Bob Lee has extensive knowledge and experience working with people with disability and their families and was the founding coordinator of Sunshine Coast Citizen Advocacy, a role he held for 20 years. Bob is well known for supporting the development of Citizen Advocacy in Australia and hosted a number of successful learning events and activities to that end. He wrote the following article to assist a new Government worker understand the unique and important role of Citizen Advocacy as opposed to other responses to the needs of people with disability.
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. This is always an interesting task because many of the features of citizen advocacy are not to be found in other services for people with disabilities, or even other advocacy services. 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 “spokespersons”.
Why “one to one”? We ask citizen advocates to remain 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 current 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.