Citizen Advocacy

What is Citizen Advocacy?

Citizen Advocacy is the name given to the committed relationship between a suitable citizen who provides long-term advocacy to a person with a disability (referred to as a protégé – one who is protected) so that they are no longer entirely alone and unprotected given their relatively powerless circumstances. Vulnerable persons with a disability who are without family or friends are especially in need of at least one loyal long-term ally who is single mindedly committed to them.

This has been shown to be the strongest safeguard for protecting the very life of a person with an intellectual disability. Otherwise such a person without a strong sense of consequence and ‘living’ within the confines of a service system is completely exposed to the vagaries of that service system and its ever changing policies, agendas and identities.

Advocates and protégés are recruited, matched and supported by the staff of a Citizen Advocacy office or program.

Citizen Advocacy offices need paid staff because most citizen advocates would never get recruited and supported if the staff of a Citizen Advocacy office were not there.

Many advocates have been faithful companions to their protégés for decades and have saved them from terrible situations; many have saved the very lives of their protégés, and sometimes on repeated occasions.

Citizen Advocacy offices are free-standing associations, and they are always of a non-profit nature. While each Citizen Advocacy office offers information, advice and guidance to the citizen advocates it has recruited, it does not conduct the advocacy itself; rather each individual advocate does. Thus the name Citizen Advocacy.

Why Citizen Advocacy is Important

People with intellectual disability are especially vulnerable to many bad things happening in their life because of a poor capacity to foresee the consequences of actions while at the same time being held in particularly low status in the eyes of western society as indicated by the extremely low expectations society generally holds towards such people. These low expectations might be generally said to reflect the rejection felt towards someone with an intellectual disability and the many negative images and ideas that accompany such rejection from within the minds of other people.Many bad experiences can befall a person because of the negative impressions and expectations of others. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy starting with the negative ideas from almost everyone one encounters that plays itself out in real life events: being treated as an eternal child and other negative roles, being surrounded by other negative images that strip one of human qualities, having every aspect of one’s life controlled by other parties even to the point of losing freedom, losing touch with the culture and learning mostly about what is strange and peculiar, but not knowing very much about what is ordinary and typical; having most-even all- of one’s relationships with frequently changing and paid people; experiencing many events that can facilitate ones death.

These events are so negative and leave such dramatic social, emotional and sometimes physical scars, that they can be said to constitute “wounds”. See:

  1. Wolfensberger, W. The New Genocide of Handicapped and Afflicted People.
  2. Wolfensberger, W. A brief introduction to Social Role Valorization: A high-order concept for addressing the plight of societally devalued people, and for structuring human services.

This link to a short documentary about Citizen Advocacy from experienced leaders in Citizen Advocacy including the originator of Citizen Advocacy, Wolf Wolfensberger.

These potentials and actual experiences leave this group of people especially vulnerable because they are not in a strong position to solve and resolve these events themselves, nor do they have other relationship commitments to do so; hence the need for Citizen Advocacy. (definition by the International Citizen Advocacy Safeguards Group in 1990).

Citizen Advocacy is a means to promote, protect and defend the welfare and interests of, and justice for, persons are impaired in competence, or diminished in status, or seriously physically isolated, through one-to-one voluntary commitments made to them by people of relevant competencies.

Citizen Advocates strive to represent the interests of a person as if they were the advocates own; therefore, the advocates must be sufficiently free from conflict of interest.

Citizen Advocates are supported by the Citizen Advocacy office, and choose from a wide range of functions and roles. Some of these commitments may last for life.

The History of Citizen Advocacy

History of Citizen Advocacy in Australia

Heather Hindle
Advancing Citizen Advocacy Conference
February 11-12, 2023

Courtesy of Citizen Advocacy South Australia.

In 1966 The United Cerebral Palsy Association sponsored a conference near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at which participants asked, ‘What happens to my handicapped child when I’m gone?’ Dr Wolf Wolfensberger (who later became the founder of Citizen Advocacy) was in attendance and took note of the limitations of each of the protective measures discussed at the conference. Then, in response, he conceptualised an advocacy scheme with the desirable elements that would become known in 1968 as Citizen Advocacy.

The first Citizen Advocacy program began in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1970. It later received a Presidential commendation. Workshops followed, and people from throughout North America went away to start other Citizen Advocacy programs. By 1972 USA Federal grant money paved the way for over 200 programs in USA alone.

In 1979 Standards For Citizen Advocacy Program Evaluation (commonly referred to as CAPE) written by Dr Wolfensberger and John O’Brien was published. Drawing on the experiences of Programs that both succeeded and failed, they came up with a set of standards to gauge the quality of Citizen Advocacy practice.

Citizen Advocacy in Australia began in Western Australia in 1980, when a parent group set up the first Citizen Advocacy office. In 1981 the first Victorian Program started at Burwood Teachers College under the influence of Trish O’Brien. Canberra followed in 1982, South Australia in 1986, and Launceston, Tasmania in 1989. By 1991 eight programs (including a State office known as Citizen Advocacy NSW) had been established in New South Wales, and eight more in Victoria (including a state office known as Citizen Advocacy Victoria Resource Unit or CAVRU). Three programs were established in Queensland between 1996 and 2003.


The total number of Citizen Advocacy programs has fallen dramatically in the last 10 years. For example where there were 9 programs in the ACT and NSW alone by the end of 1999, yet there are now no dedicated Citizen Advocacy programs and only two Citizen Advocacy programs that exist within a larger paid advocacy office. Five programs have closed in Victoria. See the section Threats to Citizen Advocacy for more discussion of this issue.

The Role of the Citizen Advocacy Office

The role of a Citizen Advocacy Office or program is to make many ‘good’ matches between a Protégé (the person being protected by the relationship) and a Citizen Advocate. By ‘good’ we mean there is every chance the relationship will be successful in terms of the advocate’s ability to understand and respond to the plight of the protégé and the potential that the relationship will be long-term.

Thus, the CA office or its staff do not conduct advocacy themselves, but instead recruit citizens who will conduct that advocacy personally themselves. In doing so, they are ensuring a vulnerable person is receiving the most powerful advocacy available: one without conflict of interest, one that is independent to act and cannot be swayed by pressure or connection to service providers, and one that is long-term and built on a freely given relationship as opposed to the vagaries of a paid role.

Note; Citizen Advocacy is not opposed to other forms of (even paid) advocacy. CA even believes that people are so vulnerable as to need protection via an array of advocacy measures. However, it believes any system of advocacy would be very much weakened by the absence of citizen advocacy.

Watch the Advancing Citizen Advocacy Conference

A wonderful amount of richly informative content was presented by many people from across the world at the Advancing Citizen Advocacy Conference, held in Melbourne Australia in February of 2023.

Now, through the efforts of the Citizen Advocacy Trust of Australia, you can watch the presentations from the conference completely free, on YouTube.


Advancing Citizen Advocacy Conference

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