This is another classic ‘getting your message across’ tea towel. While the date for these tea towels is 1987, that is not the age of the tea towels but the date the group was founded. Self Advocacy in Action is a self advocacy group for people with learning difficulties; it is an organisation that is managed by people with learning difficulties and it has the longest ‘strap line’ in the world: Working Together and Helping Others Speak Out. The original group members chose both the name and the strap line. One of the founding members, Clifford, designed and drew the logo that they still use today. Some people have said that the logo is too big; it certainly takes up a lot of the headed paper but it is distinctive, it is their own and they should be proud of it. It shows small groups of people at one of the conferences they organised each year, making statements like “We should be treated like adults not children”, “We want to learn how to complain”, “Speak up for them that can’t speak for themselves” and finally “Stand up for your rights”. These were genuine comments made by conference participants and regular themes for group discussions. Using this tea towel reminds me of the happy times I have had, working with Self Advocacy in Action, how much I have learnt from them and how much I miss going to the Annual Conference. I also miss playing bingo with them (and winning I would have to say). The last annual conference was several years ago; social service departments used to fund people to attend the conferences because they were real learning experiences. With the austerity cuts imposed by the Government this meant those funds were no longer available for such experiences. It is good to know that money can still be found for carpetting the offices of the Leader of the Council, or paying for HSI, or for doing so many road works it makes driving from A to B almost impossible (she says cynically).
In 1987, I was working in Coalville as a Specialist Social Worker for people with learning difficulties, supporting a day centre committee. In 1987 this was quite a radical approach to services, where people with learning difficulties had a real say in the way their service was delivered, their day centre was run. At the same time, my best mate, Gwyn, was working in Swadlincote, also in a day centre for people with learning difficulties. We were having a chat and came up with this great idea that we could bring the two day centre committees together to form a Self Advocacy Group. Working across local authority boundaries was also a bit radical. Who is going to pay for the transport? was the first question people asked; nothing about what a great idea this was, nothing about people with learning difficulties learning from each other, nothing about giving people a voice. The next question was who would be responsible? What insurance would cover them? Nothing about people with learning difficulties having the opportunity to develop independence skills, nothing about broadening the social opportunities of people with learning difficulties and the chance to learn new skills. It was really difficult to get people in social services to ‘think outside the box’.
Gwyn and I were never going to give up. We arranged for the two groups to meet up to see if they wanted to do this on a regular basis and 28 years later they are still going; there are several members who were in at the beginning and who are still there. There are a lot of new members. So what has the group achieved? They had their own office in a building for small businesses for more than 15 years (although they have had to give it up because of financial cuts), working alongside the general public, not in an institutionalised day centre. They are a company limited by guarantee. They have run 22 national, 3 day conferences at Swanwick Conference Centre, for people with learning difficulties. They have run more than 20 one day conferences in Leicestershire and Derbyshire. They have carried out an evaluation of a number of hospital wards as part of the closure of Aston Hall Hospital. They have given talks about their group all over the country from Somerset to Bangor in North Wales. They have run regular training sessions for staff in the care sector. They have acted as a consultation group for the Safeguarding Board in Leicestershire. They have provided services under the Personalisation Agenda in Leicester and Leicestershire. They have taught student social workers and psychologists about Self Advocacy and the rights of people with learning difficulties. They have done sessions on abuse of people with learning difficulties for counsellors. They have run training sessions on communication and people with learning difficulties. They have written two books about Self Advocacy and produced 4 videos/CDs. They have a monthly enewsletter. They have also produced some tea towels and tote bags for fundraising; the tea towels come in two colours and, of course, I have one of each!
The real challenge for professionals is that people with learning difficuties can teach professionals about what is good and bad ways of working, what people want, how to communicate and because it is from their perspective it is unchallengable and basically that is how it should be.
In all this, Self Advocacy in Action have stuck to their funding principles which was not to receive funding from the local authority. Self Advocacy is about being independent of people who provide services and if the group had a grant from a local authority then the local authority could set boundaries on what they did and create barriers. This puts the group in a difficult financial position; where do you get funding from? They have had money from the Lottery in the past and a number of small grant making bodies but it is not core funding because it never goes on for more than three years. Self Advocacy in Action get most of their money through earning it, through hard work and some fundraising.
I know they have tried embarking upon the world of CrowdFunding. It seems like a great idea. People have set up new businesses with CrowdFunding, musicians have got their first album financed by CrowdFunding, then there was the man who wanted $50 to make a potato salad and raised many thousand dollars (which he then donated to charity). Self Advocacy in Action want £3000 for a project that would keep them going for some time. Not a lot to ask. I am proud to have been part of setting up Self Advocacy in Action in the first place and am proud that here is a group that can move with the times. Every time I wipe up with this tea towel I think of Clifford, and Kerry and Barry and Phyllis and Melanie who are working so hard to keeping it going but I also think of those members who have left to do other things like Susan who moved to Kidderminster and Roy who moved to Mansfield. I remember Paul and David who died at a very young age. I remember Glenis and Phillip and Pam.
In a just world groups like Self Advocacy in Action, and there are similar groups all over the country, should have adequate funding so that they can be independent, and steer their own course in life but then I also know there is little justice in this world.
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