|Peer support is when a self-advocate helps
another person with intellectual disability
to make decisions and live independently.Inclusion Europe worked on a project
to make peer support more known in Europe.The project is called TOPSIDE.
The project helped to train self-advocates
to become peer supporters.You can read all about the project on the website.
Many persons with intellectual disabilities in Europe cannot participate as active citizens in their societies. Since most have only limited access to formal or informal adult education and training, one of the main challenges lies in providing them with the appropriate support needed to make their own decisions, take control over their lives and perform their role as active citizens.
Bearing this in mind, Inclusion Europetogether with its partners from six European countries launched in 2011 a two-year European project TOPSIDE. It aimed to increase the opportunities of adults with intellectual disabilities to receive training and support allowing them make informed decisions and live independently, by introducing a new concept of non-formal education – peer support.
To achieve this objective, the project TOPSIDE developed a new training model which helps adults with intellectual disabilities to acquire new skills for supporting their peers.
The training is based on the collaboration of professional trainers and people with intellectual disabilities who work together on the preparation of the training in all its stages.
Any motivated person with intellectual disability with some social or communication skills or experience in self-advocacy can become a peer supporter. A skill-based TOPSIDE Curriculum is at the heart of the training and provides the basis for learning. To adapt the curriculum to specific needs in each country and assure the quality of trainings, the project team provided trainers and peer supporters with methodological guidelines on how to implement the TOPSIDE training.
The training helps people with intellectual disabilities to develop the skills necessary for providing adequate peer support and for understanding of decision-making processes. These include communication skills (expressing opinions and interacting with others and developing relationships), social skills (requesting information, problem solving) and civic skills (politeness, official communication). Emphasis was put on building empathy in participants, to understand each other’s situation and the importance of peer support.
The Topside Curriculum consists of more than 150 exercises which allow trainees to develop a variety of peer-to-peer, inclusive and pragmatic skills. The database of the exercises is available on the project website in six project languages.
It is complemented by methodological Guidelines for trainers which explain the concept of peer training and introduce the ‘tool kit’ (methodology and exercises) elaborated during the project. In addition, the project also developed Material for peer-supporters to help them understand their role and carry out their tasks. The material includes easy to understand texts, key words, pictograms and pictures to help peer supporters to remember what is important and to measure his or her progresses. To ensure the continuation of learning also after the training, Guidelines for mentors explain how to encourage persons with intellectual disabilities to continue their commitment.
From words to action
The TOPSIDE training pack was tested by the project partners in their countries:KVTL in Finland, Pentru Voi in Romania,ENABLE in the United Kingdom, Dincat in Spain, SPMP in the Czech Republic andPerspectief in the Netherlands.
Every trainer adapted the guidelines to the needs of participants and to the experiences and knowledge of peer supporters. 45 participants attended the pilot courses and more than 210 hours of training were provided.
The very first pictures of the training were different in each country. In the Netherlands, Romania and Finland, the training was rather intensive and took place during the weekend outside the environment in which the participants lived. In Romania, staying in a hotel during the training offered participants a possibility to develop financial management skills as they needed to plan their budget for the stay. In the Netherlands, people faced many real life situations and learned to adapt to new circumstances. On the contrary, in the Czech Republic for example, the time frame was less tight as participants met regularly every week and have now formed informal groups of support.
One of the main successes of the project was the promotion of understanding of peer support among people with intellectual disabilities. They understood that TOPSIDE was not a project created for them, but with them. Their experience, desire for learning and enthusiasm to contribute is what mattered during the training from its early stages.
People with intellectual disabilities as trainees and peer supporters became the engine of the project. Instead of being on the receiving end, they got from the beginning an opportunity to offer support to someone else.
Peer to peer impact
The TOPSIDE training opened a door for active participation of adults with intellectual disabilities. Peer supporters and participants were enabled to apply the newly acquired skills in different environments: in informal support groups, in self-advocacy organisations to provide support for other members of that organisation, in counselling services accessible to people with intellectual disabilities, or in organisations to complement their work from a peer perspective. Moreover, new skills widened their horizons for employment possibilities or volunteering activities.
By empowering people with intellectual disabilities to be able train their peers, TOPSIDE came back to the roots of support. The project empowered the ones who can understand the reality of disability the best – other people with intellectual disabilities. Mutual trust, similar life experiences and support of each other is what makes peer support innovative.
Being a peer supporter means also sharing with others. Every supporter has his or her own experience which can be a key incentive for other persons to realise their abilities and encourage them to further develop their skills and to take an active part in the community.
The way forward
The ambition of the project partners is to acquire recognition of the TOPSIDE Curriculum by leading intellectual disability organisations in other countries and therefore create the roots for a common European approach in the area of peer support. Based on country examples, efforts must be put into extensive research to identify the possibilities for applying the training in other EU countries and to recognise peer support as a valuable learning experience on local and national level.
Last but not the least, the TOPSIDE training could be taken on by other organisations supporting people with intellectual disabilities or by other relevant national educational partners to promote peer support and training as a valuable training for education of adults with intellectual disabilities.
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