9. Role of Comhairle
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Comhairle was established under the Comhairle Act 2000 and comes under the aegis of the Department. Its core function is to support the provision of and, where appropriate provide directly to the public, independent information, advice and advocacy services so as to ensure that individuals have access to accurate, comprehensive and clear information relating to social services and are referred to the relevant services. It has a statutory commitment to assist and support people, particularly those with disabilities, in identifying and understanding their needs and options and in accessing their entitlements to social and civil services. It's Strategic Plan 2006-2009 sets out the strategy for achieving these aims.
The demand for Comhairle and Citizen Information Service (CIS) services is substantial. In 2005, there were 2.5 million individual users of the OASIS website, 88,000 callers to the Citizen Information Phone Services and 734,000 queries made to the Citizen Information Centres. Statistics on the number of people with disabilities using the services are not kept. However a survey of
CIS services carried out on a biannual basis indicates that in 2005 11% of customers had a disability.
In common with the Department, the Disability Act 2005 confers responsibilities on Comhairle in relation to the services it delivers. Specific measures have been undertaken to address these obligations to meet the needs of people with disabilities under the Disability Act and the Sectoral Plan of the Department. In addition the new Social Partnership Agreement supports the development of information and advocacy services for people with Disabilities.
9.2 Citizens Information Bill, 2006
It is proposed to amend the functions of the Board, via a Citizens Information Bill, so as to confer enhanced and additional functions on it involving, inter alia, the introduction of a personal advocacy service specifically aimed at people with disabilities. The Citizens Information Bill, in conjunction with the Disability Act, 2005 and the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, 2004 is a key element of the Government's legislative programme for improving services for people with disabilities. All three are intended to convey clearly the Government's intention to have an effective combination of legislation, policies, institutions and services in place to support and reinforce equal access for people with disabilities. It is the intention that the Bill will be enacted during 2006.
9.3 Advocacy Services
People with disabilities experience many barriers in accessing information and as a result can be unaware of their entitlements. The Strategic Plan 2006-2009 identifies objectives for the development of advocacy services for people with disabilities (see table 9.3.). In Citizens Information Services, advocacy entails helping people to obtain their entitlements and negotiate complex information. Most Information Officers offer basic advocacy to clients and they may also assist clients with appeals in the areas of social welfare, equality and employment.
In preparation for its new remit to provide advocacy services to meet the needs of people with disabilities the report "Developing an Advocacy Service for People with Disabilities" was commissioned by Comhairle. The report recommends that a three stranded service be developed:
- A Personal Advocacy Service run directly by Comhairle.
- A Programme of support for community and voluntary sector advocacy.
- A Community Visitors Programme for people in long-stay residential centres.
The report suggests that the community and voluntary sector advocacy would begin first in order to develop a range of advocacy services in advance of the Personal Advocacy Service.
In 2005 the development of Strand 2 began by funding 13 community and voluntary projects across a range of disability types, geographical areas, disability representative organisations and service providers. Together with the 3 projects initiated in 2004 (and two projects funded under the Dormant Accounts grants) eighteen advocacy projects are now providing advocacy for people with disabilities. These projects are distributed across eight counties and the lead organisations include both service providers, partnerships between different service providers, community groups and organisations of people with disabilities. Projects also cover the range of disability types.
Comhairle is providing support, training and back-up to these projects. To underpin these new advocacy services with strong values and principles, the Comhairle Advocacy Guidelines were developed and published in 2005. These Guidelines set out standards for projects and advocates and point to the competencies required to deliver a high quality service.
Further funding is to be allocated in 2006 for advocacy projects. Expressions of Interest have been sought and information briefings held with respondents. 70 Expressions of Interest have been received and subsequently 46 full applications were made. It is anticipated that a further 13 projects will be selected and funded in 2006. As in 2005 the overall focus in the projects will be on services for people with disabilities who are vulnerable. Particular target groups will be:
- people living in the community seeking a social service;
- people in, or wishing to move from, long-term residential services and
- young people completing their education.
The emphasis of this initiative will be on a representative advocacy service model: i.e. providing a trained advocate to assist vulnerable individuals with disabilities in addressing their needs and difficulties. Representative advocacy has been targeted because it has been least developed in Ireland and will provide Comhairle with the most relevant experience in developing its own service. However, the importance of self-advocacy is also recognised and it is proposed to make some funding available to fund independent development in the self-advocacy area.
