Empowered Lives: Exploring joint advocacy models for progressing the rights of people with disability

The Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) has released the Empowered Lives report in the leadup to this month's state election, outlining the key systemic issues facing Victorians with disability and ways government can provide more opportunities for people with disability, more inclusive environments and communities, and stronger support when needed.

In the post below, VCOSS Project Coordinator Maeve Kennedy outlines how it came about and what its main findings are.

A model for collective systemic advocacy

The disability rights, advocacy and inclusion movement has a long history in Victoria and across Australia – recently documented through the Defiant Lives documentary and  ‘Seeing Red: From Anger to Advocacy’, by the late Ethel Temby with Patricia O’Brien (released through STAR Victoria).

With much media coverage and public discussion of the rights and inclusion of people with disability now centring on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), advocates in Victoria identified the need for a shared advocacy vision and platform for Victorians with disability – one that focuses on systemic barriers and issues in state government systems, programs and infrastructure, rather than focusing on the NDIS.

Although we are now five years into the NDIS roll-out, state governments retain a vitally important role in delivering more opportunities for their citizens with disability, more inclusive environments and communities, and stronger support when needed.

The Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) is the auspicing organisation for Victoria’s Disability Advocacy Resource Unit (DARU), providing training and resources to support disability advocates and organisations across the state.

DARU receives many reports that advocates may successfully work with clients to resolve individual issues – which are often caused by systemic issues – but lack the resourcing to undertake the advocacy work needed to address the broader structural barriers that could prevent the issue re-occurring. There is also no mechanism, and limited time and capacity, for organisations to work together strategically to identify these barriers and develop responses.

Recognising these challenges, in 2017 DARU and VCOSS secured a Victorian Government grant to undertake a ‘collaborative systemic advocacy’ project with the Victorian disability community. The initial idea was based on a joint advocacy model established by the New South Wales Council of Social Service (NCOSS), which convened a Disability Network Forum of organisations advocating for the needs of people with disability.

Through the 12 month project, VCOSS worked with people with disability, advocates and organisations to identify collective systemic advocacy priorities for Victorians with disability – focusing on areas within the state government’s jurisdiction. This led to the development of a joint advocacy platform, Empowered Lives: Securing Change for Victorians with Disability.

The consultation process

The project management function was conducted through VCOSS’ policy team, with a dedicated policy advisor. This model allowed the information gathered through consultations and relationships established by the project work to be leveraged for broader policy advocacy, as well as for developing the platform – highlighting issues affecting people with disability for audiences outside the disability sector and providing organisations with an opportunity to contribute to broader policy discussions. Project governance for the project occurred through an Advisory Committee comprising a small group of representatives from key advocacy organisations.

Consultations to develop the platform were iterative, beginning with a targeted interview process with selected organisations to establish an initial understanding of what they saw as the key systemic barriers and priorities for advocacy.

Following the interviews, a consultation paper was developed and taken to a broader audience through a forum, or workshop. Invitations were sent to organisations and individuals across the advocacy sector. The paper was refined following feedback, and individual consultations were progressively held with interested stakeholders in the sector.

Several months later, a second forum was held, to test the concepts outlined in the updated paper and check there was agreement around priorities. Further consultations were held with individual organisations and several self-advocacy groups following the forum. The platform was drafted in consultation with the Advisory Committee and revised following feedback. The final draft was circulated to organisations in the sector, inviting them to provide final comments and endorse the platform.

Empowered Lives was launched with at Parliament House in Melbourne on 10 September 2018. Thirty-eight organisations formally endorsed the platform, with a number of others subsequently approaching VCOSS to express their support.

Securing change for Victorians with disability

Empowered Lives outlines the systemic issues facing Victorians with disability in their interactions with Victorian Government systems within 10 key areas (shown in the diagram below), and sets out achievable actions the Government can take to address them.

This includes delivering inclusive service systems – whether in health, education, justice or disability services – supporting Victorian families, creating jobs, and improving the accessibility of transport and infrastructure. Each of these areas is underpinned by a focus on the empowerment of people with disability and on strong safeguards to ensure safety and freedom from violence and abuse.


Empowered Lives recognises and builds on existing efforts across the Victorian disability community to advocate and fight for the rights of people with disability over many decades. It is rooted in an understanding of the fundamental human rights of people with disability and the social model of disability, as articulated through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The platform is designed to be used by people with disability, advocates and organisations for future advocacy work – including for the Victorian election in November this year, and beyond the election for advocacy on other issues, such as the next National Disability Strategy and State Disability Plan. The next iteration of the project involves facilitating a collaborative campaign around the platform.

Three key issues have been identified as priorities for immediate advocacy:

Fully fund disability support for all Victorian students who need it

Current approaches to funding for Victorian students with disability mean that the support needs of many students are not being met. The Program for Students with Disabilities (PSD) currently supports roughly 4 per cent of the student population, but around 20 per cent of children have additional health and development needs and require additional supports to achieve their potential at school.

The PSD funding model should be updated to take into account children’s functioning and education needs and their risk and protective factors, to provide appropriate support for all students with a disability.

This is further discussed in chapter 7 of the platform.

Create a dedicated support program for parents with disability

More support is needed to assist parents with disability to overcome barriers they face, including attitudinal barriers. It is important that the right information and services are available at the right time, services are accessible and inclusive, and that appropriate, evidence-based parenting support programs are available. Support should take into account the needs and wellbeing of individuals and the family as a whole, and be available from pregnancy and as the child grows up.

This is further discussed in chapter 3 of the platform.

Upgrade Victoria’s least accessible train stations and tram stops.

Access to public transport in Victoria is highly variable – and in many cases limited. Our transport infrastructure is not meeting requirements under the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport.

By December 2017, 90 per cent of Melbourne’s tram stops were legally required to be accessible, but less than 25 per cent of stops currently meet the target. While there is some movement toward complying with the standards in new vehicles and buildings, there is a large backlog of legacy infrastructure that needs to be brought up to scratch.

This is further discussed in chapter 4 of the platform.

Promotional materials and activities around these areas are currently being developed, and we encourage anybody interested in learning more to sign up to the mailing list or to contact VCOSS.

Power to Persuade