What does your organisation do?
Its primary objective is to support adults, children and young people who have learning disabilities, and their families, to have as good a quality of life as they possibly can. We do that by supporting people to live in their own homes, to find employment and keep it, to develop friendships, and a whole host of other activities. We are a membership organisation with about 4,500 members across Scotland.
How does Enable's work differ from the work of other charities who assist people with learning disabilities?
It is different because of its history. It was founded in 1955 by five parents of children who had learning disabilities. These families got together and founded an organisation to campaign for improvements in the provision of services and the life outcomes for their children. Still today, it is largely governed by the families of people affected by learning disabilities, and that keeps us focused on what is important for the people we are here to serve.
What single thing would make the biggest difference to your members' lives?
I spend a lot of time with individuals who have learning disabilities, and a consistent message I get from them is that they want to be seen as equals. They want to be contributing citizens like everyone else, but there are a lot of barriers which prevent people with learning disabilities from being the same as you.
You recently launched a campaign to improve teacher training on learning disabilities. What are the biggest gaps in teachers' skills?
Our family support committee identified that there was often a lack of understanding of the specific requirements of children with learning disabilities or autism, which was creating barriers to genuinely inclusive education, preventing children and young people from having as positive a learning experience in school as they could have.
How would training help with this?
There is very little in the way of specific provision around managing learning disability and autism in the classroom. That absence of training for teachers is making it difficult for them to do what they are trying very hard to do, which is ensure the best possible outcomes for every child in the classroom. One of the statistics that really brings home to people the importance of this issue is the rate of exclusion. Children who have a disability in Scotland, according to Scottish Government statistics, are twice as likely to be excluded from school as those who do not, and the consequences of exclusion for these people are huge. This tells us that teachers do not have the appropriate strategies for dealing with the kinds of behaviours that can be associated with disability and autism, so exclusion becomes a strategy for managing these behaviours.
Do you think the Additional Support for Learning Act is working?
We hear anecdotally stories about young people who, with their families, have chosen to go into mainstream education but who eventually opt out and move to a special needs school. We are concerned about the reasons for that. One of the stories we hear most frequently is of young people in mainstream schools with learning disabilities or autism who are being bullied, sometimes quite severely. It seems to us that mainstream schools are not always as effective at addressing these bullying issues as they could be, and that perhaps links to the absence of training in additional support needs.
What happens when youngsters leave education - is there provision for when they reach adulthood?
That is a real issue. We know that parents often feel isolated, because lots of the support they get through the school system, especially from teachers, disappears, and that leaves a void. We also know that young people themselves post-school often lose connections and support networks they have built up at school. A complaint that we hear very often from young people is "we feel bored", "we feel ignored", "why do we have to spend so much time at home?" Some of the most exciting work Enable does is with young people post-school, supporting them to develop friendships, to grow in confidence, develop self-esteem and a voice for themselves. But funding the resources for these projects is getting harder.
How are these young people faring in the job market?
Approximately 5 per cent of people who have learning disabilities in Scotland are in some sort of employment. So the answer is not very well. We know that most people who have a learning disability want to work, they just need additional support to find and keep employment.
What are your hopes and fears for the new Government?
We know that social work departments are facing cuts to their budgets, so the implications for services for people with learning disabilities across the country are significant. Coupled with the reduction in resources are increases in demand. That is worrying. We also see initiatives coming from Westminster around welfare reform, which are causing anxiety in the learning disabilities community.
Born: Belfast, 1965
Education: Methodist College, Belfast; Thames Valley University, London; Dundee University
Career: Electrician; area manager, director and now chief executive of Enable Scotland.