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17 April 2014 Last updated at 12:06

Signing on the stage

A scene from the play Frozen A scene from Frozen, a play which uses speech and sign language

Deaf people have better access to the theatre than ever before, and are able to enjoy mainstream plays through interpreters and captions. But work specifically created for deaf performers using British Sign Language (BSL) holds a special place in many deaf people's hearts.

One of the earliest known productions of a play in sign language by deaf actors was a performance of Shakespeare at a Kensington theatre in 1886. The audience was mostly deaf, with the exception of a few hearing journalists, one of whom gave a scathing review: "The performance was tedious and especially so to those invited to attend... The actors were as a rule amateurs but certainly did not suffer from the amateur disability of not knowing what to do with their hands."

Deaf theatre remained amateur for the first half of the 20th Century, with performances confined mostly to the country's deaf clubs. But this all changed in 1960 when Pat Keysell, a mime artist (and later a presenter on the children's TV show Vision On) put out an advertisement for deaf actors and the RNID Mime group was formed.

It was a time in which oral education and speech was in vogue - so early performances by the group were a mix of speech and mime. It wasn't until Keysell saw the work of the National Theatre of the Deaf in America that the group was rebranded to The British Theatre of the Deaf in 1968 and began to perform in BSL.

Find out more

See Hear titles

See Hear is broadcast on BBC Two at 10:30 BST on Wednesdays - or catch up on BBC iPlayer

Deaf actress Jean St Clair was just 17 when she first heard about the British Theatre of the Deaf (BTD). Accompanying another deaf actor to their rehearsals, she was impressed by their work. "What they were doing was mind-blowing," she says. "I wanted to join there and then."

Jean soon became a full member of the group, but faced a dilemma. Weekly rehearsals clashed with the deaf club in Romford, an important link with her local deaf community. Being ambitious, she chose to go to BTD instead, a decision which was not well received by her family and friends.

"Theatre back then was 'hearing' and alien and [they said] I was a snob for abandoning my roots," says St Clair.

St Clair performed professionally with the BTD and became a member of the actors union, Equity. She went on to perform at the Birmingham Rep, where she was the first UK deaf actress in an otherwise hearing production. St Clair also trod the boards of the West End, as sign language user Sara Norman, in the famous deaf play Children of a Lesser God.

Deaf theatre struggled in the UK in the 1980s and '90s and the actress left to work down under, for Australian Theatre of the Deaf (ATOD).

Now - almost 130 years on from that first amateur performance of Shakespeare in Kensington - deaf audiences are spoilt for choice when it comes to seeing work performed in sign language.

Deafinitely Theatre is staging a second Shakespeare adaptation at the Globe Theatre in London with A Midsummer Night's Dream this June, and Graeae Theatre Company is still touring with an adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, accessible in sign language, captions and with a mixed deaf and disabled cast.

Forty years after her first professional tour with the BTD, Jean has just finished touring with Fingersmiths, the company she co-founded with Jeni Draper. Their play Frozen uses a bilingual style with one deaf and one hearing actor playing each role, each performing in speech and sign language.

Reflecting on four decades in theatre, the biggest change Jean has witnessed is in attitude. When she was a young woman she was seen as a traitor for wanting to be an actress. Now after performances of Frozen, deaf people come up to Jean and tell her "seeing you perform made me very proud to be deaf".

See Hear's Deaf Theatre special is showing at 10.50am on Wednesday 16 April on BBC TWO, and on iPlayer

Email us at seehear@bbc.co.uk with your stories and comments, like our Facebook page and enjoy watching our programme.

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Ouch show 107: Mental vacuum

Kate Monaghan and Rob Crossan with guests Mik Scarlet and the Vacuum Cleaner

On this month's show: Meet The Vacuum Cleaner, also known as artist and activist James Leadbitter. He invites you to help him design the perfect asylum and talks about the time he wrote his own mental health act then sectioned himself under it.

Also: Mik Scarlet joins us for topical chat, a quiz, and three more citizen correspondents bring you their disability news.

Rob Crossan and Kate Monaghan present.

With interviews and topical chat, Ouch loves to explore the little things in disability life. Find it on this website monthly.

How to listen

Download an MP3 of the show

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Read the transcript

Show notes

Find out more about this month's guests and discussions with our selection of links.

- James Leadbitter AKA The Vacuum Cleaner talks about his project Mad Love. He's touring the country asking people to create their own designer asylum.

- Broadcaster, journalist and access consultant Mik Scarlet joins us.

- Our citizen journalists on the show this month are Wendy Morrell (assistance animals), Kathleen Hawkins (prosthetics) and Lisa Egan (TV).

- Music this month is from Tralala Blip. It's called Soccer in Space (click the link to watch the video). The band is from Australia and all members have learning difficulties... except Randolf.

For other audio clips from Ouch, go to our Audioboo channel.

Producer: Damon Rose

Follow @BBCOuch on Twitter and on Facebook, and listen to our monthly talk show


Are deaf people being let down in hospitals?

