In 2014, the charity Enable Scotland is celebrating 60 years of working to improve the lives of people who have learning disabilities. In 1954, ten parents met to discuss the need for better support for families in Scotland with children who had learning disabilities. They advertised a public meeting on 9 April, 1954 in Glasgow. Three hundred people attended and the Scottish Association of Parents of Handicapped Children (SAPHC) was born.
This charity, now Enable Scotland, has grown dramatically and we now have 44 local branches throughout Scotland, 4500 members and provide personalised support services for around 1900 people.
In 1954 learning disability was a real stigma and, with very few service, parents were generally left to cope alone. Children who had a learning disability had no entitlement to education and there was no option for someone who had a learning disability to live independently – the only choice was institutional care or remaining in the family home if the family were able to cope. By 1970 there were 22 long-stay hospitals in Scotland – housing more than 7000 children and adults with learning disabilities.
There has been a great deal of positive change for people who have learning disabilities in the last 60 years thanks to the commitment and determination of our members. People who have learning disabilities now have the right to a full education, and the closure of large long-stay institutions means people now play a valuable role in their communities and our economy; people who have learning disabilities are at the centre of Scottish Government learning disability policy and plans.
However, there are still significant difficulties and challenges and we will continue to campaign with our members to ensure a positive future for people who have learning disabilities and their families.
Health is a major area of concern as people with learning disabilities have some of the poorest health of any group in Scotland. They are more likely to be exposed to common causes of poor health such as poverty, poor housing, and lack of employment, social isolation and discrimination.
High levels of bullying and harassment affect the lives of people who have a learning disability and isolation and loneliness still affect people many – only one third of people who have a learning disability are able to name at least one close friend, and almost three-quarters of people with learning disabilities said they did not have a partner.
Employment prospects are still very poor – only 3 per cent of people who have learning disabilities in Scotland are in paid, open employment.
Our work continues with the vision that every member of our society should be treated as an equal and valued citizen, with real choice and control over their life.
All of our campaigns, services and local projects are designed alongside our members to address these and other issues affecting people who have a learning disability and their families.
I recently had the privilege of spending time with one of our members, Donald Stirling MBE, who is also turning 60 this year. Donald was admitted to Craigphadrig long-stay hospital in Inverness at the age of 15.
He stayed in this institution until he was 29. On leaving, Donald went on to marry and secure a job he loves. Campaigning with us, Donald spent 10 years travelling throughout Europe, helping to change attitudes towards people with learning disabilities.
In 2009 he was awarded an MBE for his services to people with learning disabilities. He said: “Enable Scotland has changed my life completely and allowed me to achieve things I would have never thought possible. The important thing Enable Scotland did was to make me believe in myself and give me confidence.
“Enable Scotland gave me my voice in the world, which was the platform from which my life took off!”
Young members tell me they want the same things as any other young person – to have a job, their own place, friendships and relationships. They say that we have helped them become more confident, more independent and to harness their power to bring about change for wider society.
When I speak to our members it is clear to see all that has been achieved. And while our work is as relevant now as it was 60 years ago, it is now people who have learning disabilities who are themselves at the heart of making change happen.
• Jan Savage is head of campaigns & policy at Enable Scotland