Providing effective advocacy services relies on having well-trained advocacy workers. This need is being addressed in several ways including providing advocacy modules in the FETAC Accredited Information Providers Programme and single-day courses on request. The Higher Certificate in Humanities in Advocacy Studies is a distance learning course accredited at HETAC Level 6 which has been developed by Comhairle, the Sligo Institute of Technology and the Equality Authority and is now in its third year. The first students will graduate with a Higher Certificate in October 2006.
The activities included in the Board's Strategy Statement 2006-2009 are set out in Table 9.3. Develop and facilitate advocacy services, particularly for people with disabilities and influence policy developments and administrative systems and procedures.
Provide and promote advocacy services, particularly for people with disabilities, consistent with our role and remit.
Develop an approach to the promotion of advocacy services to the public.
Support the provision of quality advocacy services in the mainstream information context through Citizens Information Services.
Enhance the capacity of information providers in CIS to provide quality advocacy services, including training in advocacy skills and supporting an advocacy resource programme.
Plan and establish the Personal Advocacy Service.
Support the establishment of advocacy services for people with disabilities through the community and voluntary sector.
Engage in research and planning for the establishment of the Community Visitors programme.
Support advocacy training to underpin the development of quality advocacy services.
Support other advocacy initiatives including self-advocacy in the community and voluntary sector in line with the aim of empowering people, in particular people with disabilities, to secure their rights and entitlements and to actively participate in society
Advocacy services provided through CIC.
Advocacy resource programme in place.
Advocacy training days/events provided.
Personal Advocacy Service in place.
Advocacy projects and initiatives supported.
Approach to the development of Community Visitors programme agreed and initiated.
Advocacy awareness campaigns conducted.
Strategic approach to the promotion of advocacy services to the public identified and implemented.
(All actions to be implemented and completed by 2009)
9.4 Interpretative Services for Deaf People
Within the outline Sectoral plan of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, Comhairle was asked to prepare a scheme relating to the provision of Sign Language Interpretation Services (SLI ).
It is estimated that there are approximately 5,000 deaf sign language users in Ireland, serviced by fewer than 50 freelance interpreters, some of whom are part time and most of whom are located in the east of the country. This is considered to be less than adequate. A new service model would aim to enable the State to effectively deliver on its responsibility to make public services accessible to the Deaf community through the provision of Sign Language interpretation.
In preparing for this, consultants were commissioned to undertake a study which would review existing services and service requirements, research international best practice and also advise as to how an Interpretative Service might best be established, with proposals on structure, set up and funding.
A review process was undertaken which involved:
- Desk research and analysis of
SLI services in Ireland
- Targeted research on international best practice in
- Wide Consultation with a range of stakeholders through interview, discussions and workshops, which included the deaf community, representative bodies, service providers and Government Departments.
- Detailed consultation with Comhairle.
The report proposes the establishment of structures mandated and accountable to Comhairle that would facilitate access to Interpretative Services for deaf people throughout the country. Exploring and exploiting new technologies should be part of the drive to increase access to services. The report and the recommendations of the Board are being considered by the Minister of Social and Family Affairs.
Briefing sessions have taken place with a number of key stakeholders to present the outcome of the study and the proposed service model as well as discuss the implementation of the report. It is planned to engage in briefing sessions with a number of key stakeholders to present the outcome of the study and the proposed service model and to discuss the implementation of the report.
9.5 Compliance with Sections 25 to 28 of the Disability Act
Section 25 - All of the Board's buildings are compliant with the requirements as specified under Code M of current building requirements and Comhairle is committed to exceeding the basic requirements of the Code and providing leading edge solutions in terms of accessibility. As an example of this commitment to be a leader in terms of accessibility it is determined to pursue the Excellence through Accessibility Award for all of its premises. This will be undertaken on a phased basis commencing in 2006.
A programme of works is in train which is constantly seeking to bring all the Board's properties to the highest possible standards of accessibility both for staff and members of the public. A facilities and Health and Safety officer who is professionally qualified oversees this work and provides advice in relation to accessibility for Comhairle and Citizen Information Service premises.
Section 26 - The provision of information is Comhairle's core business. One of the Board's strategic priorities is to "promote accessibility to information, advice and advocacy services and heighten public awareness of social and civil services". The objectives and actions proposed in the Strategic Plan 2006-2009 are set out in Table 9.5.
