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60 stories Bill Learmonth

​Bill Learmonth

Bill Learmonth is a familiar face to the ENABLE Scotland family.  Volunteering with the charity for more than 45 years, Bill has seen how ENABLE Scotland has evolved into the organisation it is today.  He has also been witness to society’s changing attitude towards disability.

 “There was a time when people with learning disabilities were quite definitely separated from the wider community.  They were separated in all aspects of their lives; health, education and socially.  But gradually people thought it was appropriate to bring them back into the community.  I was one of the young parents who were saying it was time we closed the long stay hospitals.  There was no way I was allowing my daughter to go into an institution,” said Bill.

Bill’s daughter Lesley has Down’s syndrome and when she was born Bill and his wife were faced with medical professionals who were still struggling to understand how to treat people with learning disabilities.

 “Within 24 hours of Lesley being born a professor of gynaecology told me she was little more than a vegetable and to take her home and love her,” said Bill.

Bill and his wife fought to keep Lesley out of occupational centres which often varied in quality depending on staff.  They wanted Lesley to attend special school education but at the time it was thought these schools were unsuitable for people with Down’s syndrome.  However Bill and Anne won their battle and Lesley attended a special education school and then went on to attend Coatbridge College.

During his long association with ENABLE Scotland, Bill has seen how feelings have changed with regards to how people with learning disabilities access education.  The move towards educating children with learning disabilities in mainstream schools left Bill with mixed emotions.

 “Funnily enough I had reservations about that because I was nervous how people with learning disabilities would be received in mainstream education and how they would cope with the rough and tumble they were inevitably going to experience.  I think I was in the minority because at the time the younger parents were perfectly happy to see their own children going into mainstream education.”

As well as worrying about children with learning disabilities being bullied in mainstream schools; Bill was also concerned teaching staff wouldn’t be given adequate training. 

 “My sympathy went to the teacher because we were imposing a different style of pupil on them which they had little or no training for,” said Bill.

This is something that still concerns Bill and he sees training of teachers as “critical” for mainstream education to be successful for pupils with learning disabilities.  Just as training for medical staff has improved since his daughter was born, Bill feels the same improvement in training must be applied within the education system. 

Bill is extremely proud of the work organisations have done not only to enhance opportunities for people with learning disabilities but also to change people’s attitudes.  When Bill’s daughter was younger they were sometimes faced with discrimination and behaviour that would not be tolerated today.

 “We had experiences where we were asked to leave restaurants because people didn’t want a Down syndrome child sitting next to them and eating.  That was the experience in those days.  But not by the majority, the majority of people were very kind,” said Bill.

Bill puts these experiences down to the fact a whole generation grew up not seeing or interacting with people with learning disabilities because so many people would have been put into long stay hospitals. Bill believes ENABLE Scotland’s and other organisations work has helped to change people’s attitudes so they see the person and not just the disability.

 “The work of ENABLE Scotland and the changes ENABLE has helped bring about have made sure that opportunities for people with learning disabilities are better. Right at this minute there will be an army of parents who would argue against that because of cutbacks and centres closing but things work in cycles.  Some parents think things have gone back; and in the short term it can be argued they have.  What ENABLE Scotland and others are trying to do is ensure the alternatives they are putting in place go some way towards providing a service that is acceptable.  I’m sure once we get over this financial difficulty the next step up will be quite exceptional.”

Bill has seen how the organisation has grown in strength and numbers going from what Bill says were “1 and a half staff” to over a thousand now.  Although the number of members has reduced in recent years, Bill believes this is because there is far more available now for parents who have children with learning disabilities than there was in the late 1960’s when Bill got involved with ENABLE Scotland.   He knows that lots of the achievements were been met by the generation before so it can be difficult to get today’s parents involved.  But he doesn’t see this as a reason for ENABLE Scotland work to diminish as its work is far from done.

“There is always a reason to strengthen. There are always causes,” said Bill. 

Bill has worked tirelessly to promote the work of ENABLE Scotland and to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities.  Volunteering with the organisation for over 45 years, in 2012 Bill was named Scotland’s Charity Champion by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.  Bill was instrumental in setting up the Ballieston branch of ENABLE and has been chairperson of ENABLE Scotland twice.  He was also trustee of the organisation from 2005 -2011 as well as devoting countless hours to many other initiatives and committees.

ENABLE Scotland has become like a second family to Bill. He is often the person others turn to when they need support and advice.  When he ran his financial services company, Bill often spent long hours on the road, driving up and down the M6.  It was during these journeys that he realised how many good friends he had made through his association with ENABLE Scotland.

“I once thought about this – if I drove from John O Groats to Stranraer, I would never be more than 15 miles from somebody I knew.  That was because of the people within the branches you got to know,” said Bill. 

The “people of ENABLE” as Bill calls them, are the most important aspect for Bill. “My real feeling around this organisation is that we’ve been so blessed with the people who have been involved in it.  The Rachel Buchanans and the Jean Jahodas, the people of ENABLE.  They have been the inspiration for me.”

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