Being the Boss – Providing a coherent voice in the wider community

During the last few months Sandra Daniels and Bob Williams Findlay, two new directors of Being the Boss, have facilitated several discussions with attendees at the Fairways Day Centre, to support them to speak up about how they are feeling and to understand more about why Birmingham City Council are proposing to close the Fairways Day Centre.

Sandra and Bob have come into Being the Boss to help revitalise it as the national network of disabled people who employ their own personal assistants. Given the current climate it is essential to establish Being the Boss as the advocate for disabled people who employ their own personal assistants because all forms of living independent lives is under threat.

Alongside maintaining Being the Boss’s service/role as ‘providing peer support and a coherent voice for them in the wider community’ we want to strengthen it by making ‘being their advocate’ more visible and proactive. Not only that, it would pave the way for Being the Boss developing other areas of advocacy work. Might be useful to seek if we have a common understanding of what advocacy means:

Advocacy in all its forms seeks to ensure that people, particularly those who are disempowered by society, are able to:

  • Have their voice heard on issues that are important to them.
  • Defend and safeguard their rights.
  • Have their views and wishes genuinely considered when decisions are being made about their lives.
  • Advocacy is a process of supporting and enabling people to:
  • Express their views and concerns.
  • Access information and services.
  • Defend and promote their rights and responsibilities.
  • Explore choices and options

Many people who have personal assistants may wonder what they have in common with attendees of a Day Centre, but we hope this insight into how one group of disabled people who are being denied a voice, let alone the right to exercise choice and control, are in a similar position to those who are fighting to defend independent living.

What is happening in Birmingham also illustrates why advocacy work is so important. Like other local authorities Birmingham is taking an axe to many services and denying service users a voice of their own. Until last year Sandra was employed to work for a self advocacy project called People First Birmingham. During Birmingham City Councils rounds of funding cuts in 16/17 Birmingham City Council decided to withdraw funding for community advocacy, leaving a gap that has impacted on how disabled people can speak up as a community and take part in the local democratic process.

In 1992 Bob was a Planning Officer in Birmingham Social Services Department with responsibility for services for people with physical impairments. I was charged with writing, alongside others, a plan to modernise the old Welfare Centres – transforming them from places where disabled people were simply ‘warehoused’ to resource based centres where people could attend and engage in social activities. Much of what takes place at Fairways Day Centre today still draws upon this ethos, but twenty-five years on, many things have changed, but others have stayed the same or slipped back.

Working as advocates Sandra and Bob discovered that the attendees of the Fairways Day Centre questioned to what extent Birmingham City Council understood how the decision making process the Council adopted in relation to the proposed closure had failed to give any consideration to the following facts:

a) That they may wish to speak with a collective voice [supported by independent advocates] to express their concerns and to defend their right as Birmingham citizens to view themselves as an active, longstanding community.

b) That by focusing upon individual social work assessments the Council are failing to see and treat them as people who are part of a community with choices and rights. Users of the Centre feel they have been reduced to the status of ‘problems that cost money’,

c) That the approach taken has shown no due regard for their Human Rights, thus undermining their dignity and completely ignoring how their sense of community enhances their health and well-being.

In our opinion these views are backed up by the Council’s inadequate and misleading comment that: “The users will receive their services elsewhere.”

To our knowledge what has been placed on the table is a number of ‘services’ which completely fail to address the fact that the attendees view themselves as an established community. It is hard to see how Councillor Paulette Hamilton can talk about ‘dignity and respect’ when disabled people are reduced in status to being regarded simply as in ‘receipt of a service’.

Not once, but twice, Birmingham City Council voted to work within the social approach towards disability. As professionals and disability rights activists with many years experience between us, we can’t see any evidence to suggest that Birmingham Adult Social Care operates within such a framework. What continues is an outdated and oppressive approach which disabled people and their organisations have opposed for the last thirty years. Birmingham City Council is fixated with people’s conditions and health well-being divorced from the social contexts in which people live. The Council fails to adopt a holistic approach which would place people’s health needs within the context of how social environments restrict those of us with impairments. The Council’s Adult Social Care services see people’s impairments as the problem which leads to the services providers not seeing the bigger picture. The advocated social approach seeks to enable and empower disabled people with appropriate support to overcome disabling barriers with their lives.

Councillor Hamilton claimed last year that the Council worked within the framework of the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People – however Disabled People Against Cuts West Midlands disputed this claim then and still do. The Council does not understand Article 19 of the Convention and that’s clear from its treatment of the people who attend the Fairways.

Fairways is not just a service, it is part and parcel of people’s lifestyles; lifestyles which arise not simply because of the existence of impairment, but also due to society’s inadequate and disabling provision within mainstream social activities. Disabled people have little choice and control over their lives, now Birmingham City Council wish to reduce it further for some of them.