Nadia and Hulusi Bati Hulusi Bati and Nadia Hassan

Deaf people have been going on record about difficult experiences they've had in hospitals due to lack of sign language interpreters. See Hear looks at three cases where this trauma could have been avoided had sign language interpreters, or other communication support, been provided.

Deaf couple Nadia and Hulusi Bati were in University College London Hospital for the birth of their child. It was all going fine until the sign language interpreter's shift ended at 20:00 while Nadia was having contractions and 90 minutes before she went into the final stages of labour.

Despite efforts from the staff, no interpreter was present at the birth which turned out to be a difficult forceps delivery. Nadia only held her baby for a moment before it was whisked away for emergency treatment in another room - they were unable to tell her why.

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See Hear titles

See Hear is broadcast on BBC Two at 10:30 BST on Wednesdays - or catch up on BBC iPlayer

The child was treated in hospital for several days afterwards though the parents didn't know what was wrong because sign language support was not forthcoming here either.

Dr Pat O'Brian, Clinical Director, Women's Health, says the hospital does not comment on individual patient matters but told See Hear they had provided interpreters on-site for 97% of cases. He says: "It's probably fair to say that of those 3% that we found it difficult to provide a face-to-face interpreter, it is more common in emergency situations."

If you have a potential life-threatening condition, the priority for medical staff is to assess you and treat you appropriately. Finding an interpreter isn't always possible at short notice, as Matthew Gurney found when he was rushed to hospital with suspected appendicitis in the early hours of the morning.

On arrival he provided the number of an interpreter he knew. She wasn't available; its unclear what further steps were taken by North Middlesex University Hospital to find another. Instead Gurney and a deaf friend communicated with hospital staff through pen and paper but important details weren't communicated effectively. It's understood widely in the deaf community that detail can easily go astray in all types of conversations.

Matt Gurney Matt Gurney

Gurney signed a consent form for an operation. On waking briefly after the anaesthetic he saw three marks on his stomach which he had understood from the staff meant that he had only had exploratory surgery; he was relieved. ON waking fully later, he learnt that he'd misunderstood and that his appendix had been taken out after all.

He left hospital having had no interpreter support for the duration of the stay.

A spokesperson for the hospital says they attempted to find an interpreter but none were available. Gurney left the next day and the hospital were satisfied he knew how to look after the wound after having been given advice though agree it would have been good to have an interpreter at that discharge meeting.

The Equality Act of 2010 exists to protect people against unfair treatment on the grounds of deafness or disability but, under law, communicating via pen and paper could be considered a "reasonable adjustment".

A recent report from Signhealth, a deaf charity focusing on the health and wellbeing of deaf people, finds that deaf people are falling behind their hearing counterparts in terms of general health. They're reluctant to go to their local doctor or hospital, expecting communication to be difficult or impossible.

The report, Sick of It, finds that relatively minor health issues, as well as major ones, are going undiagnosed. The House of Lords discussed the findings last week.

But why is basic communication sometimes failing to materialise?

Dr Andrew Alexander, one of the key people behind SignHealth's report, thinks it may be a question of perception: "Hospital staff tend to think the interpreter is for the deaf person. They fail to recognise that the interpreter is also for the hearing member of staff. It's vital in a doctor-patient relationship to have good communication."

Matt Dixon Matt Dixon

Philip Dixon had "good communication" for an appointment at York Hospital to discuss the results of a scan though, in his case, it was provided by his hearing son Matt who can speak BSL. On discovering an interpreter had not been booked, the two had decided they'd go ahead with the appointment to avoid further delay.

Interpreting the doctor's words, Matt was shocked that it had been left to him to tell his own father that he had terminal cancer. Not being trained in medical language as an interpreter would have been, the difficulty was further compounded by the fact that Matt didn't know the signs for some of the medical terminology and had to muddle through.

It happened several years ago, and his father died soon after, but Matt says he relives the experience daily. Looking back he wishes they had pushed for an interpreter and says: "Being put in that situation for me meant, instead of me supporting him, he had to support me because I was so upset. And that's wrong. If an interpreter had been there I could have sat next to my father and supported him through it and focus on consoling him."

A spokesperson for York Hospital says they were sorry to hear of Matt's experiences and says their protocol is to provide interpreters to patients who need them and they've been monitoring and improving interpretation services in the last year.

When deaf people feel they aren't getting the right level of service, they can raise the issue via the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS), their GP, or elsewhere. Change should happen as a result - and if it doesn't, then The Equality Act gives deaf patients the right to take that complaint further.

On this week's programme, See Hear raises these stories with Neil Churchill, the Director for Patient Experience for NHS England. He says: "where the NHS has got something wrong and that's given somebody a poor experience of care, then we need to apologise and we need to learn from that. I think everybody is interested in making sure that if something has gone wrong, it doesn't happen again.

