We use the term ‘advocacy’ to describe what a member of the community (an ‘advocate’) is doing when they provide support to a person who may feel vulnerable, isolated or disempowered.

Advocacy ensures that minority and disadvantaged groups in society have a means to know about, and achieve, the same life opportunities as others. In many cases during childhood, it will be the individual’s parents who take on the role of advocate for their children.

As a child moves into adulthood, they will often choose to take on the role of advocate for themselves. Some people with more complex needs may, however, still need or prefer someone else to support and advocate for them.

It is useful to differentiate between advocacy and self-advocacy.  The latter involves people speaking out for themselves to express their own needs and represent their own interests.

During the past two decades there has been an increase in people with learning disabilities who take on the role of speaking up for themselves and on behalf of others.

Organisations such as People First – a group run by people with learning disabilities for people with learning disabilities - can be found throughout the UK.

The issues

Some areas have strong advocacy organisations, whilst in other areas such provision is less consistent. Some families find the idea of independent or citizen advocacy difficult as they have themselves always advocated on behalf of their family member.

Others, however, welcome it as an opportunity for their family member to explore what they really want independently of the family, recognising that the wishes of different family members may not be identical.

According to advocacy organisations responding to an on-going review of advocacy services, there has been a reduction in funding levels since 2009/10. Similarly, spending on learning disability/self-advocacy as a percentage of total advocacy expenditure has declined from 63% in 2010/11 to 37% in 2012/13.

Read ‘Advocacy by and for adults with learning disabilities’ (PDF) for more information.

The role of the advocate

Disabled people, their organisations and many leading voluntary organisations welcome the use of advocacy and believe it to be crucial in achieving the government’s vision of more choice and control for all disabled people.

The advocate provides support, information and representation with the aim of empowering their advocacy partner and enabling them to express their needs and choices. If necessary, the advocate can represent their partner’s wishes to another person or agency on their behalf.

Independent advocacies such as citizen advocacy, peer advocacy and self-advocacy should be differentiated from the roles played by family and professional carers. 

Independent advocacy is about speaking up for someone who has difficulty getting their voice heard. It is about spending time with them and getting to know their wishes, and then supporting them to bring about the changes they desire in their lives. It is about putting the person in control of their lives. Independent advocates are very much involved with the person-centred planning process and would be a key person in the circle of support.

Advocacy and mental capacity

The Mental Capacity Act 2005 introduced a new type of advocacy: the Independent Mental Capacity Advocate (IMCA). An IMCA provides advocacy in the event that there is no-one who can be appropriately consulted when making a decision about a person deemed to not have mental capacity.

An IMCA is not the decision-maker, but the decision-maker has a duty to take into account the information given by the IMCA. The IMCA service is provided in each local authority area in England and in each local health board area in Wales.

Read more about the Independent Mental Capacity Advocate Service (PDF)