On 20–21 June 2006 the first-ever cross-border self advocacy conference took place at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, near Belfast. The Conference concluded the Special Olympics National Games which were held in Belfast for the first time.
The conference was organised by representatives from all over Ireland, including the Brothers of Charity (Clare), UCD Centre for Disabilities Studies, Compass Advocacy, Equal Lives, Inclusion Ireland, Mencap, Trinity College Dublin NIID, Positive Futures, Triangle Housing Association, Special Olympics Ireland and the University of Ulster. It was a great achievement for all the groups to come together to organise such a successful conference for self-advocates.
There were seven main themes in the conference: Home, Independence, Education, Work, Education, Health, Inclusive Lives and Relationships—a very full programme. During the conference we joined in the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of Mencap. A big birthday party was held on the first night of the conference and a great night was had by all.
The conference was opened by Gerry Kelly, the well known UTV celebrity. He was followed by self-advocates Trevor Rhodie and Paul Alford who welcomed the 300 self-advocates and their supporters to the conference and to Belfast. The detailed programme began with a presentation from Karen Spencer and Ian Davis from Central England People First. They provided an insight into how the People First Organisation got started and how it speaks up for people with intellectual disabilities in England.
On the second day it was the ladies’ turn to welcome the participants. Self-advocates Aisling O’Brien and Cathy McKillop did the honours and outlined the programme for the day’s proceedings.
In a packed two days, fourteen parallel sessions were held, with discussions on starting a self-advocacy group, a very interesting drama workshop on hospital-based advocacy services, and the role of the support persons in self advocacy. All of these parallel sessions and workshops were chaired by self-advocates. John O’Brien from Inclusion Associates (Atlanta, Georgia) gave presentations on both days with an outline as to how best self-advocates and their supporters should use the two days. He told them not to be afraid to speak up even if they thought they would not be listened to: ‘even if you feel small and the other person is big, don’t worry, your voice will be heard in the end.’
The final event included a panel presentation on setting up an all-Ireland self advocates’ network. There was a very positive outcome to this idea which was greeted with great enthusiasm by the self-advocates and their supporters. The conference was closed by a very emotional rendering of the song You raise me up, which was performed by Sandelford Special School, Coleraine, Co Derry.