"My goal really is to put patients in positions of real influence where they can assess the quality of care and identify what improvements Trusts need to make in order to routinely deliver consistently great experiences of care."

Email us at seehear@bbc.co.uk with your stories and comments, like our Facebook page and enjoy watching our programme.

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To sign or to speak

Hands signing

The decision to speak or to sign is loaded with significance for deaf people, says BBC producer William Mager. He describes how he came to make his own choice.

I appeared on BBC Breakfast News last Saturday to discuss a video of a woman whose cochlear implant was switched on for the first time - it was a very emotional clip and quickly went round the world.

Joanne Milne herself speaks with a Geordie accent, which is audible in the video. She either had good residual hearing or is deafened, meaning she had enough hearing to pick up colloquial speech patterns. This in turn made the various headlines about Joanne "hearing for the first time" a bit misleading.

This is not my cue to contribute 1,000 words to the cochlear implant debate. Plenty of people have done that in the past week or so. What I found much more interesting about the viral video and the BBC Breakfast segments I filmed, was the subject of the deaf voice.

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See Hear titles

See Hear is broadcast on BBC Two at 10:30 BST on Wednesdays - or catch up on BBC iPlayer

After the interview aired, my phone went mad with messages - text, Facebook, Twitter, email and more. But many of them asked why I'd chosen to sign, with an interpreter voicing me, instead of speaking so the nation could hear words directly from me.

The short answer is simple. There are plenty of people speaking on television but you see very few signing - and I like the idea of sign language being seen.

The long answer is a bit more complicated.

You see, I was born profoundly deaf. When I was diagnosed, my mum decided to teach me to speak, read and write herself, with the help of expensive speech therapists. The results were pretty good - or so I thought. I could lip-read and I thought my speech was equally good.

It was only recently when I spoke with my mum about my upbringing that she admitted that my voice sounded pretty rubbish for most of my childhood. It wasn't actually that clear or resonant, and certainly not as good as my written English. It was only in my teens, when I started working with a vocal coach for stage actors, that it became a bit more understandable.

Start Quote

I'm resigned to never having a speaking voice on a par with Liam Neeson or James Earl Jones”

End Quote

I still have a deaf voice though. A speech therapist recently summarised the act of speaking as "effortful" for me. When I form words, it feels like they never quite come out the way they sound in my head. Intonation, pronunciation, pitch and volume are all concepts which will always feel slightly abstract to me - like trying to catch salmon barehanded in a stream. In the same way that some blind people will resign themselves to not being confident that they are dressing fashionably, I'm resigned to never having a speaking voice on a par with Liam Neeson or James Earl Jones.

Lots of deaf people have fun ways of describing their own deaf voice, and taking ownership of it in a way. Some describe it as sounding like a broken washing machine, an intermittent foghorn, or some say it sounds like French - though that's if you're at the clearer end of speaking. Without sufficient hearing to self-regulate, deaf speech can sound stretched, distorted, strangulated, too quiet, too loud, too whispery, too booming, or a bit of all of the above.

William Mager William Mager

While waiting in the green room for our three-minute interview on the BBC Breakfast sofa, I started chatting with my fellow interviewee Craig Crowley, the chief executive of Action Deafness, a warm and likeable deaf man who I'd only met once before. We signed to each other, both of us having learned BSL as young adults.

He told me about a text message he'd received from his father the night before, a reminder that "99% of people won't understand your views and your speech".

Craig joked he could achieve 70% clarity on a good day but realised that the text message was part of his father's grieving process. Even aged 69, his father is still coming to terms with the fact that he has a deaf son who despite trying hard, will never have a "normal" speaking voice.

Reminiscing, I discovered we'd both been educated orally at mainstream schools, meaning we were encouraged to speak and lip-read rather than use sign language. We'd both had extensive speech therapy and, when growing up, we were both told that we had "fantastic speech". It was only when we reached adulthood that we realised that our fantastic speech came with the unspoken qualifier, "...for a deaf person".

So that's why we both found ourselves on TV, sitting opposite two interpreters, signing instead of speaking, letting our hands instead of our voice boxes do the talking. We believe sign language is a more reliable way of getting our message out to an audience of millions on a topic so sensitive and freighted with meaning, that any misunderstanding would have been disastrous, especially with live subtitles (as the screen-grab below demonstrates).

Subtitle mis-spelling "deaf community" as "death community" Subtitle fail on BBC Breakfast

I choose to sign in public, but only when I have an interpreter I know well and trust. I speak to most hearing friends, colleagues and family face-to-face. I sign with deaf friends and deaf family. When I use my voice and when I don't is my personal choice.

It's also a political choice. If I have a meeting at See Hear and there's just ONE deaf person present in a group of several hearing people - I'll still sign. If I purposely exclude a deaf person from a meeting by making them rely on an interpreter to understand me, I might as well just hand in my deaf badge now.

