The following provides a brief overview of the development of Independent Advocacy in the Tropics Inc. (IAT) since its beginnings in 1987. It looks at how IAT started and the processes it went through to become established, as well as the context in which it was operating. The following information has been put together from discussions with past workers and members of the Management Committee as well as by drawing upon minutes of meetings and other records and reports at IAT.
How Did Advocacy Develop?
While there are many examples in human history of disadvantaged groups struggling for their rights, the advocacy movement in disability is often traced back in the recent past to the 1960's and 1970's. It was during this era in the western world that social movements concerned with issues such as civil rights and feminism strongly challenged the ways in which society disadvantaged certain groups. These movements asserted the belief that individuals were entitled to equality of opportunity regardless of factors such as race, class, gender, sexual preference or disability.
Challenging the Medical Model
The challenges of the 1960's and 1970's implied fundamental changes in the way people with disability might be perceived and the ways in which services may be provided. As written in the Working with the Disability Field Kit (1990): "traditionally people with disabilities have been isolated, segregated, restrained, feared, protected, ignored, labelled, treated as sick and dependent." It was now being argued that people with disability were entitled to the same human rights as others, to the opportunity to learn and to participate in community life and to develop their potential.
The Call for Change in Australia
During the 1960's and 1970's in Australia, the call for change was frequently heard from people with disability themselves. The 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons in Australia, for example, included many actions initiated by people with disability, which were directed towards raising public awareness of the need for radical reform.
As Senator Grimes noted, "people with disabilities have begun to speak out and be heard in the Australian community, both as individuals and through client organisations and self-help groups. They have made it clear that they want to be treated as people first - people whose abilities matter more than their disabilities. They do not want to be seen as sick or different and they do not want all decisions to be made for them by other people." (New Directions, 1985, p.iii).
What Legislative Changes Were Made?
Following the 1983 election, the Federal Labor Government in Australia began to make funding available to self-help groups and other client organisations. It also began a process of consultation and review (The Handicapped Programs Review, 1983), designed to bring about legislative changes in the area of service provision to people with disability.
In 1986, the Federal Disability Services Act was introduced. This legislation marked the philosophical shift which had occurred towards the principle of normalisation. The new Act was concerned with the provision of support and opportunities for people with disability to enable them to live and participate as valued members of the ordinary community.
Provisions for Advocacy Support
Specifically in relation to advocacy, the 1986 Act included as an objective, "that people with disabilities should have access to advocacy support where necessary to ensure adequate participation in decision-making about the services which they receive." The 1986 Act also provided (in section 2(b)), that funding should be made available for advocacy services.
The State Legislation
Following the federal legislation, the Commonwealth-State Disability Agreement 1991 was drawn up with the intention of allocating responsibilities between the federal and state governments in relation to disability services. State legislation in Queensland in the form of the Queensland Disability Services Act was then introduced in July 1992. This state legislation largely reflected the philosophy of the federal legislation.
How Did Advocacy Develop in Queensland?
Queensland saw a number of advocacy groups for people with disability launched from Brisbane in the 1980's. Greater Achievement for Disadvantaged People began in 1984 after a number of people with disability living in a large institution wanted to learn how to advocate for themselves. At the same time, Self-Advocacy Support Services (which later became Speaking Up For You) was set up to address the concerns of people with disability within the Catholic Social Welfare Services (The Wheels of Self-Advocacy in Australia, 1988, p8).
Advocacy groups were established in Northern Queensland with the setting up of the Townsville branch of Queensland Parents of People with Disability in 1984 (SEARCH Workshop, 1987). Three years later, people with disability in Townsville began to organise themselves to form IAT.
How Did IAT Begin?
As IAT's Mission Statement and Policy Kit explains, "In late 1987, a group of people with disability in Townsville met to talk about setting up an advocacy group. One of the main priorities set down at that first meeting was that people with disability would own, and be responsible for, the development of an independent (advocacy) group. We felt that this was our right." (A Kit From IAT, 1990).
