Obituary: Kathleen Welsh MBE, activist

Kathleen Welsh
Kathleen Welsh
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Born: 22 May, 1949, in Stirling. Died: 9 September 2013, in Larbert, aged 64.

Catherine R Welsh (“Kathleen” to family, friends and colleagues), who was a tireless activist for people with mobility disabilities, and for more than 20 years chaired Order of Malta Dial-a-Journey, died in the Forth Valley Royal Hospital, Larbert on 12 September. Her Requiem Mass was held at St John Vianney’s Church, Alva on 20 September. She was 64.

Requiring a wheelchair since she was a young child, Welsh first came across Dial-a-Journey when she found that she could not use conventional public transport to visit her dying father, who was in a hospice.

Dial-a-Journey, with its specially equipped minibuses and trained staff, was devised for just such a situation. Welsh was so impressed by the treatment she received that she was eager to become involved with the service. It had been established by the Order of Malta in conjunction with the Margaret Blackwood Housing Association, to transport elderly residents of the latter’s homes.

From a devout Roman Catholic family background herself, Welsh began working alongside people drawn from the UK’s Catholic noble families, who were members of the world’s longest established Order of Chivalry.

Dating from the First Crusade to the Holy Land, when they were known as the Knights Hospitaller, a founding objective of the Order was to serve “Our Lords the Poor and Sick”. She was in no way daunted by her contact with lords and ladies, and they quickly came to value her drive, focus and indomitable personality.

As the Dial-a-Journey service was gradually expanded to embrace the whole of the Forth Valley area, the link with the Margaret Blackwood Association was cut and it was incorporated in 1991 as a limited company with charitable status.

There was never any doubt that Kathleen Welsh would be appointed its chairperson. In this role, she was guided and assisted by the late Fra’ Freddy Crichton-Stuart, a scion of one of Scotland’s oldest aristocratic families and, importantly, a trained accountant. He took on the job of company secretary; together they oversaw the charity’s growth and development.

Born in Stirling, she was the youngest of three children. Her father was the manager of a public house and her mother had been a governess to the children of, among others, non-Clerical Vatican diplomats. From infancy, it was clear that Welsh was unable to walk, requiring her to use a wheelchair from about the age of four. In a very different era from the present, it was decided that she should be educated at home, her mother and siblings supplementing the efforts of visiting local authority teachers. Cared for by her mother, who had a great influence on her, she did not enter employment. Therefore, when she first volunteered to assist Dial-a-Journey, she poured all of her prodigious energy into the task.

As a regular passenger on Dial-a-Journey’s door-to-door minibuses, she came to know personally many of the other users of the service, and the specially trained drivers. This enabled her to speak with particular authority on the life-enhancing opportunities the charity offered to people like her with severe ambulant disabilities.

In a newspaper article, she recounted her first experience of getting out in her electric wheelchair using the service: “Just before a Dial-a-Journey meeting, I asked if it would be possible to go shopping. When they said, ‘Maybe after the meeting’ that was me hooked! It’s the difference between living your life and enjoying your life. If it wasn’t for the service, I’d be sitting staring at four walls.”

Despite undergoing personal trials with her disability, she became a well-known spokesperson for the people with disabilities in central Scotland and beyond. This brought her into contact with politicians at local and national level, to whom she didn’t hesitate to express forthright views about what they should be doing to improve the lives of her community.

She was much in demand to contribute to the work of organisations such as the NHS Forth Valley’s Stakeholder Group that helped to formulate the Health Board’s Equality Strategy, the Council on Disability Stirling, Falkirk Voluntary Action Resource Centre, and the Stirling Access Panel, for which she carried out an audit of access by wheelchair users to shops and restaurants. Other activities close to her heart were fundraising for a children’s hospice in Kinross and the continuation of her late mother’s work on behalf of the children of Romania, by sending gifts of clothing and much-needed wheelchairs.

She was a founding director and chairperson of Central Shopmobility, a charity set up to provide electric scooters, powered chairs and manual wheelchairs for people with mobility problems in shopping centres and at other locations.

This was eventually merged with Dial-a-Journey, which remained the main focus of her life. As chairperson of the charity, she represented it on numerous organisations, perhaps most importantly, the Scottish Accessible Transport Alliance.

While Dial-a-Journey has long benefited from the financial support of the Forth Valley local authorities, throughout its history additional fundraising has been required, to sustain its services and to purchase new vehicles for the fleet. Welsh was particularly active in this area, devoting much time to working with the committee set up by the Order of Malta to organise an Annual Knights Ball, the profits from which were destined for the charity. When asked about the large number of prizes she regularly obtained for the tombola, her reply reflected the influence she could exercise as a result of her disability: “When I go into the shops in Stirling in my wheelchair asking for prizes, who can refuse me?”

Order of Malta Dial-a-Journey is now dramatically different from the small two-bus concern it was in the late 1980s. Today, it is one of Scotland’s most significant community transport organisations, with a fleet of more than 30 vehicles, 100 items of Shopmobility equipment and 60 employees.

In an average year, its flagship door-to-door minibuses provide 23,000 passenger trips, 20,000 free loans of Shopmobility equipment are requested at shopping centres, 51,000 bookings are made through the Taxicard scheme (booking taxis for people with mobility problems that don’t require the minibuses) and 19,000 school journeys are arranged for children with ambulant difficulties.

Although the number of service users has varied down the years, it is clear that during the two decades that Welsh chaired the charity many thousands of people benefited from its services. While she worked much of the time behind the scenes, she wasn’t afraid of the limelight, appearing on the Scottish TV news in 2008 highlighting the accessibility difficulties facing wheelchair users on local public transport.

Later that year, she travelled to Edinburgh to present a “Christmas Card” to the then transport minister, Stewart Stevenson MSP, which was in fact a multi-agency petition signed by thousands of citizens campaigning for the National Concessionary Fares Scheme to be extended to modes of transport that people with disabilities could access.

After a lifetime of public service, it was appropriate that her work should be officially recognised. Her first honour was the Cross of Merit “Pro Merito Melitensi” bestowed on her by the Order of Malta, of which she was immensely proud.

For her work in the voluntary sector, the Queen in the Birthday Honours of 2004 made her an MBE. In 2010, to mark her retirement as chairperson of Dial-a-Journey (though she continued as a member of the board), the Order awarded her the Cross of Merit with Crown “Pro Merito Melitensi”, one of its highest accolades.

She is survived by her sister Philomena and her brother John.