Start Quote

Every deaf person has a different relationship with their deaf voice”

End Quote

It's been a long journey for me to get to this point. I've always been deaf, but I wasn't always deaf-aware because I was brought up away from deaf people. When I went for a job interview at the British Deaf Association more than 10 years ago, I walked into a room with a panel of three deaf sign language users, and one interpreter.

When I started using my voice, all three of the deaf people, of course, looked away from me at the interpreter so they could find out what I was saying, and I instinctively stopped speaking. They looked back at me and motioned me to carry on. I carried on speaking in that interview, making all the mistakes that a hearing person does when they meet deaf people and their interpreters for the first time.

Despite my faux pas, I got the job. And on my first day in the office I was shown to my desk, and presented with a telephone for me to make calls. I can't hear or speak on the phone, but being a speaking deaf person made them assume that I could.

The voice you speak with, how much you can hear, how well you sign, the school you went to, and your family background are some of the contributing factors that make up a deaf identity.

Every deaf person has a different relationship with their deaf voice. Some embrace their voices and wear them as a badge of honour. Some switch it off completely. Some use it when it suits them.

But the deaf voices I most admire? The ones who don't care who's listening, who shout as loud as they like.

Email us at seehear@bbc.co.uk with your stories and comments, like our Facebook page and enjoy watching our programme.

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When rail travel for disabled people goes wrong

Man in wheelchair at Waterloo station - image for illustration purposes

Stranded on trains, denied an accessible loo and forced to be carried through step-filled stations. Disabled rail travellers have been telling a new documentary what happens when the system designed to help them doesn't work.

"Does the other end know I'm coming?"

This is the line wheelchair-user Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson repeats time and again to staff on every train journey.

It may sound overzealous but Grey-Thompson says that while it makes for a stressful trip, lots of people who write to her about travel experiences do the same. Many disabled travellers worry that they won't be met with the help they need at the other end.

"I've been left on a train at 01:00, with no ramp to help me off," she tells this weekend's 5 live Investigates on BBC Radio 5 live.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson

The crossbench peer works in London and lives in the Northeast of England. She travels regularly between the two by train, arranging help in advance via Passenger Assist, a specialist booking system for disabled people to reserve seats and arrange extra help at stations.

When no ramp materialised for Grey-Thompson that night, she says, "I had to get out of my chair onto the floor near the toilet, crawl off and push my chair off."

She goes public when things go wrong, tweeting and writing about her experiences, "to make it better for other people".

Speaking again of the night she was left stranded, she says, "If I'd been in a situation where I wasn't as mobile as I am, I'm not sure how long I would have been stuck on that train."

A report critiquing the Passenger Assist service by the watchdog Passenger Focus says that despite booking help in advance, there was no assistance for their disabled mystery shoppers to help them get off the train in 21% of cases.

The report, which also includes feedback by people with cognitive and visual impairments, highlights issues that are only too real for some disabled travellers. Claire Jones from Leeds, who uses a mobility scooter, recently booked assistance but when no one turned up to help it meant that rather than alight at Birmingham as planned, she was forced to travel on to Cheltenham, 40 miles down the line.

"When you have a disability like mine, which affects your energy levels, there is only a certain amount of time you can sit in a scooter. It determines how much time you can travel."

Another issue uncovered by the recent investigation into the Passenger Assist Scheme was that disabled travellers were not given all the information they needed about a journey. There were instances where the mystery shoppers who'd been testing the system found that stations were less accessible than they were led to believe.

Wheelchair user Paula Moulton says that on one occasion she'd been made aware that a station's platforms weren't accessible via ramp, but decided that she could manage this in her manual chair by careful manoeuvring.

However, a "bizarre surprise" awaited her on arrival. "What they didn't tell us was that there were two flights of stairs and a bridge to get over to the other side. Some really nice guys picked me up and carried me, which I hate happening, but I hadn't got an option."

Find out more

Listen to the full report on 5 live Investigates, on BBC Radio 5 live on Sunday 6 April.

In the past, lack of information has left Grey-Thompson without an accessible toilet for up to five hours.

"Disabled people are used to making lots of decisions about how they travel," she says. If given the right information about the loo situation, "you don't drink for an hour and a half before you get on the train to make sure you don't need to use the bathroom".

But what Grey-Thompson says challenges her most is that these "aren't decisions any non-disabled person has to make".

Having to book help a day in advance to guarantee assistance is a particular gripe of hers. "Disabled people just want to make decisions to meet a friend for lunch, or to just do something different. We don't always know 24 hours in advance what time we want to travel."

Paula Moulton Paula Moulton prepares to board a train

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport says, "The Passenger Assist Scheme is a vital service and we expect train operating companies to ensure it is working well. That is why we helped to fund a study into the system, and we will look to the rail industry to take forward any recommendations."

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, which speaks on behalf of the industry says:

"We apologise to anyone who hasn't had the service they expect. The industry has worked hard to improve facilities for disabled passengers which are better now than they've ever been with record numbers choosing to travel by train.

"While the UK recently came top of Europe's seven major railways for accessibility, the industry is always looking to improve and to provide the best experience possible to disabled passengers."

