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Independent Advocacy in the Tropics Inc

History

The following provides a brief overview of the development of Independent Advocacy in the Tropics Inc. (IATI) since its beginnings in 1987.  It looks at how IATI 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?

Advocacy, UN, WheelchairsWhile 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 IATI.

How Did IATI Begin?

LogoAs IATI'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 IATI, 1990).

A Commitment to Empowerment

As the above statement demonstrates, IATI 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 IATI placed the emphasis from the beginning on people with disability organising themselves to advocate for their rights.

Gaining Support

An important source of support in the early development of IATI 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 IATI 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.

Obtaining Funding

IATI 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 IATI 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 IATI continues to base its work.  The Kit which emerged from the above workshop confirmed the primary aim of IATI as being the provision of assistance to individuals to enable them to advocate for themselves.

Since 1993

25th Anniversay BookletIn 1993, IATI 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 IATI 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 IATI's increased capacity to become involved in State and National advocacy networks.

The impact of these developments upon the work of IATI was primarily to broaden its participation and influence within the advocacy movement, and gave IATI 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 IATI's 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.

Business Names

On 4 June 2004, IATI registered the first of its business names, Independent Advocacy Townsville and it continued to carry on business solely under this name until in 2017 when the current Management Committee members along with its CEO saw that this was very restrictive and not a true indication of the extensive area of North Queensland that IATI has serviced since the early 1990s and the increased areas over the past 18 months.  The search for a new business name began and on 30 November 2017 the second business name of Independent Advocacy NQ was registered.

Advocacy and the NDIS

The most fundamental and significant influence to face the Queensland Disabilities Sector, is the National Disability Insurance Scheme, (NDIS).  Within the NDIS framework, people with disability make the decisions about their supports, including who will provide them, and funding for disability supports, are allocated to each eligible individual, rather than to a service provider.

The roll out commenced in Queensland in April 2016 with Palm Island selected as a fully rolled site and the LGAs of Townsville and Charters Towers rolling out for those aged 0 – 17 years.   During the 2016-2017 financial year, IATI's regions of Flinders, Hinchinbrook and the Burdekin transitioned to the NDIS along with the remainder of Townsville and Charters Towers.   The NDIS Townsville region comprises the LGAs of Townsville, Hinchinbrook, Burdekin, west to Mount Isa and up to the Gulf region.  The last remaining LGA in our NDAP funded region, Cassowary Coast could roll out as early as the end of the 2017/18 financial year.

Along with all levels of government undertaking reviews of their current disability funded services, the National Disability Strategy is also being reformed.  This is a ten-year strategy that has been endorsed by all heads of government and is to extend across all portfolios.  A new Action Plan (2015 – 2018) is also under development.  (NDS, 2015 )

It will be essential that IAI be in the strongest possible position to expand and increase its ability to provide independent advocacy to empower and enhance the lives and integrated independence of people with disability and to protect their basic Human Rights. Our organisation, its Management Committee, CEO and staff are committed to grow and extend our services as the need arises.  All of course, depending on the availability of not only continued funding but greatly increased funding.

Over the past eighteen months we have undergone significant changes including reviewing and streamlining our service delivery and administrative and financial functions to improve efficiency and prepare for the increased demand on our services which we expected to see with the introduction of the NDIS.  We commenced a full-fledged marketing/advertising campaign and re-branding project.  Our website was revamped and is more interactive and user friendly. 

As we have seen since the launch of the NDIS, the demand for our services has far outgrown our capacity to service consumers.  This is evidenced in our 2017 Annual Report which demonstrates clearly this demand - and the demand continues to grow.  Added to this, we have been given additional regions to service with no real commitment to any additional funding now or in the future.  We are continuing to run the organisation on one or two yearly funding extensions, which, in the business world is totally unsuitable.

Conclusion

The development of IATI 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.