The first presentation was given by Mervyn Tierney who discussed the findings of research carried out by the Irish Advocacy Network, which is being established nationwide to advocate for people with mental health issues. One of the striking facts to emerge from this research is the number of people who do not receive a diagnosis of their illness. The Network has developed an accredited training course in peer advocacy.

Donal Toolan, Coordinator of the Forum of People with Disabilities, gave a broad overview of the development in the disability arena in Ireland over the last ten years. In particular, he emphasised the importance of developing an advocacy process, and to recognise that much work needs to be done in this area.

International guest speaker Dr Michael Kendrick spoke about advocacy as an evolving concept. Dr Kendrick suggested that advocacy is not for the faint-hearted, it can be a long drawn-out battle, with no guarantee of success. Dr Kendrick spoke of the advocacy continuum: self-advocacy, peer advocacy, family advocacy, legal advocacy, citizen advocacy and paid advocacy. He remarked that if we examine what has been achieved in recent years, we should be more optimistic about the future.

In the afternoon session, Michael Kendrick spoke about ‘imagining better’ services for persons with disabilities. He posed the questions: Do services exist to benefit the client? Whose interests are met? What is the theory behind what we are doing? He pointed out that services in the past were not like those we have now—we are always improvising and services are an experiment. He rebutted the theory that ‘the professional knows best’, saying that they don’t know what is best—they are winging it. People with disabilities and their families have answers. Unfortunately we have not yet found a way to share authority with people with disabilities and their families. Dr Kendrick called for an ‘ethical partnership’ between all the stakeholders.

We need to allow people with disabilities to imagine, for themselves, what type of service they want. Dr Kendrick criticised the one-service-fits-all concept. Individuals need access to a variety of services to meet their differing needs. People need to be trained and supported in choice and decision-making, to be helped to develop their own service. The natural supports of people with disabilities are their families—why is it that families receive the least resources? It is ironic that the further away from the client, the better one gets paid.

At the conclusion of the Seminar it was agreed that in Ireland we need a much greater debate about the types of service models available, as well as a structure for advocacy services in order to be effective.