Minister of State for Transport, Baroness Kramer, says that fining companies for failing to provide assistance is the wrong approach. She says that instead we have to "culturally embed, from the top of the company down to the humblest person that (they) have as much of a duty to serve a disabled person as anybody else."

Grey-Thompson says that getting assistance right and making trains and stations more accessible is important because "changes to welfare support mean that people who might have had a motability car in the past won't - so there will be more people taking public transport".

You can hear the full report on 5 live Investigates on Sunday 6 April at 11:00 GMT on BBC Radio 5 live.

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The people who think Noah had albinism

Still from the film Noah

Darren Aronofsky's epic Noah is now out in UK cinemas. Russell Crowe's portrayal of the Biblical figure has prompted criticism from religious groups, but there are also people who believe it misses a key detail - that Noah might have had albinism.

People with the condition have little or no colour, or pigment, in their eyes, skin and hair, and it can also result in severe visual impairment. It is an inherited condition. Those with pure white hair are likely to have the variant OCA1 (Occularcutaneous Albinism).

Though Crowe's Noah has a dirty grey beard, the Old Testament figure who was ordered by God to build an ark, is often depicted with a long white beard.

This in itself is no evidence of albinism but some people have seized on text from the Dead Sea Scrolls which elaborates further. Discovered between 1946 - possibly 1947 - and 1956 in a cave east of Jerusalem, they are thought to contain the earliest known manuscripts of some parts of the Hebrew Bible.

Dr. Adolfo Roitman, curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls and head of the Shrine of the Book points at the original Isaiah scroll found in Qumaran caves in the Judean Desert The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in a cave east of Jerusalem

In the scrolls, there is a description of Noah as a child "the flesh of which was white as snow, and red as a rose; the hair of whose head was white like wool, and long; and whose eyes were beautiful. When he opened them, he illuminated all the house, like the sun".

What is Albinism?

  • Genetically inherited group of conditions which results in a reduction or complete lack of pigment (colour) in the skin, hair and eyes
  • Can result in pale skin which burns easily in the sun, virtually white hair, very severe short-sight and photophobia (a severe sensitivity to light)
  • There are two types of albinism, that which affects the skin, hair and eyes (oculo-cutaneous albinism) and that which affects just the eyes (ocular-albinism)

It doesn't exactly sound conclusive.

Mark Sanderson, chair of the UK's Albinism Fellowship group, says: "It's fair to say some people believe he had albinism because of his visual distinctiveness and obvious characteristics, but who knows. I think the link is quite tenuous though others might disagree."

The scroll translation comes via an article written by ophthalmology research professor Arnold Sorsby in the British Medical Journal in 1958. In it he attempts to find the root of a possible inherited genetic flaw by tracing Noah's family tree.

Though Sorsby's article has a serious tone, there is a section at the end that reads as if it were meant humorously. It's left people wondering if Sorsby was writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

TEST Noah stained glass, St. Faith`s Church, Overbury, Worcestershire, England, UK Noah is often depicted with white hair

Others have suggested that the scroll text refers to a tradition of Noah's angelicness rather than a medical condition.

But the theory is cemented in the albinism community through the name of the US support group NOAH, standing for the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation.

President Mike McGowan says there were members who had heard about a possible link with the Biblical Noah when the organisation was founded, but is keen to distance himself from the ark-builder and stresses that NOAH is a secular organisation. The albinism support organisation in Germany is also known as NOAH.

The new film is said to bring out the dark side of the Noah story. While it might appear ironic, albinism is often used as a device to denote a dark character.

The Skinema website, set up to monitor the portrayal of skin conditions in movies, records many examples of the "evil albino" in films. These include Silas, the murderous monk from The Da Vinci Code, the evil Uber-Morlock from The Time Machine and the violent Bosie from Cold Mountain.

Sanderson is pleased Noah won't be on Skinema's list. "My personal view is that I'm glad Russell Crowe wasn't portrayed as having albinism because almost always when film-makers do it it's negative. I've rarely seen it done positively."

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How 'easy read' makes sense of jargon

Image shows a detail from February edition of Easy News, looking at UK floods A detail from the February edition of Easy News

The rise of websites like Buzzfeed - filled with short articles, lists and photos - suggests that many of us prefer our news in easily digestible chunks with lots of pictures.

For those who have to read weighty documents and would rather they were bite-size and visual, easy read is a system designed to make complicated text easy to understand.

What is it?

Easy read is provided by an increasing number of companies and public bodies. It turns information into cut-down, plain English with helpful illustrations. It's designed for people with learning difficulties or those who struggle to read.

The concept was originally developed as an accessible way of getting need-to-know public information to people with learning difficulties. However, easy read is becoming more and more popular and can now be found in leaflets on all sorts of topics and as an alternative to the standard document on many websites.

Some people with learning difficulties can become very political when armed with knowledge, says Ali Bishop of Easy News newspaper - which is produced bi-monthly by the charity United Response.

