On 24th-25th September 2016 a Peer Support Training took place in Sofia, Bulgaria. It was organised jointly by the European Network on Independent Living (ENIL) and the Centre for Independent Living – Sofia (CIL-Sofia). A group of 15 disabled people from 10 countries particpated in the event, being engaged in discussions along with trainers on the principles of peer support, the role and responsibilities of peer supporters and the development of peer support in Europe. Trainers were experts on the right to Independent Living from Bulgaria – Kapka Panayotova, Sweden – Jamie Bolling, and the United Kingdom – Zara Todd. On Monday, 26th October, the training participants had the opportunity to attend the international conference “Independent Living and Peer Support – the Core of UN CRPD”, organised by CIL-Sofia.
After the peer support training that took place in 2014, again in Sofia, and whose outcome was a training manual, it was clear that the topic needs to be further worked on. The concept of peer support is still too vague or totally infamiliar in some European countries, and this is unacceptable when we strive for the realisation of independent living. The 2016 training event aimed to build participants’ skills to provide peer support as a tool for independent living, and to empower them to promote peer support in their countries.
The training was for disabled people from Central and Eastern Europe with experience in providing peer support formally (within an organisation) or informally, who are willing to engage in promoting peer support in their countries. The 10 represented countries were Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Lithuania, Montenegro, Moldova, Romania and Serbia.
Common barriers in the different countries when living and working with peer support were identified, such as accessibility of the home and street environment, accessibility to public transport and employment as well as attitudes and prejudice.
Challenges that impede Independent Living and possible solutions were examined. Lobbying, advocacy work at policy level, contact with technical supplying companies and more active work within local organisations were suggested.
Peer support was identified as a key area in the Independent Living movement and in the disabled people’s organisations. It was agreed that having a common defintion of peer support is important. Therefore, participants and trainers worked on that and the following definition was suggested:
“A mutual and reciprocal arrangement between individuals or groups of people who get together in a balanced relationship to give and receive advice, information and support.“
‘Do-s’ and ‘Don’t-s’ on providing peer support were also identified. Desirable characteristics of the good peer included honesty, patience, respectfulness, tolerance, open-mindedness, the ability to listen to the other, to be able to draw a line between personal life and peer support. The opposite – things that a peer supporter shouldn’t do were: to underestimate the problems, to be prejudiced, to judge, manipulate or mock.
The difference between peer support and peer counceling was discussed. A peer counselor was identified as someone with training who supports someone else having less experience.
The principles for the provision of peer support and principles of Independent Living with choice and control of the disabled person were discussed. Equality, trust and mutual learning in the relationship between the peer supporter and the person receiving support was highlighted. The aim of peer support was pointed out to be empowerment and self-confidence.
A series of challenges for providing peer support were identified:
-when a person is struggling to deal with difficult issues such as suicidal ideas, abandonment of families, alcoholism;
-burn out of a peer supporter (This should not happen as the service is voluntary
-a peer supporter can himself/herself need support.
-realizing that you might not be appropriate to be someone’s peer supporter
-if someone walks away, the peer supporter should let them walk away. Peer support needs to be one of control and choice for the person in need
-dealing with aggression
Towards the end of the training, participants were asked what could be done in the future on peer support on the ENIL level. Collection of answers’ summary is as follows:
-ENIL Guidelines could be produced and disseminated
-Training according to the Erasmus plus model
-Session on peer support during Freedom Drive 2017
One of the outcomes of the training was recommendations, formulated and agreed by the training attendees. These are:
-Enact legislation for peer support, which is compliant with the UN CRPD and reflects the philosophy of the Independent Living Movement;
-Ensure that peer support is supported at the national level with funding following the individual to ensure equal access throughout the country;
-Ensure that peer support is based on the social understanding of disability and not the medical;
-Improve the collection of relevant data, by for example research, on for example the isolation of disabled people and the lack of access to peer support in order to support advocacy and development of peer support and good legislation.
-Supporting local CILs to develop and deliver peer support.
ENIL will keep on working in the field of peer support in the future as it still needs further exploration. If you have suggestions for cooperation on the topic or would like to receive further information on the training, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Photo: Part of the training participants during discussions.