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Catherine Shapter

Charity founder;

Born: April 26, 1920; Died: May 3, 2011.

Mrs Catherine Shapter (known as Cathie), who has died aged 91, was the last of the five founding members of the learning disability charity, the Scottish Society for the Parents of Mentally Handicapped Children, later to change its name to ENABLE Scotland.

Born in 1920, she grew up in Glasgow’s east end where she met her husband Harold in 1937, marrying him in 1943. A committed Christian, she was a regular churchgoer, involved in several church groups including the Women’s Guild and the Young Women’s Group. She is most warmly remembered as one of the founding members of ENABLE Scotland – a charity of and for people who have learning disabilities.

In 1944 she had a son, Johnny, who had Down’s Syndrome – then referred to as mongolianism. Disabled children like Johnny were deemed to be ineducable, and parents were left to cope on their own. As a result of the stigma attached to learning disability, Mrs Shapter, like many other parents of children who had disabilities, was made to feel ashamed. She decided to move from Glasgow to live in a croft to raise Johnny in isolation. Years later she wrote: “Had there been a society such as ours, a place where I could have gone, not for pity or sympathy but for understanding help and guidance, my approach would have been quite different.”

On the February 28, 1944, five sets of parents of disabled children came together in her living room and hatched the idea of a Scottish organisation to campaign for services to help them and their children.

They placed an advert in the Evening Times, asking for parents to attend a meeting in the Education Offices in Bath Street. They expected a dozen or so parents to attend. Over 350 people turned up, travelling from all across Scotland to be present. A movement was born.

In the early years the organisation grew under the stewardship of Mrs Shapter and the other founding members, including the world-renowned physicist Sir Samuel Curran. Local branches sprung up across Scotland providing mutual support, informal respite and giving the parents a sense that they were not alone.

Setting up the organisation was not enough for Mrs Shapter – it had to deliver real and practical benefits to families, and real change in society.

She was instrumental in opening up day services for those children deemed ineducable, and negotiated with local authorities and others for resources, recruited numerous volunteers and fundraised tirelessly – she knew the benefits these new services brought to hard-pressed mums and dads.

Nearly 60 years later, thanks in no small part to her, we now have universal education for all children, regardless of their level of disability.

The organisation she helped form has 4500 members, 55 local branches, employs nearly 2000 staff and supports thousands of children, young people and adults who have learning disabilities and is still at the forefront of campaigning for the rights of people who have learning disabilities.

Mrs Shapter was very family orientated – she loved her family dearly and always put them first. She was kind, caring and fun to be around. She loved cooking and travelling and most of all spending time with her grandchildren.

She wrote a book, Johnny 27 Years Pilgrimage, which was published in 2003, about her experiences as a mother raising a child who had a learning disability. Her lifelong friend Nessie Pattie typed and edited the book – the two met at school and were best friends for over 80 years.

Peter Scott, ENABLE Scotland’s chief executive said: “Cathie Shapter and those four other parents were visionary – they did not sit back and accept that it was right for disabled children to be excluded from society. They set up an organisation both to campaign for rights and to deliver much needed services. Fortunately, the world has changed for people who have learning disabilities and their carers since 1954. Cathie Shapter and her fellow founding members laid the foundations of this change, and ENABLE Scotland continues to build on these foundations every day.

ENABLE Scotland remains an organisation of ordinary people doing extraordinary work, and this is Cathie’s legacy, along with the many thousands of lives that she, and our organisation, has helped to transform.”

Mrs Shapter is survived by her daughter Jacqueline and grandchildren Michael, 26, Andrew, 23, and Caitlin, 19, her sister Margaret and her family including many nieces and nephews.

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