"We've heard of people engaging with current affairs for the first time after reading Easy News, and of others having conversations with their families about the world," she says.

It is generally acknowledged that the best way to make an easy-read document is with help from people with learning difficulties themselves, Bishop says, and this is how the newspaper gets made. She says the people she works with on Easy News are better at using short words than she is - "particularly non-readers" - who can cut through jargon and find fewer words to use instead.

Who else benefits from easy read?

Andrew Holman runs a company which specialises in providing easy read versions of documents. He also keeps an eye on what other peple are doing in the field. An example of good practise, he says, is an easy read version of an application form from the Criminal Cases Review Commission which they produced themselves. He says they did it: "after they found they weren't getting claims back from people with learning difficulties."

Previous Ouchlets

"When they sent the forms out alongside the standard text version, only easy read versions came back," he says.

60% of the prison population is said to have difficulties in basic literacy skills.

What do easy read versions of documents look like?

They are stripped right back so that only the crucial points remain. These points are then translated into jargon-free, straightforward language and presented in the order that makes most sense.

On the left of the page are big, clear pictures or symbols. To the right, related short sentences. Definitions of tricky words and terms are highlighted in coloured boxes.

Keith Smith from the British Institute of Learning Disability works with prisons and says that "if someone breaks the rules, they have to meet with the governor. The best way to get this across to a prisoner with a learning difficulty is to include a picture of the exact room where this meeting will take place so that when the prisoner is brought there, they understand why."

What's the history of easy read?

Easy read began in the 1980s. Sweden led the way and the concept spread throughout Europe during the 1990s. Andrew Holman says he's aware of at least 66 countries that use it to some degree.

The first major easy read publication (in the UK) was in 2001, it was a government white paper called Valuing People: A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century.

Holman says he enjoyed seeing people with learning difficulties holding up copies of the paper and saying: "I have the right to independent living."

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Formerly known as the Spastics Society

Scope poster showing kids pulling faces Scope's 1994 poster announcing its name change

It's 20 years since The Spastics Society renamed itself Scope. Other disability charities have changed their names since. But in disability, what is a good name for a charity?

In 1994 Blur and Oasis were slogging it out for the Britpop crown, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush was the hot TV show, John Major was our prime minister and people with cerebral palsy were still referred to as spastics.

Valerie Lang was on the executive council of the Spastics Society at the time. She has cerebral palsy and had been passionate about a name change for years before it eventually happened. "I felt that we could not afford to stay with the name we had," she says. "The name spastic was a playground term of abuse. Children would shout to each other 'You big spastic' every time someone was clumsy or even if they just disagreed with them.

"Mothers with young babies who had cerebral palsy weren't seeking help from the society because they had heard the word used in playground parlance. I think it put the younger generation off."

Lang, now 74, says that people ceased to think of those with cerebral palsy as individuals. "We might have a brain injury in common but we are all different and don't want to be put in a box labelled 'spastic'."

spastics society poster

The charity made the change at an extraordinary general meeting in March 1994. The chairman at that time, Anthony Hewson, noted the tension in the room and was worried some of the wheelchair users in the room might "wheel forward and lynch me" if the wrong decision was made.

"Scope" was one of several names considered. Others were reminiscent of the single-word abstract names popular with companies in the 1990s - Clipper, Clasp, Canopy, Patch, Ibex, Adepta, Tasq, Fulcrum, Cognosis, Capability. Other more traditional names under discussion included Action Cerebral Palsy and the Cerebral Palsy Society.

Perhaps sadly, one of the big factors in choosing Scope, a largely neutral name with no obvious link to disability or cerebral palsy, was that it could not be turned into a term of abuse.

Since that time, other disability charities have come onto the scene with positive names such as Enable or Ability. Arguably this approach has itself become somewhat cliched, and may eventually come back to haunt the charities because of their earnest positivity. It's terribly difficult to get it right when it comes to disability which - despite undoubtedly improving attitudes - is still an uneasy subject matter.

Perhaps the most notable and dramatic of recent charity name changes is that of the Royal National Institute of Deaf People (RNID), which is now Action on Hearing Loss.

Start Quote

It was an important moment in our transition from being a traditional charity... to being an organisation that's about working alongside disabled people”

End Quote Richard Hawkes, Scope

Chief Executive Paul Breckell says it was a strategic decision. The name is a better reflection of the charity's work, he explains, as it doesn't only work with deaf people. He says many people weren't very aware of the charity with its four-letter brand: "The public confused us with similar names like RNIB, RNLI and RSPB.

"People don't always know what acronyms mean, they're clumsy and clunky and words like 'National Institute' have a tendency to date an organisation."

Mencap chooses to hold onto its name despite it being a splicing together of "mentally handicapped", a term now deemed inappropriate by many. Even the charity uses the phrase "learning disability" to describe the people it helps. (As a reminder of how far attitudes have changed, it's interesting to note that Mencap was actually called the Association of Parents of Backward Children when it was founded in 1946).

