The Making of an Advocate


Doug Beardsley

Kim Roberts is a player. After high school she went to the U.S. on a tennis scholarship, graduating with a degree in Sports Management at age 21. It was when she returned to Canada to work during the summers at an Easter Seals Camp for children with disabilities that her life took a different direction. She started to pay attention to the concerns these kids were living with, such as fetal alcohol syndrome disorder. She also began working with aboriginal children, and got involved with the disability community, all the while coaching tennis.

It became more and more clear to her that her heart was in working with people who were marginalized. She attended the University of Victoria and through their undergraduate social work programme Kim discovered TAPS and started with them as a volunteer disability advocate in the project that she is now coordinating.

Kim has two positions at TAPS. One is as an advocate for people dealing with the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation (MSDSI) and the other is as coordinator of TAPS’ Volunteer Disability Advocacy
Project. As an advocate she assists anyone who has questions about the income assistance system in BC. Clients include people who have been denied income assistance benefits (IA), are having problems receiving their IA cheques, need help applying for crisis grants or nutritional allowance grants, or are on IA and have had their hydro cut off.

When people meet with Kim, there is an initial sense of crisis because, if they are on social assistance, “there is likely to be an awful lot going on in their lives... clients are often over-whelmed by the amount of ‘red tape’ that comes with any application; and these application processes can be
really stressful for people to try and figure out what they’re entitled to.”

Kim explains: “A person can go through an initial request (with MSDSI) — and be denied, and at that stage it’s called a reconsideration. If they still aren’t happy with the decision — and there is enough merit —
the case will go to a tribunal and TAPS will continue to support them there.” This can be a slow process.

In her other position, as coordinator of the Volunteer Disability Advocacy Project, Kim is responsible for training the new volunteer advocates — there are currently about 25 active volunteer advocates at TAPS. Kim teaches these new advocates how to guide a person through MSDSI’s application for disability, as well as providing tips on what to do if they’re having trouble getting information from a client. New advocates are
also offered advice on how to deal with doctors who fail to complete some applications. She adds: “A lot of clients don’t have access to a physician. Finding a doctor for a client is a difficult task, as there are scarce pickings in this city.”

Finally, it must be said that many people have a difficult time accessing the government and therefore have great anxieties when confronted by the system. “The way people are treated
in the social assistance programme is a huge barrier,” she says. “The concern begins from the moment that people walk through the door of a government agency and see security guards, or even when they are spoken to over the phone.” She goes on: “If there could be a shift in the attitudes of government employees — more of a person - to - person approach rather than a ‘power - over’ dynamic — that would be a wonderful thing.”

Of course the main problem is simply a lack of staff at MSDSI. Some clients who are currently applying for disability have been waiting over four month now. “There are many really good workers out there,” Kim says, “yet day in and day out TAPS hears complaints from clients that they are being ordered and directed without empathy... without any acknowledgement of what they are going through. Some government workers seem to have separated themselves from clients by thinking that they could never be like them, they would never be like that.”

Kim’s feeling is that people on income assistance would rather be working and living a more fulfilling life. But because of either poor health, a mental health condition, or lack of employment, they have had to turn to social assistance.

Kim feels blessed that she was born into more fortunate circumstances. She realizes she could come down with a health condition or be involved in a car accident, and that one day she would have to apply for disability. She strives to treat people the way she would
like to be treated if she were applying for social assistance. She realizes that there is little that separates her from her clients. This is what makes Kim Roberts such a successful advocate.