A Commitment to Empowerment
As the above statement demonstrates, IAT began with a very clear commitment to the empowerment of people with disability through their ownership of the Organisation. While the assistance provided by others who have acted as resource persons is acknowledged IAT placed the emphasis from the beginning on people with disability organising themselves to advocate for their rights.
An important source of support in the early development of IAT came from workers within the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service and the newly established Disability Program within the (then) Department of Community Services. Workers from these departments assisted the group and office resources were made available. Townsville Welfare Council acted as an auspice. Other resource people included workers from Queensland Advocacy Incorporated, from local welfare services and community organisations, as well as parents of people with disability.
How Did IAT Become Established?
From the initial meetings of interested people in 1987, a public meeting was organised to investigate the level of support for the concept of a rights and resource office for people with disability within the wider community.
Approximately sixty people attended the meeting and a Steering Committee was formed, comprised of people with disability. Their primary task was to prepare a submission for the (then) Federal Department of Health, Housing and Community Services, which had advertised that funds were available to client groups in line with the new directions outlined in the Disability Services Act (1986).
The Preparation of the Submission
As some members of this initial Steering Committee have commented, the task of preparing a submission for funding required the learning of new skills as well as being able to locate people with particular knowledge. This latter need was met through the setting up of a resource consultant group composed of people with specialist skills which the group did not have amongst its own members.
It should be noted that while the resource consultant group eventually disbanded, IAT has continued to maintain an informal network of people with specialist skills that are needed from time to time.
IAT was successful in securing funding in late 1988, following which a further public meeting was held in March 1989 to elect a Management Committee from its membership of people with disability. The funding provided enabled the Management Committee to open an office and to employ a full-time co-ordinator/advocacy worker and a part-time administrative worker. The role of the co-ordinator was focused on assisting individual people with disability to advocate for themselves.
Establishing an Office
The office was set up with the intention of being a place which was accessible to people with disability, where concerns could be discussed in an environment which assured confidentiality. It was also set up according to the standards which would apply to other similar offices in the community. As one member of the Steering Committee commented, we had a "right to expect the best ... and the same as anyone else in the community."
Developing the Mission Statement and Policies of IAT
An important landmark in the history of IAT has been the development of its Mission Statement and Policies. A three day workshop spanning late 1989 to early 1990 resulted in a comprehensive set of principles from which IAT continues to base its work. The Kit which emerged from the above workshop confirmed the primary aim of IAT as being the provision of assistance to individuals to enable them to advocate for themselves.
In 1993, IAT was successful in gaining additional funding to employ what was initially coined as a "Social Action Worker". This position was later shared amongst staff who now undertake both individual advocacy and systems advocacy, with specific systemic advocacy projects allocated to advocates. This new resource enabled IAT to become more involved in systemic issues that were impacting upon people with disability within Queensland and Australia.
As well, a further significant development arising from the additional focus on systemic advocacy was IAT's increased capacity to become involved in State and National advocacy networks.
The impact of these developments upon the work of IAT was primarily to broaden its participation and influence within the advocacy movement, and gave IAT the opportunity of developing a more integral and complex understanding of advocacy and the ways in which advocacy can be done.
This development in understanding has included a priority upon providing advocacy for people with disability who are the most vulnerable within our community, which has seen a move away from the primacy of empowerment of individual people with disability.
This is also reflected in some of IAT's latest projects that include the establishment of an advocacy presence in rural and remote areas regional to Townsville, a focus upon the residents of boarding houses and other institutions, and creating networks with people from multicultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
The development of IAT and other advocacy groups may be placed within the context of a movement which largely grew from the rethinking and recognitions of the social movements of the 1960's and 1970's. However, it must be stressed that being part of this movement has meant a significant departure from traditional attitudes and approaches to the issue of disability.
This departure from traditional approaches has brought forth a range of reactions from those outside the Organisation. For the Organisation itself, it has meant that new ground must be broken, new skills must be learned and new understandings gained. Those involved have generally seen this as a very positive experience, as a time of personal growth and as an empowering process in itself.