The charity defends its present name, and says that a change is not going to make any difference to the problems faced by people with learning disabilities. It points out that the name has, as it were, brand recognition and is widely recognised by the public and by politicians. Certainly, although the name may have its detractors, Mencap is a modern-thinking organisation which involves people with learning disabilities in its decision-making.

Scope shop front

Though seen as a model for changing brand name, Scope has never rebuilt its brand awareness. Whereas 90% used to know what the Spastics Society was, only 64% answer "yes" when asked: "have you heard of Scope?" However, the charity says that although awareness may have declined, charitable income has not been affected.

Richard Hawkes, Scope's chief executive, says it was a real risk to drop one of the UK's best-known charity brand names, but it was important to make a strong statement that attitudes towards disabled people needed to change. "It was an important moment in our transition from being a traditional charity that helped vulnerable beneficiaries to being an organisation that's about working alongside disabled people to make change happen.

"Changing the name meant we could be side by side with all disabled people - who at that time were campaigning for important changes, like the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act."

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What does 'disability confident' mean?

Disabled office worker

The phrase "disability confident" has become steadily more prominent in the past year. But what does it mean?

In short, it's what the governments want employers to be - so they will then employ more disabled people.

What is it?

It's the name of a campaign by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) designed to help companies become more willing to employ disabled staff, by offering advice and breaking down unhelpful work-related myths.

Although discrimination laws have been in place since 1995, disability employment for those of working age has remained stubbornly low at around the 50% mark. The government has tried - by means of controversial welfare changes - to nudge disabled people back into work. But, even if many disabled people are indeed keen to work, employers aren't always as willing to take them on - and this is the gap the DWP's campaign is attempting to bridge.

Disability Confident was initially launched in July 2013 by the then minister for disabled people, Esther McVey, and met with enthusiasm by many disabled people and employers. It spawned events around the UK supported by well-known names such as paralympian Sophie Christianson and Falklands veteran Simon Weston, and companies including KPMG, Santander and Sainsbury's.

So, who's getting disability confident?

When the phrase started to spread, many disabled people mistook its meaning, thinking it referred to gaining more confidence in life as a disabled person.

Previous Ouchlets

Though originally introduced by the government, it is now being used by others. Big corporates, including the BBC, have given their internal awareness training a similar label.

Is everyone disability confident about getting people back to work?

Direct action organisation Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) remain sceptical - they dub it Disability CON-fident (capitalising the first three letters in "confident"). This week a DPAC member interrupted an event in the DWP's series held at the Hilton London Canary Wharf Hotel, which was co-hosted by Barclays.

Linda Burnip, co-founder of DPAC, defends the action: "If any of the firms there had been serious about employing disabled people they would have done it in the last 30 years and not just show their face at some 'posh do'." She also says that not all disabled people can do enough paid work to earn enough to live.

Last year, disability consultant Phil Friend wrote a blog for Ouch, in which he said that the government was focusing on the wrong people. He said that if it wanted to narrow the unemployment gap, the DWP should be helping the disabled to become more confident in themselves.

The debate continues on on Twitter - the DWP is using the hashtag #disabilityconfident to put out positive message. Many disabled people, meanwhile, are using it to express their displeasure - this tweet from @wtbDavidG is fairly typical: "The irony of #disabilityconfident is its only venue where #DWP claim we're 'inspiring', any other time we're those lazy, scrounging frauds."

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Deaf 'marginalised' by Italian love of gesture

Italian market

In Italy, the local sign language for deaf people isn't legally recognised. But the well-known, expressive hand gestures have their own dictionary and wider appeal, to the frustration of deaf people.

There are many things we associate with Italian culture - espresso coffee, scooters, gelato, expensive designer clothing. But perhaps more central to the Italian character is the way they use their hands to animate their speech.

Whether rubbing thumb and forefinger to signify money, flicking the chin to show how little you care, or even tapping underneath the eye with an index finger to show agreement, gesture is widely used and understood.

Prof Isabella Poggi at Roma Tre University recently formally categorised around 250 gestures in a detailed research paper that also explored the use of rhetoric, irony and context.

Find out more

See Hear titles

See Hear is broadcast on BBC Two at 10:30 GMT on Wednesdays - or catch up on BBC iPlayer

She told See Hear, the BBC's programme for the deaf community, that gestures may be more important in Italian culture than in any other. "We inherited the language of gestures from the Greeks," she says. "When the Greeks moved to southern Italy and colonised Naples, the Italians used gestures as a way to communicate without being overheard [but] the gestures continued to have a tradition as a way of communicating."

Sicilian film-maker Luca Vullo has documented Sicilian gesture - an even more free-spirited and expressive variant of that found on the Italian mainland - in a humorous documentary La Voce del Corpo, (The Voice of the Body). He is emphatic that gesture is a special part of everyday life in Italy.

