Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ireland begins national advocacy service to give people with disabilities there a stronger voice

From the Irish Times:

People with disabilities will have access to a national advocacy service from March 31, which aims to give vulnerable people a stronger voice and a greater opportunity to make positive changes in their quality of life.

The service works by allocating trained independent advocates to disabled people who can advise or support them to make claims for services such as welfare or housing, or negotiate on their behalf on issues affecting them.
The network is funded by the Citizens’ Information Board, with teams based in Dublin, Westmeath, Offaly, Waterford and Leitrim.

Advocates will make an effort to target disabled people who are isolated in the community or who live in residential institutions and cannot represent themselves.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton (pictured left)said the national scope of the support meant it would be available to any person with a disability who needs it.

“A major function of advocacy is to assist these people by providing an independent guide to services and options, someone to assist them at official proceedings and, in some instances, through the move to living in the community,” Ms Burton said.

“It is particularly important that an independent person is available to them where they are totally dependent on a single service provider. Essentially, the service will level the playing field and provide a voice for the more vulnerable of people with disabilities.”

While the service has been discussed at government level for the past decade or more, progress has been held up in recent times due to the state of the public finances.

Under a revised plan, it will not be placed on a statutory footing, as was originally planned, which would have given advocates more powers in dealing with public services.

Nevertheless, groups representing people with disabilities such as Inclusion Ireland welcomed it as a major step forward.

“We’re very glad to see this starting up on a national basis,” said Deirdre Carroll of Inclusion Ireland. “The big issues we keep coming across are entitlement to services, capacity and consent. We think it will make a big difference.”

Tony McQuinn, chief executive of the Citizens’ Information Board, said while many people with disabilities were well-equipped to make their own decisions, some vulnerable people with disabilities were at a disadvantage when claiming their entitlements or making important decisions.

“The service will protect their rights, help them gain their entitlements and make positive changes in their quality of life,” he said.


"I HAD NO NO CHOICES ON WHERE I LIVED, NO SOCIAL LIFE": MARIE WOLFE knows more than most about the benefits of advocacy. She credits having access to independent advice and support while living in a group home for people with disabilities as a key factor in transforming her life.

“Life before advocacy wasn’t great,” she says. “I had no opportunity to work, no choices on where I lived, no social life. Sometimes, I felt like I wasn’t listened to.”

Five years ago, she moved into independent living, with the help of advocates. Since then, her life has changed dramatically.

“It means I can go out and come home when I want. I can invite friends over for a party. I decide when staff call out to me. I have much more control over my life.”

The move inspired Marie to get involved in a range of groups and organisations for disabled people, while she advocates on behalf of other people with disabilities.

“It changes your life by giving you choices,” she says. “More people should have these kinds of opportunities.”

Grace Moore, one of the advocates who forms part of the new national service, says she is looking forward to helping and empowering people like Marie.

“We’re independent advocates, which is crucial,” says Moore, who is based in Limerick. “We’re free of any conflict of interest and we’re there on the side of the disabled person, whether that’s dealing with service providers, their families or public services.”

As part of her work in pilot projects in recent years, she has received referrals for all sorts of cases, ranging from the very simple to the highly complex.

“No day is the same and no case is the same,” she says. “I’ve been involved in helping people seek legal aid, helping a lady get a barring order against her husband; making sure service providers listen to my clients.”