Frontline Initiative Supporting Families

Giving Voice:
Advocacy in the Human Services


Mark S. Homan is on the social services faculty at Pima Community College in Tucson Arizona.

We are not content to just talk about problems that face people with disabilities and ignore our ability to effectively engage in our professional roles. We have decided that awareness of harmful conditions must lead to action to change them. The National Organization for Human Services (NOHS) has made a commitment to forgo the seeming comfort of silence. At our most recent national conference in Nashville we decided to select an issue that affects those whom we support, deepen our understanding of it, and act to influence those whose policies and practices maintain the problem. We have decided to give voice to our knowledge and values on behalf of and in partnership with those whose voices are not often heard. Roughly translated from its Latin roots, “advocacy” means just that — to give voice. We have become advocates. This article presents a brief overview of elements of advocacy.

Basic types of advocacy

“Advocacy” commonly refers to actions which speak for the interests of others. It is different from organizing, which brings people together to develop their own voices and power. Advocacy, however, may be an important step toward organizing or may use organizing in concert with other activities to change conditions.

Advocacy is generally expressed in three broad forms. Policy advocacy is directed toward making changes in public policy, often in the form of laws. Cause advocacy involves action “advocacy” on behalf of a class of people who are affected by shared conditions. Individual advocacy focuses on a situation affecting an individual or small group, such as a family.

When is advocacy needed?

Although there are many different circumstances that call for someone to perform the role of advocate for a person with a disability, these are likely to fall into one of fi ve categories —

  1. The helping system is unable to respond effectively because little or nothing is in place to benefit the person with a disability.
  2. The rights of the person with a disability are being ignored or denied. This commonly occurs through the of information or withholding helpful and respectful responses.
  3. The person’s crisis situation does not fi t routine response procedures.
  4. The individual with a disability lacks sufficient knowledge, skill, confidence, or power to meaningfully assert her/his concerns without assistance.
  5. The responding institution (e.g., human service agency) does not have a meaningful relationship with the person with a disability. The person and their issues are not real to the institution.

Why advocate?

Like any other tool in our professional repertoire, advocacy allows us to effectively fulfi ll our professional responsibilities and purposes. More specifically, advocacy reaffi rms the value of the person, the value of our relationships with the person, and our professional values. In fact, our ethics require us to advocate “for the rights of all members of society.” Our own ability to function in accordance with our knowledge and values are hampered by conditions we may need to change. Further, advocacy prevents avoidable losses and discomfort and the additional expenditure of resources (including personal time and energy) required to restore the loss that occurs when attention is not appropriately given. We have a choice to become silent partners in maintaining conditions that exploit and demean — or not. 

Some basic considerations of advocacy

Advocacy is clearly a challenge. In the short term it may appear easier to develop the dubious skill of practiced inattention. Advocacy demands things from us that we may not feel prepared to give. Still, almost anything of value in human services will demand something of us. In part, our willingness to accept those demands makes this profession and its practitioners unique. There are many matters to which we need to give attention in order to become effective advocates. A few of them are —

  • Confront your own hesitancy to act. Acknowledge that uncertainty can lead to inaction. Identify self-messages that hinder your work and deal purposefully with them so that you can replace them with more powerful ones. “I’m afraid of what might happen….I really don’t know enough about the situation….I really don’t know what to do….People who are in charge are more important than I or the person with a disability…” What messages and actions could you construct to counteract these?
  • Reaffirm your values and ethics.
  • Recognize that you have a basic set of skills from which you can draw, including interviewing, problem solving, self-awareness, planning, observing, information gathering, and active listening.
  • Involve people you support in the advocacy effort. Assist them in learning how to become more confident and skillful. Make sure that they agree to engage in advocacy, including an understanding of the likelihood of helpful and harmful consequences.
  • Recognize common issues and link the people supported with one another or with someone who is better able to deal with cause advocacy.
  • Assist people with disabilities in becoming teachers of others, including teachers of professionals.

A few advocacy tips

I have selected from many tips I have on advocacy (A “Top Ten List”). I chose those that relate more, though not exclusively, to individual advocacy, because that’s where many of us get our start.

  1. Know your issue well. Be aware of areas where your knowledge is fuzzy. Do something about that. Don’t pretend. Develop your “argument.” That is, link facts and examples with a rationale for action.
  2. Know the relevant rights, rules, and regulations. Vague understanding will lead to vague arguments. Be able to cite chapter and verse. Know how procedures work. If you choose to ignore them, do so on purpose and have a rationale for doing so.
  3. Get a partner. You will feel more confident if you have a knowledgeable, friendly co-advocate.
  4. Get help. Get information and possibly involvement from relevant advocacy organizations and other organized groups.
  5. Get a picture of what better looks like. Have a clear idea of how you would like the matter to be resolved. Stay open to alternative ways to solve the problem. Focus on interests, not just positions. Be creative.
  6. Focus on the outcome. Do not get lured into a discussion of peripheral issues. You can perhaps acknowledge them for a future discussion, but return to the matter at hand and keep attention there.
  7. Recognize and communicate awareness of legitimate interests. Be able to identify both your (and the person’s) interests, as well as the interests of the party to whom you are advocating (i.e., the target). Communicate this awareness so that the target knows you understand those interests.
  8. Link the issue. Be able to connect the issue and its resolution to the mission, goals, statements, etc. of the target as well as to commonly held human values.
  9. Use emotion appropriately. Be willing to inject emotion into your argument so that the target better feels the issue as well its importance to you. Avoid being purely rational or overly emotional.
  10. Get clear agreements with timetables. Any agreement lacking specific outcomes to be produced by specific actions of specific people according to a specific timetable is fluff. Do not fall into the trap of accepting a promise to “take action” or “look into” the matter. Further, at the time agreements are made, you need to come to an agreement with the other party about what actions you should take if agreements are not kept. Keep the record straight by recording agreements.

Your decision to engage in advocacy will energize and deepen your professional commitment. Your decision to continue learning how to do it well will bring rewards that no attempt at accommodation can ever bring.