Questions about rehabilitation or participation? In Germany, people with disabilities, their family members or people at risk of disability can call on EUTB, Ergänzende unabhängige Teilhabeberatung (English: Complementary Independent Participation Counseling), to receive free nationwide support. The service emphasizes peer counseling – peers helping peers – and is an important tool to foster empowerment.
REHACARE.com spoke with peer counselor Charlotte Zach about her work and learned how peer counseling can help people with disabilities by boosting participation and promoting self-determination.
Ms. Zach, what made you decide to become a peer counselor?
Charlotte Zach: I heard about the new EUTB program by chance and applied because I wanted to continue working in a counseling center while attending college. My work in counseling made me aware of the importance of making peer counseling an integral part of this service. This concept totally fits in with the way I see the world, myself and people. It is so simple, yet so far-reaching! I knew straight away that this is right for me.
What qualifications did you need to become a peer counselor?
Zach: You must identify with aspects of this peer process, meaning you must be affected by a disability. There is some debate as to what "affected" means in this context: does this mean I must have a disability or can it also be a family member or relative? It’s really a balancing act as you have to be careful not water down the term and take away its weight in the process. However, family members who have been committed to the cause should not be made to think that their expertise is not up to par and valuable.
EUTB also allows family members to define themselves as peers. The training institute at which I am training to become a peer counselor adopts the concepts of the "Selbstbestimmt-Leben-Bewegung" (English: Self-Advocacy Movement) and only accepts people who are personally living with a disability for their training program in an effort to boost direct empowerment of this group and highlight its specific expertise.
What’s more, my training program is specifically aimed at individuals with educational expertise. To be fair, this is a unique feature and not a general requirement in this setting.
Why is it important to you as a person with a disability to help others who are in a similar situation?
Zach: For me, there is a political component to this: by being a peer that supports another peer, we meet at eye level. The goal is to gradually personalize and customize the support system for people who really use it. It is about ensuring that people with disabilities are not always just spoken to or talked about and about making sure they are active contributors to the conversation. It’s also about making others realize and accept that we who live with a disability or impairment know best what it is like to live in these circumstances and that we know what we need – and above all: we know what we can do! So let’s do away with the cookie-cutter approach and let’s do away with making decisions for us and support our right to self-determination.
Peer Counseling: It is empowering and really helpful when affected people counsel other affected people – for example on questions of rehabilitation and participation.
What opportunities does peer counseling at EUTB offer from your perspective?
Zach: I already outlined it in my previous answer: In my opinion, without the peer counseling component, EUTB would be just another support center that – depending on the provider – might be somewhat independent. But that isn’t to say that my colleagues without a direct peer reference are not providing excellent service and doing great work. However, what’s new here and what makes it stand out from other agencies is the peer aspect – and the independent component!
How much do people use this EUTB service at this point?
Zach: That depends. On the one hand, you have EUTB agencies that are linked to providers hailing from the self-help arena. They have essentially offered this type of service before. Those agencies have a different client base to access than small EUTB agencies that started from scratch. However, there is an increasing demand, though we would have liked to see nationwide promotion to raise sweeping awareness of this concept.
Where do you see room for improvement when it comes to the support centers?
Zach: I find it problematic that many EUTB agencies are run by individual charities. In some cases, this might contradict the notion of independence and I believe this is owing to the fact that about five percent of funds must come from the benefactor's own equity. The rest is government funding. While five percent might not sound like much, you have to remember that a small self-help organization is sometimes unable to come up with these funds. Having said that, there are advantages to having a large charity as a benefactor. It can definitely do great things in this capacity if it does not insist on its own interests. But things might play out differently and then it would contradict the independence of the EUTB agencies.
This is merely intended as a structural criticism. However, the five percent of equity represents an obstacle to a level playing field when it comes to the candidacy for sponsorship. This obstacle would have to be removed. We need 100 percent government funding.
What’s more, the EUTB project is still fairly new and our roles still need to be more clearly defined. A lot of aspects still need to be collectively sorted out and changed based on how things work in the real world in everyday counseling. But we are on the right track and are making headway.
What are your hopes and dreams for the (EUTB) peer counseling service?
Zach: I hope it becomes an integral part of the counseling landscape and continues to be a catalyst for change: promoting autonomy, self-determination and the unique life journey of people with disabilities.
You have to appreciate that implementing and promoting this type of empowering concept with the backing of public authorities is a big step. I hope this momentum is able to spill over into the political, cultural, and private spheres.