Anyone involved in doing advocacy will know that it is not something people talk about all that much. Many people don’t know what the word means, cannot spell it, and often have difficulty saying it. (I find practise helps) Indeed we often talk about it as though it is an activity indulged in only by a small coterie of people who know the mysteries.
In reality of course, most of us engage in advocacy on a regular basis during the course of our lives, and indeed some people seem to do little else with their time.
People advocate by making suggestions, recommendations, demands and even threats. They do it by calling radio talkback shows, arranging interviews, sending press releases, writing letters to the editor, journal articles, books, and letters to members of parliament.
People advocate by taking personal action as individuals or collectively with others of like mind. People might seek change by selective purchasing or use of services, by protesting, or by marching in the streets.
Advocacy in one form or another is one of the most common activities engaged in by all of us in society. So who is all this advocacy for? Who benefits?
People advocate on behalf of their families, their children, their parents, their friends, their clubs, their favourite sports, their movie, TV and music idols, their favourite politician, their favourite sporting stars, their workmates, their political donors, their presidents, their Kings and Queens. Sometimes even for people who are no longer alive. Elvis, Princess Di, and others who have passed on have large, active and very outspoken groups of supporters.
Unfortunately, and I suppose inevitably, not everyone gets a fair share of these advocacy efforts. As with so much else in our society, the bulk of this effort is directed exclusively to those who are the most beautiful, handsome, strong, rich, influential, powerful and so on. While those who are not rich, strong and beautiful have to make do with much less. Amazingly, the rich, strong and beautiful contingent get their advocacy without asking for it or needing it.
Wolf Wolfensberger, who is responsible for so much of the clear thinking which informs and guides the actions of advocacy organizations, puts it so well when he points out that….
“All disadvantaged persons need advocacy, privileged people get it without looking.”
In other words, the people who need advocacy the most are those who are least likely to get it.
The presence of organised and funded efforts to provide advocacy to people with disability is not therefore a measure taken solely because people with disability have greater need for advocacy, or that they are more likely to need expert help, or that they are always getting into bad situations. It is rather a response to the unwelcome reality that people with disability are often marginalised, devalued and disadvantaged, and therefore do not attract the attention of those who are focussed so much on advocating for the rich and famous.
When a group of citizens are motivated to come together and build an organization which acts to protect and defend the rights of people with disability, they are taking action to redress a serious imbalance in the way that our community functions. Over the years, something really important has been lost. Much of the routine, unremarkable willingness to speak out on behalf of people who are being unfairly treated has been set aside by a community who seemed to be focussed on other, more selfish pursuits. Like a police station or a court house, an advocacy office is to a large extent a profound statement that this is a community where things aren’t quite as they should or could be. After all, a place without crime doesn’t need a police station, and a community where people with disability are valued, protected and given a fair go, doesn’t need an advocacy office.
We need to dismiss completely this notion that advocacy is yet another “something extra” or “something special” for people with disability. We need to be always aware that advocacy is something that people with disability miss out on, while other people get it in abundance. Those who advocate for people with disability in the community are those who do not accept this situation and insist that an effort be made to redress the imbalance.
Advocates provide more than important advocacy support for people with disability. By demonstrating to the community how they value people with disability, they give cues for how everyone should likewise value them. By demonstrating how one can take action to protect and defend the rights of people with disability, they show everyone in the community that they too can take such action. By encouraging everyone to see that this is not “someone else’s business” they show that this is important business for everyone in this community.
16th April, 2008