Comhairle sources, produces and integrates information on social services. It supports the provision of information to the public utilising a three-channel approach to service delivery, i.e. web-based on Oasis (Citizens Information online,
www.oasis.gov.ie), by phone through the Citizens Information Phone Service, (a LoCall service available 9 am to 9 pm weekdays), and through face-to-face service delivery provided by the nationwide network of Citizens Information Services. A new integrated information website called "citizen information.ie" is being launched in Autumn 2006. This website will incorporate the OASIS and Citizen Information databases. The Board also works in partnership with voluntary and statutory organisations generally in the provision of information. A range of strategies have been implemented to address barriers to access caused by lack of awareness of services, access to technology and physical barriers. These include:
Awareness of Citizen Information
Raising general awareness of the three channels of information delivery, i.e. web-based, Phone and face-to-face is a key priority for Comhairle and a multi-media campaign has been in place since 2005, with promotional activities taking place at national and local level.
In conjunction with this Comhairle, both directly and through the network of Citizens Information Services establishes partnerships and develops project initiatives with relevant organisations to overcome barriers and provide information to people with disabilities.
www.oasis.gov.ie, was designed from its inception to be accessible to all users, including those with disabilities who may use assistive technology software. In a survey of eGovernment websites in the
UK and Ireland which was published in September 2005, Oasis was ranked 4th overall for user experience, and was adjudged the best website in the
UK and Ireland for its accessibility features. The Comhairle website
www.comhairle.gov.ie carries all Comhairle publications in
www.assistireland.ie, is a comprehensive online resource database developed by Comhairle with disability organizations. This website contains relevant information on assistive technology products, suppliers and resources related to daily living and disability in Ireland. The website has won the Accessible eGovernment Award at the Irish eGovernment Awards 2005.
Citizens Information Centres - Physical Accessibility
In relation to physical accessibility, Comhairle allocates an annual budget line to improve access to Citizens Information Services which provide a face-to-face service to the public. All main centres are now accessible. Ongoing improvements are made every year with the aim of making all
CIC premises fully accessible. All main services have inductive loop systems for the hard of hearing.
Outreach services are established by
CIS's to improve accessibility for people with disabilities who may have difficulties getting to a Citizens Information Centre.
CIS's outreach to a number of disability organisations, hospitals, and mental health centres. In addition, a wheelchair accessible mobile information unit is available for use by Citizens Information Services to address the needs of those who have limited geographical access to Citizens Information Centres.
Section 27 - Guidelines and a code of practice on procurement have been produced and endorsed by the Board. These guidelines are adopted from the Department of Finance's 'Green Book', and subsequent updates, on Public Procurement and are currently being updated to reflect changes such as the increases in
EU procurement thresholds. These guidelines and code of practice on procurement take account of the requirements of Section 27 of the Disability Act and, where required, appropriate assessments of need are carried out in order to establish specific requirements.
Section 28 - Communication channels suitable for people with disabilities have been developed. All information publications are produced in various formats and are available in these formats through
CIC's nationwide. They include large-print versions, Braille, tape and publications on disc. Access to Irish Sign Language interpretive services is also available.
The Oasis and Assist Ireland websites have been designed to meet the highest standards for usability and accessibility. The Comhairle website provides organisational information about Comhairle, as well as electronic copies of all its publications.
The Citizen Information Phone Service delivers information through seven different access channels; the Lo-call phone number, text messaging, email, live online adviser (available 9 am to 6 pm), videophone with Irish Sign Language interpretive service (by appointment only), fax and letter.
The development of this text messaging channel emerged from
CIPS discussions with members of the Deaf Community who identified text messaging as being the preferred method of communication for many people who are deaf or have a severe hearing difficulty. In 2006 it is intended to promote the text service more widely. Callers to the service also receive information by post, primarily in the form of printed information. Information on mini disk, audio-tape, in large print and in Braille was also made available.
A new guide; Access to Information for All: Guidelines on removing barriers and improving access to information for everyone was prepared by Dr Jane Pillinger and published by Comhairle in 2005. This guide is aimed at organisations and individuals who are providing information to the public - whether they are informing an older person about their free travel pass, a foreign national on their employment rights, or a disabled person trying to book a holiday. It provides a checklist on how to make information accessible, under headings such as: Information in Alternative Formats, Telephone Services, Online Information, Face-to-Face Information and Making Offices Physically Accessible.
