Advocating Against Abuse – A New Way

This post was written by Melodie Cook, a graduate of the Ryerson Disability Studies program.

Advocates Against Abuse (AAA) is abuse prevention training that is taught by people with disabilities to people with disabilities.  The project was created in response to the need to address the alarming rates of abuse that occur involving people who have an intellectual disability.  The project is a partnership between Community Living Essex County, Community Living Windsor, Community Living Chatham-Kent, Christian Horizons and Vita Community Living Services.

Research has described that the voices of people who have a disability are usually missing whenever there is discussions concerning education, curriculum development and methods of teaching.  Traditionally training for people who have an intellectual disability has been provided by non-disabled trainers positioned as experts.  The goal of AAA is to arm people with skills to keep themselves safe in a way that is truly consistent with the values of the developmental services sector and doesn’t undermine the voices and credibility of the people it is intended to assist.

I have had the privilege of being involved in the project both as a steering committee member and in the evaluation process.  From inception through evaluation the project was guided by people who have a disability who formed part of the steering committee along with employees of the partner agencies.  An abuse prevention curriculum developed by Dave Hingsburger was translated to more accessible language.  A rigorous selection process was used to hire  Trainers (people who have an intellectual disability) as well as Helpers (employees of agencies who would perform a background role in assisting Trainers).  Formal training was completed and weekly practise sessions helped Trainers hone their skills and Helpers learn to just help. 

Once the training teams were ready the first four classes were taught by the Trainers and an evaluation of the project was completed.  The evaluation, titled Bringing Up the Roof and co-authored by a colleague, Adriana McVicker and myself is a qualitative evaluation of what the experience meant to Trainers, Helpers and class participants.  Unlike most research regarding people who have an intellectual disability the dominant voice throughout the evaluation is people with disabilities.

The positive outcomes of the AAA project have been far more significant than anticipated.  Not only did the evaluation confirm that the AAA approach was a worthy alternative to traditional abuse prevention training, it was significantly better. People supported report that having a teacher who has the life experience of disability enhanced their learning.  Trainers report that having the opportunity to teach has made them better advocates and role models. Helpers report that the experience of performing the Helper role has forever altered and improved their approach as a direct support professional. Management involved in the project have reported a renewed sense of purpose in their profession.  Although AAA requires a commitment from agencies to adhere to the values and proven approach of the project, it is truly an investment in training that “walks the talk” and has far reaching consequences.

Since the completion of the evaluation a year ago Trainers involved in AAA have trained hundreds of people with disabilities and agency employees in abuse prevention.  Trainers and others involved in the project have  presented at the “Speaking Out” conference, OADD, Community Living Ontario and Ryerson University.  Publication of elements of the evaluation are currently being pursued.  Most importantly, work has started on piloting the project in the city of Toronto through Vita Community Living Services and Christian Horizons.

There have been so many enlightening moments with this project for everyone involved but my personal favourite is this:

At the OADD conference, after the presentation one of the Trainers was asked by a member of the audience if she saw herself as a role model for people with disabilities.  The woman agreed and talked about how it has caused her to advocate for herself and for friends.  But she also said the experience had caused her to become more confident in standing up for herself as a woman.  “So I feel I am a role model for women as well”.  I couldn’t agree more.

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