How is Citizen Advocacy Different?
We are often asked for information about citizen advocacy by people who are generally familiar with the ways other organisations provide services to people with disability, and who notice that we seem to have a quite different approach. It is true that many of the features of citizen advocacy are not to be found in other services for people with disabilities. Citizen advocacy instead adopts some tried and proven ways that ordinary people in communities have always used to help each other. Generally we find that most people who become involved with, or who look closely at citizen advocacy find these features to be practical and “common sense”, and even refreshing and creative.
Perhaps the most distinctive and striking, and most often misunderstood feature of citizen advocacy is the conduct of advocacy for people with disability by “non professional” members of the community who are recruited and supported by the citizen advocacy office staff. This is absolutely central to the citizen advocacy model. Advocates who are recruited in this way are respected, resourceful, responsible citizens who have “standing” in the community and who make a personal voluntary commitment to a vulnerable person with a disability. In some ways this resembles the system of political representation. Some of the most effective political operators are those who are motivated by one or more pressing social concerns. They demonstrate an ability to speak on behalf of the needs of others and do this without the benefit of specific professional qualifications in the area. Indeed the experience of “speaking out” often transforms a shy, hesitant person into a confident and effective advocate.
Why voluntary? Because advocates are not offered and do not receive payment for their involvement, they are free from conflicts of interests and are therefore recognised as being independent in their efforts to represent the interests of a person with a disability. Such independence and absolute loyalty to the person they are advocating for makes citizen advocates very effective as representatives of vulnerable people with disability.
Why “one to one”? While some Citizen Advocates are only involved as long as it takes to remedy a particular “short term” issue, others choose to be involved for the long term. We know that many people with disability who come to our attention because of a particular “crisis”, have lives which might be in reality one crisis after another. These crises happen because they are routinely isolated from those who might help them in the way that we have help…family members, neighbours, community groups etc. We know that the most effective way to prevent such things happening to people with disability is for them to have someone in their life who is interested in what is happening, and who will speak out or take action when necessary. Many advocates note that their presence alone can stop a pattern of neglect and abuse, and prevent it from recurring. Crises have a habit of occurring out of office hours. Citizen advocates have a personal, not a professional relationship with the person they are advocating for and are therefore untroubled by the timing of a person’s need for assistance when it occurs outside office hours.
What support is provided? Citizen advocates receive ongoing training and support from the citizen advocacy staff and from a range of Associates who provide particular skills and advice to advocates in the program. Citizen advocates do not need to be expert in all issues relevant to people with disability. They are involved with one person and therefore become knowledgeable about that person and their needs. In the absence of, or isolation from family, and the high rotation of service staff, sometimes citizen advocates quickly become the key person in the life of someone with a disability.
Why “respected and resourceful citizens”? It makes sense that respected and resourceful citizens are most likely to be influential, and therefore effective as advocates in their communities. We also believe that connecting an isolated, vulnerable and devalued person with such a person in the community can change the negative perceptions people might otherwise have. Good image, good reputation and useful skills have a way of transferring from one person to another when they spend time together. An association with, and being seen as valued by, a person who is socially and otherwise valued and well connected in a community provides outcomes for a vulnerable person with a disability which could never be purchased, and which even the most skilfully devised and administered human services program would be unlikely to achieve.
What’s the benefit for other people? Citizen advocacy has clear attractions from a number of perspectives. Government might see citizen advocacy as remarkably consistent with social policy. It is a low profile and inexpensive effort which inspires and mobilises people in communities to take care of their own, and to do it using resources which already exist in the community. It is an effort by members of a community to embrace and welcome people with a disability who despite the best efforts of other services, might live in the community yet never be part of it. It is an effort to ensure that services for people with disability in fact do what they are funded to do.
Since the efforts of advocates are not conditional on payment, their effectiveness and impact on the lives of people with disability is also not conditional on payment. While citizen advocacy is not about community development, the reality is that the actions of advocates with and on behalf of people with disability, profoundly affects the attitudes of those other community members who witness and who hear about it. In the end, the commonplace actions of advocates work to make communities more accepting and accessible to all people with disability.
Who needs citizen advocacy? Not all people with disability would need or want citizen advocacy, just as not all people with disability need or want other services. The services are there because some people need them greatly. Citizen advocacy is most effective for those people whose voices are seldom if ever heard. It is particularly important for those people who are isolated, lonely, and vulnerable to abuse and neglect because the only people in their lives might also be the ones who are responsible for the abuse and neglect.
How does Citizen Advocacy work in practice?
Several years ago, a young man who was studying part time was asked to advocate for a man with disability who was about to be evicted from his van site in a Council owned caravan park. After meeting each other the advocate found that while the man concerned was very popular with his other neighbours, a retired council employee had moved into the van next door and had immediately started threatening others with his “contacts” in the council. The advocate gathered signed statements which supported the man with a disability and organised and prepared for an appearance at the Small Claims Tribunal where a binding decision on the eviction would take place. During his preparation the advocate found that a legally required Tenancy Agreement did not exist, and indeed, in breach of Qld Legislation, no tenants of the park were provided with Tenancy Agreements.
The outcome of a few weeks of advocacy was that eviction proceedings ceased, the retired council officer moved, the caravan park manager apologised, and the man with a disability, and his neighbours, had secure accommodation with the protection of a tenancy agreement. The advocate insisted that his contribution required very little effort or time and that he valued greatly his opportunity to put his social justice principles into practice. What is clear however is that without his involvement, a vulnerable person would have been unfairly evicted, and isolated from his friends and neighbours who supported him to live independently in his own home.
When citizen advocacy first started on the Sunshine Coast, we heard about a young woman with a disability who had been recently sexually abused. (Unfortunately this is a very common experience for women with disability). The young woman felt that she was no longer safe in the group home where she was living, and wanted to move to her own unit. We asked a young woman who was a university student to become her citizen advocate and to help her explore ways for her to have a more secure and independent life. The advocate started by asking questions. She asked why some things happened and why others didn’t. She asked what could be done and when, what couldn’t be done and why not. She found what most advocates find…..that things can be done if you know what, when and who to ask. She found that what works most against the interests of people with disability is that they often need someone to speak on their behalf, and often no-one is there to do it. To her great surprise, she found that being young, inexperienced, even somewhat shy, was no barrier to her being an effective advocate. All she needed was her sense of outrage about the injustice done to a vulnerable person with a disability and a willingness to take personal action about it.
Twelve years later both of these women are married. The advocate has completed her degree and is now a respected professional with strong business and personal networks in the community. The two women are friends and while the advocate is always ready to act in her friend’s interests, they find that it is rarely necessary now. Does that mean that people with disability are less vulnerable now? Unfortunately no. It just means that the adage about having “friends in high places” is very appropriate, and that often all it takes to prevent the exploitation, neglect and abuse of a person with a disability is the presence of an independent advocate in that person’s life.
24th February, 2006