Southwest Advocacy Association ("SWAA") is an independent, not-for-profit, community organisation that has been funded by the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services to provide advocacy and information to people with all types of disabilities and of all ages throughout south west Victoria since 1993.
SWAA is dedicated to furthering the rights and interests of people with disabilities and is committed to providing a high quality, professional advocacy service to the people with disabilities that it exists to serve. Accordingly, SWAA recognises the importance of documenting its organisational position on what advocacy for people with disabilities is, the principles that underpin disability advocacy, and how advocacy for people with disabilities will be practised by SWAA. By documenting these things, SWAA aims to ensure that all parties involved in the advocacy process have access to clear information about SWAA's practice and its philosophical foundations.
A definition of advocacy that is generally accepted by disability advocacy organisations throughout Australia is adapted by SWAA as follows.
Acting with minimum conflict of interest on behalf of the sincerely perceived interests of a person or group in order to promote, protect or defend their welfare, rights or interests.
(See Cocks and Duffy, The Nature and Purposes of Advocacy for People with Disabilities, 1993).
The principles underpinning disability advocacy have also been identified and widely adopted by disability advocacy organisations throughout Australia. These principles, as adapted by SWAA, are as follows.
(See Cocks and Duffy, 1993).
"Southwest Advocacy Association Incorporated aims to provide a high quality, professional advocacy and information service that · empowers and gives a voice to people with disabilities; · strives to ensure that the rights of people with disabilities are respected and advanced; and · fosters the positive and full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in the community."
SWAA has two major areas of activity. These are the provision of information and advocacy to individuals with disabilities and engagement in systemic advocacy and community development.
Individual advocacy may be defined as action taken to assist individuals with a disability to defend and assert their rights and achieve equal access and participation in the community.
Advocacy for individuals is delivered at various levels. Some people simply require some initial information to enable them to conduct their own advocacy, some people require ongoing information and support to help them resolve an issue, and others require or specifically request personal representation from an SWAA advocate.
Where people are capable and prepared to conduct their own advocacy, they are encouraged and assisted to do so. The general rule is, the less intervention on the part of the advocate the better, as it is more empowering and satisfying for people to be able to resolve their own issues. However, where someone with a disability requires or specifically requests representation, SWAA can act on their behalf. In these instances, the advocate works closely with the client and, where the client instructs SWAA to and there is no conflict of interest, the advocate is obliged to include and work closely with any family members or significant others that the client nominates.
SWAA has a well-documented and comprehensive 9-step individual advocacy practice model to guide its advocates in the day-to-day practice of individual advocacy for people with disabilities. Documentation outlining the model is attached.
As the SWAA individual advocacy practice model indicates, the community-based advocate generally gathers relevant information from the client and other sources, before outlining options to address the client's issue/s, including the positives, negatives and potential effects of each option. The client then makes an informed choice about which option to pursue and instructs the advocate accordingly.
At no stage does the community-based advocate advise or direct the client as to what their best option or goal should be. The preferred course of action is the client's choice and the advocate works for the client, in accordance with the client's instructions, to achieve a goal identified by the client.
Unlike the advocates who work for the Office of the Public Advocate under the Guardianship and Administration Act, community-based advocates have no legislative mandate or moral right to determine what is in a client's "best interests". As an individual, a community-based advocate may have an opinion about what is in a client's best interests, but the community-based advocate has no right to impose their view about this upon the client. Rather, the community-based advocate relies upon the client's capacity to make informed personal choices and issue reasonable instructions.
It is only in those relatively rare situations where the client clearly lacks the mental capacity to make an informed personal choice or issues instructions that are unreasonable or unlawful, or instructions that the advocate cannot accept in good faith, that the client may need to be referred elsewhere for advocacy.
Notwithstanding this, it should be borne in mind that everyone has the right to express their views and be heard. Sometimes, in order to facilitate this, it is the appropriate role of an advocate to help a person express their views or to reflect the client's views. As the former Equal Opportunity Commissioner for Victoria, Moira Rayner, has pointed out, advocacy can be about "helping someone to realise their right, not only to be right, but also to be wrong" (Parsons, Oliver Twist Has Asked For More: The Politics and Practice of Getting Justice For People with Disabilities, 1994).
In addition to the SWAA individual advocacy practice model, SWAA advocates also have a well-documented and comprehensive set of policies and procedures under the Commonwealth and Victorian Disability Service Standards that they are obliged to be aware of and follow conscientiously. All SWAA clients are provided with a plain English summary of SWAA's Disability Service Standards Policies and Procedures at service entry and a full copy of the Standards Policies and Procedures is available to any individual or organisation upon request.
Systemic advocacy is defined as action taken to influence or produce changes to systems or communities in an effort to ensure fair treatment, social justice and enhanced opportunities for people with disabilities. Changes are commonly sought in regard to such things as legislation; the policies and practices of Government or non-Government agencies; community attitudes; and access to premises, facilities and services. Where the SWAA CoM or SWAA advocates become aware of or identify a prominent systemic issue affecting people with disabilities, SWAA may choose to raise and pursue the issue as an advocacy organisation in its own right.
