The National Advocacy Service for people with disabilities (NAS) is funded and supported by the Citizens Information Board and results from the National Disability Strategy, which also produced the Disability Act. The purpose is to give the person with a disability a spokesperson/interpreter/ assistant, particularly at formal decision-making forums where they might be at a disadvantage. It does not yet have statutory powers. The NAS operates on a regional basis with five managers and 35 advocates.
NAS has now been up and running for two years and has served around 1500 clients. About a third of these would have an intellectual or learning disability. Some cases are straightforward—for example, assisting with an appeal where a social welfare allowance has been refused or with a particular case conference; but in the majority of cases the advocate will work with the person for several months on a number of interconnected issues. For example, where a person wishes to live more independently, there are a number of areas to be explored: Is the person’s choice an informed one—are they aware of the responsibility/duty that will fall on them? Can they get suitable accommodation from the local authority or social housing or disability provider? Can they get support services (home help, PA, day service)? Are there informal supports (family/friends/local groups) available to them? Can they manage any family issues that arise? Can they access transition supports—where they can receive training and perhaps live in a simulated ‘independent living’ environment?
This gives some idea of the range of elements an advocate may need to bring together to conclude a case. Much of the work involves accompanying the person in the process of making a decision and putting it into effect; but it also involves negotiation with official bodies and providers, making the person’s case at formal meetings or supporting them to do so. In some situations the advocate also has the role of putting forward options they (or their families) had not considered or signalling to providers that the person’s human rights are not being safeguarded.
In the context of the Congregated Settings and Value for Money reports, this work is particularly important in ensuring that people are moved in a way that takes their individual preferences into account, rather than providing brownie points for the service.
Essential to all advocacy is the establishment of a good and trusting relationship with the person. Respect for the person and their decisions and, usually, their wishes is a key principle for advocates; although they must work within the law and within the resources currently available to the person.
The most common issues for clients relate to the old reliables, health and housing, followed by social welfare. A number of cases also involve the justice system; there are a few cases where the person with disability has been accused of a crime or where a parent with a disability is the subject of childcare proceedings because the HSE believes their children to be at risk. In such situations the advocate’s main role is to ensure the person understands the proceedings, has their voice heard and has access to any supports that exist.
The advocate’s work often exposes the gaps in support within our system, particularly at a time of recession: inadequate personal assistance hours, insufficient staffing for individualised programmes; delays in accessing appropriate housing and supports. The NAS annual reports bear witness to these and will shortly be available on the Citizens Information Board website.