Over the past few years, Sligo has been very innovative and progressive in the area of advocacy. Sligo Institute of Technology now offers a formal accreditation in advocacy, through a Higher Certificate in Humanities in Advocacy Studies. It is a two-year distance-learning programme offering subjects that are practical and applicable to advocacy. I completed the course in June 2006, and I found the combination of subject matter and sharing the experiences of other students very valuable. Following completion of the course, I accepted the position of Advocacy Development Officer for the ‘Our Voice’ advocacy service.
I am also pleased to say that since the new government took office in June our local TD, Dr Jim Devins, now is Minister of State for disability and mental health issues. We intend that “Our Voice” Advocacy Service will work closely with him in the future.
Background to the service
In 2005 the Learning Disability Services in Sligo were approached by a group of people with a learning difficulty who expressed a wish to become more empowered in making their own decisions, as they were moving from residential living to living independently. It was acknowledged that they required additional skills to help them be effective self-advocates. The Sligo Institute of Technology was contacted and invited to assist in the development of a self-advocacy training course. An appropriate FETAC-accredited modular evening course was developed, and it was successfully completed by fourteen participants over a period of twelve weeks.
This was the first time, outside Dublin, that a FETAC-approved self-advocacy course for people with a learning difficulty had been offered through a third-level institute. The group who participated in the course now have a great sense of personal achievement and a true sense of pride that they were in mainstream college.
As a direct result of this endeavour, an enthusiastic Sligo Interagency Disability Group was established in March 2005. The group consists of both statutory and voluntary agencies: HSE West Learning Disability Service, North West Parents and Friends Association, Cregg House Services, National Learning Network Sligo, and Rehab Care Sligo. chaired by John Truelove, Project Officer, HSE Learning Disability Service.
A working relationship developed between the Sligo Interagency Disability Group, Sligo Citizens Information Service and the Citizens Information Board (then Comhairle) as mainstream providers of best practice in the area of advocacy. The outcome of the initiative is that Sligo Interagency Disability group was successful in securing funding from Comhairle for an initial two-year period to establish an Independent Advocacy Service in Sligo for clients of the above services and their families. This is the first time in the North West that an advocacy service for people with a learning difficulty has been established fully independently from service providers and managed through the Citizens Information Service. While it is an across-disability advocacy service, a large proportion of the clients do have a learning difficulty.
I took up the position of Advocacy Development Officer in June 2006. During an induction period of three months, I met with the clients and staff of each of the five services. During this time I worked to develop the policies and procedures required in order to become operational, and which would establish ‘Our Voice’ as an example of best practice in advocacy. The “Our Voice” advocacy service was formally launched in November 2006 in Sligo with 300 people in attendance. An information leaflet was made available to publicise the service and ‘Our Voice’ achieved the accolade of winning the prestigious 2006 HSE Derek Dockery Award for Innovation.
The ‘Our Voice’ service is mainstreamed through the Citizen Information Service in Sligo. I work from the Citizens Information Office in Lower John Street. The landmark location of the office has made it very accessible for my clients. Our Voice is structurally independent from service-provider agencies, which reduces any possible conflict of interest issues and gives my clients the choice to access ‘Our Voice’ advocacy independently of their service. I am also ideally placed to report inadequate and inappropriate supports and services through social policy channels in the Citizens Information office.
The Citizens Information office remains open until 7.00pm on Tuesday evenings and this affords my clients access to the service outside of training-centre hours. However, it cannot be a drop-in clinic for two reasons. Many of my clients lack adequate access to public transport. Appointments are arranged to allow each client the time they need to be comfortable enough to talk about their concerns. It is important that they don’t feel rushed or under pressure when meeting with me.
I also visit each of the services once a week. These visits are used both to support self-advocacy committees and to meet individuals on a one-to-one basis. The clinic appointments are arranged through the self-advocacy committees when a client is able to self-refer. An appointment may also be made by a member of staff/family member on a client’s behalf if they are unable to self-refer to the service.
The regular time spent at each service has been invaluable in establishing the presence and availability of ‘Our Voice’ advocacy at local level. It has helped to demystify ‘advocacy’. Now that I have been in the position for twelve months, I no longer need to explain the term, and the service offered, to as many people.
I have also established an identified liaison person in each of the services. This has proved useful for any of my clients who may need to access the service outside of clinic hours, but who may have speech and language difficulties. I also try to remain as flexible as possible and often call to a client’s home to meet with them.
How we realise our vision of social inclusion
I believe that people need knowledge and true choices if they are to be empowered; lack of knowledge causes fear, isolation and exclusion from participation in the life of our communities. It is the right of people with disabilities to have the same life chances, opportunities and expectations as everyone else and to have the opportunity to engage in valued activities.
Myers (1995) stated that ‘Empowerment is a process which helps people gain, regain, or maintain personal power over their lives with a sense that they can influence the people and organisations which affect them.’
The role of ‘Our Voice’ advocacy is to ensure that the people who come to us are listened to when they tell us what they want.
I work in partnership with my clients—if they are able, I support them to self-advocate. If they have severe learning difficulties, I act as their representative. As their advocate I take action to secure their rights and interests and try to obtain the services they need. My role is not to be impartial, but to let the wishes of my client direct my work.
I realise that advocacy must be undertaken in a responsible manner and not offered as a ‘wish list’ to boost the popularity of the advocacy service. There are serious ethical issues around raising a person’s expectations and not being able to deliver the outcomes they dream of. Therefore, when working on my client’s advocacy plan I strive to be honest about the real options available and to act in their best interests. This is not to discourage anyone from thinking ‘outside the box’, as many solutions are to be found there!
I encourage my clients to determine the level and type of involvement they want from me as their advocate. Advocacy is not about the advocate imposing their opinions on the client, but rather ensuring they have the information and time they need to reach a decision.
I find that negotiated resolutions work out best for all concerned, but it is invaluable as an advocate to be in an independent position when negotiating with service providers on behalf of clients. When dealing with social service providers, it certainly doesn’t hurt to mention that I am based in the local Citizen Information office, as the role of this service is well respected nationally.
Plans for the future of ‘Our Voice’ advocacy service
I currently work with five self-advocacy committees within the Sligo Interagency Disability Group. The committees offer service-users a forum to air their views about decisions taken within services that impact on their lives. There are also many issues and anomalies across social services that concern them, and the committees are becoming more aware of their own role in influencing a change in society’s attitudes towards people with disabilities.
It is important that ongoing training and education are available and accessible to our clients, at a level they can participate in. I recently proposed that we form an across-agency self-advocacy committee and the group members met the idea with a lot of interest. Following on from this the self-advocates suggested that they would like to have an opportunity to return to education and develop expertise in specific areas that interest them. Their suggestions included, as you might expect, housing, health, relationships and employment. Some other interesting topics were tabled, such as public speaking, human rights, and consumer rights. We are presently researching the type of programme we need, and are considering the role volunteer mentors could play in ensuring the success of the programme.
I am pleased that the project funding has been extended by the Citizens Information Board (CIB) until 2010- There is a lot to do, and now we have time to do it!