Systemic advocacy is a very important part of SWAA's work, as systemic action has the potential to benefit large numbers of people with disabilities and lead to long-term change and community development. Moreover, the practice of individual and systemic advocacy is inextricably linked. Individual issues almost invariably have an underlying systemic component or basis, while the practice of individual advocacy informs and inevitably gives rise to systemic advocacy action.
SWAA recognises that there are complex and competing demands on service provides and acknowledges that a great deal of excellent work is conducted by service providers under difficult circumstances. SWAA, its staff and volunteers will treat all service providers with due respect and relate to them in a professional manner at all times.
Nevertheless, advocacy organisations like SWAA exist to defend and promote the rights and interests of people with disabilities. While SWAA often refers people to disability service providers, advocates for enhanced disability services in the community, and works in cooperation with service providers where there is no conflict of interest, SWAA is independent from other forms of service provision and does not exist to support disability service providing organisations.
In the course of representing and advocating for people with disabilities, who are often highly dependent upon service provision, it is inevitable that SWAA will have cause to question and challenge service providers and to lodge complaints against them, both on behalf of clients and as an organisation in its own right. Sometimes disability service providers perceive such action as an attack on themselves, but as Cocks and Duffy (op. cit. 1993) have pointed out: "great care should be taken to ensure that … the advocacy scheme does not compromise its stance in order to appease the interests of other stakeholders".
SWAA staff are in the first instance accountable to the organisation's clients and the SWAA Co-ordinator. SWAA also has a process in place to obtain feedback from its clients on SWAA's performance at service exit. All staff, including the Co-ordinator, are accountable to the SWAA Committee of Management, which consists of up to 12 volunteers elected from the SWAA general membership and which meets on a monthly basis. As an organisation, SWAA is accountable to its general membership and to those organisations that it has funding and service agreements with, the most notable of these, at present, being the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services. SWAA is subject to both the Commonwealth and Victorian Disability Services Standards, completes a detailed self-assessment each year, and is regularly audited by DFACS for compliance with the Standards.
SWAA recognises that both clients and service providers have a right to make complaints and seek redress in relation to any grievances they might have. SWAA has a dispute and grievance resolution policy and procedure that is available to both clients and service providers. People are encouraged to voice their concerns or make complaints without fear of retribution or other adverse treatment. Complainants have the right to be represented by an advocate in the complaint or dispute resolution process. Details regarding SWAA's complaints policy and procedure are set out below.
Step 1. The complainant can raise the complaint with the Co-ordinator of SWAA for action and resolution.
Step 2. If the complainant does not wish to discuss the complaint with the Co-ordinator, or if the problem cannot be resolved by the Co-ordinator, they should ask for the complaint to be referred to the SWAA Committee of Management, or address a written complaint marked "Private and Confidential" to, The President, SWAA, P.O. Box 480, Warrnambool, 3280.
SWAA will then attempt to resolve the matter by offering a meeting between the complainant and nominated senior members of the SWAA Committee of Management as soon as possible. The complainant and the SWAA Committee of Management may negotiate as to whether any member of SWAA who is the subject of a complaint may attend the meeting.
Step 3. If the matter remains unresolved, SWAA will offer to arrange a conciliation conference as soon as possible. The following people will be invited to attend the conciliation conference:
The independent conciliator shall chair the conference. The aim of the conciliation conference will be to negotiate a settlement of the matter that is satisfactory to all parties. At the conciliation conference relevant information will be sought from the parties involved with full consideration to the confidentiality of information. Minutes of the proceedings of the conciliation conference will be taken and all parties to the conference will be provided with a copy of the minutes and informed in writing (or the appropriate medium) of the outcomes of the conference, including actions to be taken, if any, and time frames for action.
Step 4. If the complainant is not satisfied with the outcome of the conciliation conference, they will be advised of their right to seek further assistance in order to resolve their complaint from organisations, including the following:
SWAA uses a "practice model" to guide its advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities. The individual advocacy model has the following core values.
People may be referred or may self-refer. SWAA tries to be as accessible as possible and caters to client needs.
Using interpersonal and communication skills, the advocate attempts to establish trust and a rapport with the client.
The client defines the issue with the assistance of the advocate.
The advocate provides information relevant to the issue and clarifies SWAA's role.
The advocate identifies possible options and strategies to address the issue, including strengths and weaknesses, to enable the client to make an informed decision.
Advocate and client agree on a course of action. Identified issues, desired outcome and agreed actions are documented in a client file.
Advocate and client follow through on agreed actions.
Outcomes may be positive, negative or incomplete.
Advocate reports back to the client and assists the client to understand the implications of the outcomes.Return to step 3 if necessary.
Web Site by Gary Smart, www.smart-itc.com.au, Warrnambool.