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​Alex John Murray 

Fisherman Alex Murray was at sea when his wife, Ishbel, began attending local meetings of a charity which was later to be named ENABLE Scotland.

Their son, Alex Jnr, was only three years old when Ishbel, somewhat tentatively, became involved with the group in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.

“A friend accompanied me because I was quite nervous. I didn’t know anyone and was unsure how the meeting would be structured,” explained Ishbel.
“A lady from the education department had encouraged me to go along and meet some of the other parents. I was involved to an extent but I didn’t attend very regularly until Alex retired about nine years ago, then we started to go more often.”

When Alex Snr gave up life at sea and came ashore, he began attending monthly branch meetings.

He said: “I wanted to become involved with other parents. Alex was in his 20s at the time and there were literally no facilities for him as an adult with learning disabilities so I wanted to do something about that. But I wanted to be involved mainly because ENABLE had done a lot for Alex. When he was younger, they arranged an annual weekend away and did all the fundraising for that. It enhanced his life and gave Ishbel a break when I was away at sea. So, I wanted to give something back.

“After Alex left school, he attended Lewis Castle College and also worked in the cafeteria for around nine years which he enjoyed a lot. Then, without any warning, the authorities decided that was it. They put an end to the job: reason being that new health and safety regulations meant that people with learning disabilities had to have one-on-one supervision when they were working. They said they anticipated being very busy and didn’t have time to supervise our son.

“I didn’t feel comfortable with how they handled it and how unfair it was for Alex. The fact that he had lost his job and was offered nothing in its place was a major concern for me because what we were then looking at was him being at home seven days a week, isolated, with nothing to do. I felt that the authorities needed to do more and to offer some kind of activities. So I started to get more involved in the branch, attending regularly and taking an interest in the managerial side of things, mainly pressing council departments and social work departments to do more for our people with learning disabilities, rather than just leaving them to get on with it. Many of the office bearers at the meetings at that time were getting on in years, so they needed someone to take over, and that person ended up being me.” 

After much effort and negotiations, the branch eventually achieved its goal: a European-funded programme, based back at Lewis Castle College. The three-day-a-week programme included horticulture, computing and cooking. It lasted five years. But again, with little warning or explanation, it came to an abrupt end, with no replacement.

Alex continued: “We were back on to the council again, demanding meetings and fighting for a replacement service. Again, we got funding for another programme, the Hebridean Independent Living and Learning Service (HILLS) but that particular programme wasn’t catering for Alex needs. The idea was that you spent a couple of years on the programme then became independent. That wasn’t a possibility for Alex so the problem became that the services that were offered were not tailored to suit the individuals, they were just generic. Parents and carers of people with learning disabilities know that just doesn’t work and many people were pulling their children out of it because it just wasn’t working for them.”

That was in 2011. Then, a young local man known to the family who had recently graduated from art school went to Glasgow to work as a carer to fund his ‘year out.’

From there, he spent a year in Wales, working in a village community for people who have learning disabilities. He returned to Stornoway just as Alex’s HILLS placement ended, and set up Macauley College – an organisation inspired by his experiences in Wales. 

Continued Alex: “This lad became an independent learning disabilities service provider, but our ENABLE branch had a very difficult time getting the council to acknowledge him as a learning disability service provider as he wasn’t conventionally qualified.

“For this reason, they refused to arrange for the self-directed support payments to be paid to him at Macauley College. We very much wanted Alex to go there but without the payments, we were stuck. So the Stornoway branch set about making sure that the social work and council would see it as a viable service. We wrote letters and met the director of Social Work and other representatives from the authorities - because they were trying to say there was no need for him and his service, but they had nothing to offer as an alternative. 

“It was very frustrating. Many of our people with learning disabilities were left sitting at home but there was this fantastic place with much to offer them and they couldn’t attend.  It took months to sort it all out but we persevered until we made them listen to us. Alex has been going there two days a week since 2012. They do horticulture, have some livestock, do art and woodwork, cooking and baking. As long as they have something to occupy them they are happy and it’s wonderful to see.”

It wasn’t the Macauley College founder’s first encounter with Alex Jnr. In his younger years, the founder volunteered at Alex’s primary school and with his local scouts group.

“He was great at interacting with young people who have learning disabilities,” remembers Ishbel. “He actually told is that he was also inspired by Alex and that he learned from him that people with learning disabilities are often capable of doing so much more than people think. He has the right attitude for the job!”

Macauley College, say the couple, has transformed the lives of people in Stornoway who have learning disabilities. 

Alex, who has been chairperson of ENABLE’s Stornoway branch for four years, said: “I get a lot of satisfaction out of the fact that we were able to access that self-directed support money. Yes, we had to fight for it, but it was worth it because now we have a very positive relationship with the council and social work who have now begun to acknowledge that services simply cannot stop without an alternative - or that when someone leaves school, their quality of life mustn’t suffer. We achieved that stage of recognition and we’re proud of it. 

“We have also persuaded Stornoway Council to accept that it would be wise for them to have an ENABLE representative on every committee which deals with people who have learning disabilities so that we are present to translate their needs. They have accepted the usefulness of that. It took some time to establish, but now it really feels like we’re coming together and that they are gaining respect for what we do. 

“Although things are much improved, what drives me to carry on my involvement is the fact that we have made such brilliant progress. It makes us all more determined to make the same difference for the next issue that comes up, but for now it’s a question of maintaining and developing the services we already have, so there is always work to be done.”

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