Renaissance Legal’s Clare Finn shares why she volunteers for local charity Speakout.

Speakout is a charity based in Brighton and Hove, that was started more than 20 years ago. Its purpose is to support people with learning disabilities to speak up and get their voices heard.

I started volunteering with Speakout over 15 years ago. For many years, I was a volunteer advocate for a woman with physical disabilities and learning disabilities. Following my initial contact with Speakout, I met the volunteer co-ordinator and talked about the work they do. I wanted to be a citizen advocate and support someone with learning disabilities to get their voice heard. Fortunately Speakout felt I might be good in that role and worked out a training programme for me.

I was given excellent training, which included a lot of work around the discrimination that is faced by people with disabilities, and around issues such as confidentiality and safeguarding.  Some training was one-to-one with a Speakout staff member and some was in a group. Training could be talks, watching films and group discussions around a hypothetical scenario. It was an amazing eye opener into the obstacles faced by so many people with learning disabilities.

Getting started

After completing my training I was introduced to my advocacy Partner. We hit it off straight away. My partner, who was in her 30s, lived with her family and attended a day centre run by a local charity every week day. My partner had limited mobility and was a wheelchair user.  I met my partner regularly at the day centre and visited her at her home about once every two weeks. Whilst the role of an advocate is not a befriender, we enjoyed lots of social activities, which gave me insight – and a tired back – into the access issues faced by wheelchair users. A small step into a building can be a massive obstacle to a wheelchair user and the interpretation of an accessible toilet is certainly an art form.

As an advocate I needed time to get to know my partner and find out what was important to her. As we got to know each other better I was able to support her with the regular review meeting with social services, and in discussions with her family and day centre around the activities that she wanted to pursue.  Living independently was a constant source of concern for my partner; we looked at possible alternative housing, which was a very daunting prospect for her. Holidays were super important. We would plan these, work out budgets and have shopping trips.

As an advocate the most important thing is to support your partner in achieving her aims. It can be hard not to judge or disapprove of your partner’s wishes;  you may disapprove of some things that go on in their lives but respecting your partner is essential to the relationship.

After several years my partner was able to move to a different living arrangement that is a long distance away, and it was a natural point for our relationship to change, as her life was moving on.

Our years in the partnership were an amazing learning experience for me. I learned about the difficulties people with disabilities face in accessing a social life. The ‘stay up late’ campaign, developed out of the frustration of many service users that their evening socialising is curtailed by the shift hours of their carers, meaning that staying out after 9pm is almost impossible for many. In the Brighton & Hove area the Blue Camel Club has been running for several  years. This is a regular club night that has been held at various locations, and currently at the Old Market, for people with disabilities. There is live music and DJs, and the performers are people with disabilities. Gig Buddies, another local charity developed out of the stay out late campaign, and matches people with disabilities with a partner with a shared interest in music and night life so that these activities can be accessed. Gig Buddies go to festivals and club nights, slinking home in the early hours of the morning.

Continuing my work with Speakout

I have continued volunteering with Speakout, albeit sporadically until more recently. I have done some single issue advocacy work, which involves working with someone on a short term basis around a specific issue. One example was supporting a parent with learning disabilities, in meetings with social services when the parent started a new relationship and social services had concerns about how the parent would manage how the children might react to the new relationship.

More recently I have been supporting a group of older people with learning disabilities who meet every fortnight. The group is facilitated by Liz, a member of Speakout staff. There are about 12 members of the group and anything from 4 -10 people come to each session. Some of the group live in supported living, some live in residential care homes; some are physically able and some have mobility issues. We have a hot drink and biscuits, exchange news and talk about any issues that are concerning them that they are happy to share.  Often Liz will arrange a guest speaker; recently Gig Buddies came to talk to us and were a great hit. The group often enjoy watching films about Brighton in the past, as nearly all the group members were born in or around Brighton, and they also enjoy watching old comedy programmes. A recent viewing of Beadles About had us in stitches. We watched films about mate crime, which is horrifyingly prevalent, where someone befriends you but then forces you to spend your money on them, and films sharing the varying experiences of people with disabilities, which are followed by group discussion and sharing of experiences.

Speakout hold various groups in West Hove and Kemp Town; some of the groups are more actively campaigning groups.

Speakout support all their volunteers with regular forums, one to one support and training sessions.

I am proud to work with such an important and inspirational organisation and hope to volunteer for them and support their members for many years to come.

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