THERE’S nothing complex about the guiding principle of Swindon Advocacy Movement.

“We’re here to give a voice to the people who need advocacy in and around Swindon, to help them to better lives,” said Barry Mitchell.

The organisation provides what it describes as a free, independent and accessible advocacy service for people with learning disabilities, high-functioning autism and Asperger’s.

Although the needs of no two clients are the same, many have certain needs in common.

“They’re often people who need support when they’re dealing with officialdom. It’s important because people need independent support.

“It’s anything that any one of us might need to live.

“It can be as simple as being unable to understand information provided by the council – and that’s not a criticism of the council. Because of a learning difficulty a person might need somebody to help them understand the information.

“Having somebody to sit down with you and talk to them – that’s very important.

“It can just be a fear of walking through the door as well, of not knowing where to go, what questions to ask, not knowing what they need to ask to get what they need.

“It’s social interaction and education as well. We’re empowering people. It’s about making them independent and enabling people to go out and about and join in with the community.

“Although they do activities here, all the activities are focused on enabling them to become more independent.”

Help provided by the organisation ranges from sitting in on meetings with officials to offering a computer club and empowering people to arrange social events.

For clients who have been denied such empowerment by well-meaning care organisations or even their own loving families, it can be a revelation.

“What will have happened before is that people will have been told where to go, what to do. What we’re encouraging them to do is make their own decisions. They’re capable but they haven’t had the experience, or they haven’t been encouraged.

“Sometimes they have missed out in the earlier years on the opportunities to develop, and what we’re doing is giving them an opportunity to catch up on what they should have learned when they were younger, to develop themselves and to become more independent.

“It’s not doing things for people, it’s helping them to do things and making sure they’re involved.

“Some people have never been to a café with a friend, or never been out for a meal on their own, or never taken a bus on their own, even though they’re quite capable of taking the bus on their own.

“It’s just doing very ordinary things. Sometimes you think of rights as being about very big things, but it’s the everyday things people have missed out on.”

Barry is originally from Liverpool, but spent much of his childhood in his father’s home city, Aberdeen.

Trained as an engineer, he later worked as a teacher in prisons, and began volunteering for a variety of good causes many years ago.

“I just like supporting people, helping people. There’s always been this element of wanting things to happen.

“It’s seeing people develop – it’s giving people the opportunity to develop and seeing it happen.”

Swindon Advocacy Movement was established in 1995.

“It was founded in response to people with learning disabilities leaving institutional care.

“As it developed, it became more about professional one-to-one advocacy.”

A core principle is self-advocacy.

“We’re a user-led organisation and at least half of the people on our committee have learning difficulties or other care and support needs.”

The movement was initially based at Temple House before moving to the former Tourist Information Centre premises in Regent Street in 2012.

The condition of the building prompted the ongoing move to the nearby former headquarters of the Mind charity.

If all goes according to plan, the moving process will begin in September and be complete by October or November.

The ground floor will be a cafe for members, and there will be offices and meeting rooms elsewhere in the building. Some of the meeting rooms will be available for hire to raise funds.

Barry is full of praise for Swindon Borough Council, which offered the building and is doing much to improve it.

Also set to work on the project are community teams from Zurich, Nationwide and Arval.

Surroundings may change, but the ethos of the movement remains. Barry recalls a a story of a young member taken on a shopping trip by his family.

“We think of ‘no’ as a negative word but sometimes it can be a positive one.

“They were taking him out shopping and said, ‘You’re going to have this pair of pyjamas,’ and he said, ‘No, I want those others instead.’

“His mother was pleasantly taken aback that he had actually had the presence of mind and the confidence to say that.

“That’s the sort of thing you’re looking to do – to empower.”

n Further information about Swindon Advocacy Group, its work and its volunteering opportunities can be found at