Advocacy has recently been the equivalent of
motherhood and apple pie within the learning difficulties
community. Any professionals who care about their reputation always
stress what a good thing it is and how they want more of it.

However, some of my professional
colleagues now speak of advocacy organisations they have supported,
which, when all is said and done, haven’t achieved much. These
rumblings are still discreet whispers – but they are getting

better organisations are now highly professional and employ skilled
managers. As a result, they are vibrant, enjoy high levels of
participation and deliver a range of excellent, often innovative
projects. They contribute to the shaping of local services,
accepting that sometimes they win and sometimes they lose. The best
of these organisations are showing providers how ideas from
marketing, such as a total focus on the customer, can help them
provide better services to end-users. They herald a coming-of-age
of the advocacy movement.

what about the rest? There are still many organisations that
resemble a student union bar circa 1974. Moreover, they often
ignore the wider communities of people they are set up to serve.
They have little concept of management and no focus on providing a
quality service. Their managers are themselves not disabled and
often possess the kind of loony-left world-view that had mostly
disappeared by the late 1980s. Asked for an opinion, such people
come back with unrealistic demands, petty complaints about format
and obscure points about “hidden agendas”.

future of advocacy depends on which type of organisation wins the
day. The learning difficulties white paper Valuing People
offers an invitation for a maturing advocacy movement to play a new
role in the future of services. This invitation follows a political
formula that goes back to the earliest days of human society – in
exchange for a share of power, the advocacy movement must agree to
buy into the system, play by most of its rules and accept
compromises. Thankfully, many organisations are doing this and
making real gains for the people they represent. They are doing
this in some areas with huge skill and success. Others, however,
are living out their political fantasies by refusing to play

some of these people can be found even at the national level of the
advocacy movement, where they play out their little dramas within
dangerously close earshot of the Department of Health. If this lot
continue to act in this way, patience will run out, the rug will be
pulled and we’ll be back to where we were 10 years ago – outside
the tent, wondering why everyone ignores us. The challenge for the
advocacy movement is to move towards a maturity that befits its
achievements to date.

Craig Dearden is chief executive
of Speaking Up!, an advocacy organisation of people with learning

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