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George Glenn
We weren't far sighted enough


When George Glenn began teaching at the new Foyle View Special Needs School in the late 1960s, he had little idea that forty years on he’d be legal guardian to one of its first pupils.

George’s late wife Isabelle, who was deputy principal at the school, took an immediate shine to a three-year-old boarder Kathleen McCrea – one of the nursery unit’s first two new arrivals. And it wasn’t long before the “very beautiful, good, wee girl” became part of the extended Glenn family. Indeed, one of Kathleen’s prized possessions is a photograph of herself, aged six, at the christening of the Glenn’s son in 1972.

“Because of her circumstances, she was a boarder,” explains George, “so we would take her home with us at Christmas, Easter, and Summer – and then more regularly, about once a month.

“Before long she was a fixture at all family events, and today she still attends every christening, wedding, funeral and birthday party.

“At the time Kathleen first arrived, Foyle View was quite innovative. There was no Stradreagh Hospital then, which meant that everyone with a learning disability – who hadn’t a family – automatically went into Muckamore Abbey in County Antrim. So the school allowed children from the west of the Province to come back to their own area.”

Foyle View, which initially catered for both day pupils and boarders, was located in the grounds of the City & County Hospital on Derry’s Northland Road, before moving to its current home on the Racecourse Road.

 “At various times Kathleen had ongoing medical problems requiring hospitalisation,” says George. “And occasionally she did need intensive nursing care, although 95 percent of the time she was fantastic.

“Changes in the legislation meant that Kathleen was able to stay at Foyle View until she was 19. After that, she went to Stradreagh for a short time. She was in a family environment there and had a good programme of care, and she still came out to us at weekends and so on. And then 23 years ago, she moved into semi-independent housing scheme.”

At the time Kathleen left school, George was particularly interested in the transition of people with learning disabilities into the workplace. But the economy was in poor shape in the mid-eighties, and even “servicing” jobs in factories (i.e. low level labouring), which might previously have been available, were dying out.

George, however, was determined. “I was very fortunate to hear about a Government programme that allowed people like Kathleen take up sheltered employment. Then, there were two choices: Day care workshops, which we weren’t happy about for a girl of her ability; and a second programme, which enable an employer to take Kathleen in and assess her work output against a so-called ‘norm’. So, for example, if she were assessed at 80 percent, the Government would pay the final 20 percent of her wage.”

The second option was so much more suited to Kathleen’s needs, and she found a placement in Wellworth’s Cafe, where she worked happily for a couple of years.

Twenty years ago, however, she got a full-time job in catering at Austin’s Department Store, managing the restaurant’s industrial dishwashers. And she now is able to train casual staff in using the machinery.

“I go there to visit her at least once a week for twenty years and have never once reported a dirty dish,” grins George.

“The secret is to change the water often,” explains Kathleen.

After Isabelle Glenn died in 2002, George and Kathleen took the decision that he should replace his wife as Kathleen’s guardian. “Social services contacted me, and asked me if I were prepared to take on the role. And I did it very happily. It entails twice-yearly case conferences about Kathleen’s situation and plans; all her needs are discussed with social worker, doctors and house co-ordinator.

“The decision to become guardian was complicated slightly by the law regarding vulnerable adults, which insists that any time I take Kathleen away for holidays or even a day out in the car, I must take my sister or another adult. But my sister and Kathleen are both very co-operative about it.

“I would also call into Austin’s to see Kathleen once or twice a week, to make sure she’s all right – and chat to her about any problem she might be having. Like currently, her Church is closing and that has been worrying her a little.”

George is also quick to pay tribute to the support Kathleen gets from the staff at her home, Ardavon House, an independent living facility for people with learning disabilities. “They’re very much a family there – there are twelve in the house, and they’re all very close.

“Kathleen is also financially independent and gets weekly pocket money and clothes as she needs them.”


After retiring from teaching, George went into Community work, overseeing various church-led development schemes and urban regeneration partnerships. He still is very active in helping people with learning disabilities and chairs the Foyle Parents and Friends Association. This group partners with The Cookie Company, a bakery, and Le Bistro, a cafe, both of which are staffed by trainees with disabilities.

There has been significant change for the good, in his lifetime, he believes, though not as fast as he’d have liked it.

“The major changes in this sector took place in 1968, when new laws were brought in to replace the 1948 Act, which was basic in the extreme. The earlier act, for example, would have labelled people with special needs as ‘in educable’ and would have referred to people as ‘morons’, ‘idiots’ and ‘feebleminded’.

“The new Act brought the control of people with learning difficulties under the Education Boards – and not the Health Boards as it had been previously. It guaranteed education until the age of 19 – a very enlightened concept at the time.

“The mistake those of us who had lobbied for the change made was in believing that the over 19s would then be properly catered for by the Health Board. We weren’t far-sighted enough. The problem arose because there was never any statutory provision made within the system to take care of someone once they had left school. And while the Health Hoard had a duty of care, more recently they’re finding they haven’t got the resources to cope.”

The Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability NI (2007) proposed increasing provisions within hospitals and within the community.  But Stormont has yet to release the necessary funding to support the plan.

Social outlets are also scant – which is why Kathleen finds Destined so important. She attends the centre at least twice a week.

“There’s a great camaraderie here,” says George. “And it has really broadened Kathleen’s range of interests.

“Groups like Destined and Foyle Parents and Friends have made a great difference. The difficulty is in locating funding and making these projects sustainable.

“But there is a real gap after school. To me it seems a shame that millions of pounds are invested in the education of people with learning disabilities, in state of the art schools, but suddenly at 19, there’s nothing guaranteed for them – and they’re at the mercy of the Health Boards.”


Recently George has been involved in lobbying at various levels of Government to have legislation passed during the next session of the Northern Ireland Assembly to allow each person with a learning disability to have a legal statement of a care plan addressing their individual needs and feels that for this to happen now is the time to have it included in the Programme for Government which is currently being planned.


(See also: Kathleen McCrea Interview)