Elizabeth Streeter, The Children's Society

Describe your role
I am the Project Worker for The Children’s Society Disability Advocacy Project on the new national ‘Making It Happen’ initiative, funded and supported by the DCSF.  I work with the Disabled Young Peoples Champion for London and the South East and South West to support Local Authorities to improve their participation with disabled children and young people, including delivering free training.  I also run a disabled young people’s advisory group, and the Disability Toolkit - a toolkit of resources for everyone who works with disabled children and young people. 

What makes a good participation worker?
To answer that I would have to ask a young person!  But in my opinion a good participation worker must be driven by empowering children and young people.  They also need to be flexible enough to be led by the young people – whichever the direction that may take – and a sense of humour is handy too!

What are the barriers to involving children and young people?
Bad attitude!  This certainly tends to come up a lot in terms of services that are unwilling to involve disabled children and young people.  I think that once people have the right attitude the other barriers such as lack of funding, transport, training and resources can be overcome.  When the staff or organisation are of the opinion that the young person isn’t worth it, then they won’t bother trying to overcome the other challenges.  There are a lot of negative influences out there in how the press and media represent young people, and disabled people too.

I don’t think it works when there’s just one person doing participation in a massive organisation – it has to be embedded in every service that is used by the young people.  And it’s never very satisfactory if it’s the ‘we need some young people’s opinions by Monday’ approach.  In terms of time, there’s no way to define how long participation might take for some disabled young people – they may never have been asked for their opinions before, so their participation will be a process  rather than a one-stop consultation.  Some disabled young people might need to spend some time working on making choices and decisions in their own lives first.  Also, although it’s still useful, it doesn’t work so effectively when young people’s opinions are sought only at the end of something and there’s no going back – they need to be at the core from the start.  It would be great to get away from the idea of ‘consultation = participation’ as this tends to lead toward one-off work with young people rather than an ongoing dialogue. 

What are the benefits?
The benefit of participation must be that the service or organisation changes and improves as a result of the young people’s input, or else their participation in the process is pointless.  I often consider what more we can offer young people in return and I think feeding back is key.  Skills and recognised qualifications they can pick up along the way are great too.  We have to give young people a reason as to why their participation will be of benefit to them, or else why would they be interested? 

What tips do you have for effective participation of children and young people?
I think that you have to build up a good relationship with the young people, and support them because inevitably stuff happening in their own lives will impact on their work with you too.  Try to get away from the concept of ‘meetings’, which don’t appear very friendly or accessible to anyone.  If you want to involve disabled young people make sure you provide them with adequate support to be included and listened to, so you need to be well prepared in advance.  The Disability Advocacy Project staff often use the BIGMack communicator aid in young peoples review meetings, that the young person can press to gain the group’s attention when they want to communicate - and I think this tool would also work well with a group of non-disabled young people in order to give everyone the chance to be listened to. 

In situations where there may be professionals and young people coming together, consider issues around ‘status’ and how young people feel about being introduced to ‘the Director of…’- everyone should be on an equal footing as they all have something important to offer from their experiences. 

What is effective participation?
I’m not sure about levels of participation – I think all types of participation are good, and are a step towards including young people, as long as it is not viewed merely as a tick-box exercise.  It is effective when changes are made as a result of what young people have said and everyone can see the difference they have made. 

Participation Works is a partnership of…
British Youth CouncilChildren's Rights Alliance for EnglandKIDSNational Council for Voluntary Youth ServicesNational Youth AgencyNCB