The principal activities planned under the Strategic Plan 2006-2009 are set out in table 9.5. The strategic priority is to enhance accessibility to information, advice and advocacy services with particular reference to vulnerable groups and those in need.
Support equal access to information and social and civil services for all.
Develop pro-active initiatives to address the information, advice and advocacy needs of vulnerable and socially excluded groups, including people with disability, older people and foreign nationals.
Continue to develop the Assist Ireland website and telephone help line in partnership with other agencies.
Progress Comhairle's approach to the further development of a sign language interpretation service for people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment.
Promote guidelines on accessible information to relevant statutory, community and voluntary bodies.
Consolidate and enhance partnerships with relevant agencies and bodies including cross-border bodies, to promote equality of access to social and civil services.
Undertake ongoing evaluations of the impact of our accessibility polices on target groups and the general public.
Continue to develop information, advice and advocacy services to ensure accessibility to customers of different cultures and levels of literacy using a variety of methods of communication.
Identify, facilitate and co-ordinate service delivery initiatives in co-operation with voluntary and statutory bodies that particularly focus on marginalised and hard-to-reach target groups reflecting changing information and advocacy needs.
Develop proactive initiatives relating to information, advice and advocacy to target groups who are socially excluded, including people with disabilities, older people and foreign national communities, recognising the impact of the digital divide.
Support relevant organisations to develop their information, advice and advocacy services for excluded groups.
Promote the use of Citizens Information Online, especially with marginalised and hard-to-reach groups.
Accessible sign language service in place.
Guidelines on accessible information adopted by relevant bodies.
Partnerships with relevant agencies and bodies to promote equality of access to social and civil services undertaken.
(All actions to be implemented and completed by 2009)
Customer satisfaction surveys.
Population awareness surveys of the three Citizens Information channels.
Information resources available in increasing range of languages.
Information, advice and advocacy initiatives targeted at specific marginalised groups undertaken.
(All actions to be implemented and completed by 2009)
9.6 Employment of People with Disabilities
The Board's disability policy states that "In recognition of one of its core values Comhairle supports the public sector aim of employing people with disabilities. Comhairle takes active measures to facilitate the recruitment of people with disabilities. This includes working with voluntary, Governmental and non-governmental groups". Over 90 people are currently employed and the Government's 3% employment disability target has been exceeded by the Board.
Vacancies that arise are advertised through the national press, on the Board's website, the Citizens Information Database and on the Community Exchange website. Venues selected for interviewing are accessible, candidates are asked in advance of interviews if they have any special needs and audio loops are provided.
A number of initiatives to facilitate employees who have a disability have been put in place. These include:
- All offices are fully accessible and all external venues used to host events are checked to ensure their accessibility also.
- Installation of screen magnification software on
PCs where required.
- Adjustments to workstations (e.g. provision of specialist telephone headsets, customised office furniture etc.).
- Organisation of work regions to facilitate staff members with mobility issues.
- To improve accessibility, staff policy documents (for example the Staff Resource Pack, personnel forms etc) can be accessed through the Board's Intranet.
- The Board has facilitated both the taking of special leave and the reduction of working hours to facilitate staff who felt they needed to adjust their work patterns due to an acquired disability.
- Where agreed between a staff member and their line manager a needs assessment will take place to identify and recommended measures.
Comhairle have been proactive in meeting its requirements to ensure accessibility and has put in place solutions which are innovative and have lead the way in terms of meeting assessed needs.
9.7 Compliance with other areas of the Disability Act
Section 5 - Financial systems are in place that allow for the accounting of expenditure on the provision of the Disability Act as required under Section 5 of the Act. These include specific budget heads to account for expenditure on:
- Accessibility improvements to Citizens' Information Centres
- Alternative formats of information publications
- The Assist Ireland website
- Cost of advocacy services to be provided under the Citizens Information Bill and Department of Social and Family Affairs Sectoral Plan.
- Cost of interpretative services for deaf people.
Specific additional costs incurred through the procurement of adaptive technology and equipment can also readily be tracked.
9.8 Organisational Disability Awareness
The Board recognises the importance of raising disability awareness among staff to ensure that people with disabilities receive the highest standards of customer service. Disability awareness training is an integral part of staff training programmes for Citizens Information Services. A training programme has been produced that delivers a range of training courses to information-providers in the community and voluntary sector, with a particular emphasis on Citizen Information Services. Disability awareness training and/or other courses with a focus on disability are frequently included. Citizen information services also provide their own disability awareness training for staff as required.
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