Italian gestures Italian gestures, left to right: Fed up, get out of here, stingy

"When you are in Italy, you need to go on the street, in the markets, in the square and just watch the faces, the hands and the body of the people," says Vullo. "I think the Italian people are more physical but because it is in our blood."

The earliest collection of gestures, called The Ancients' Mimic Through The Neapolitan Gestures, was published in 1832 in Naples by Canon Andrea de Jorio. It is included in a dictionary of gestures published in 1958. There are also numerous online glossaries and videos.

When in Rome... Italian gestures

  • Forefingers, palm facing down, flicked from under the chin forwards, meaning "I don't care"
  • Make a "beak" with your thumb and forefingers pointing up, hand moving up and down, meaning "What/where/why?"
  • Fold your arms and tap your left elbow with the palm of your hand to indicate that someone is "stingy"
  • Place your palm on your heart, meaning gratitude or "thank you"
  • Hit the inside edge of your hand against the palm of your other hand, meaning "get out of here" or "let's get out of here"

The work of Poggi and Vullo have received worldwide attention, but this has left some in the deaf community asking where they fit in.

Italian Sign Language, known as Lingua Dei Segni Italiana - or LIS - is used by thousands of deaf people and is a richer and deeper visual language than gesture, according to Barbara Pennacchi, a deaf research assistant and linguist.

She says gesture is more of an enhancement to everyday speech rather than a language in its own right.

There are some similarities, though. Deaf See Hear presenter Memnos Costi found it surprisingly easy to order a few basic items in an Italian street market using simple gestures he'd picked up (see video). He described the market culture and communication as marvellous and said he wouldn't have bought anything if he'd had to resort to using a pen and paper. "I'd just walk off and go to the supermarket," he said.

"England is different," says the presenter. "People don't tend to use facial expressions, and it's difficult."

Britons may not use helpful gestures as widely, but the local sign language, BSL (British Sign Language) does have a high status. It was given official recognition in March 2003, which has led to more rights for deaf signers under the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act. Provision of interpreters has grown as a result.

Italian gestures Italian gestures: What, where or why (left) and thank you

In contrast, in 2011 the global deaf community erupted in protests at the Italian government's attempts to downgrade LIS to Linguaggio Mimico Gestuale (LMG), essentially a language of mime and gesture, which, it was feared, would diminish the rights of deaf sign language users. Since then, changes in government mean the plans have been dropped for now.

Tiziana Gulli, who is deaf and from Rome, explains the wider situation: "Twelve minority languages have been given official status, but LIS has been ignored. It's important this goes on the list as a language," she says. "It means access to communication and information. It means we can access life, work, school, university, medical access and other elements. It means we can fully participate in life and in society."

You can find out more in our Italy Special on See Hear, on Wednesday, 26 March at 10.30 GMT on BBC Two.


Deaf television past and present

Scene from CBBC programme My Life A new generation of signers in CBBC's My Life

In British Sign Language week See Hear's series producer, looks at the importance of television programmes made by deaf people in BSL.

To understand the long and complicated relationship deaf and hard-of-hearing people have with the moving image, we need to go all the way back to the first days of cinema.

As old-fashioned picture houses opened across the UK showing silent movies with simple "inter-title" text cards between the action, deaf people would organise outings to watch films wherever and whenever they wanted. Being entirely visual, with no spoken soundtrack, they were able to enjoy it in the same way hearing audiences did.

This golden age continued all the way into the late 1920s and early '30s. But in 1927 Al Jolson ushered in a new wave of feature films with sound and spoken dialogue. His film The Jazz Singer was the first of the "talkies", and from that point onwards, silent movies petered out and deaf people were effectively excluded from the cinema.

When TV was introduced in the UK with the first broadcast from Crystal Palace on 2 November 1936, there were no subtitles for deaf people. It wouldn't be until the 1980s that the first teletext subtitles were introduced. Television remained inaccessible for many decades.

Find out more

See Hear titles

See Hear is broadcast on BBC Two at 10:30 GMT on Wednesdays - or catch up on BBC iPlayer

Fast forward to the present day, and you could argue deaf people in the UK today have never had it so good when it comes to television. They have a level of parity with hearing audiences which rivals that of the old silent movie days.

The BBC offers full subtitling across all of its channels and online platforms, to a good overall standard. Most of the main terrestrial channels offer accessible signed and subtitled content too.

Deaf people feature in mainstream programmes and on mainstream channels. CBeebies has Magic Hands in which deaf presenters translate poetry into BSL. It's also produced by a part-hearing, part-deaf production company. That same company, Remark, also recently made My Life: Signing Off for CBBC, which shows what life is like for a hearing child brought up by a deaf family.

Presenters of CBeebies programme Magic Hands CBeebies show Magic Hands introduces BSL to a pre-school audience

So, with all this good access and programming in the mainstream, why is there still a need for deaf television made by deaf people for deaf audiences? Many deaf people will tell you that it's necessary in order to reflect and document our language, community and culture.

Independent deaf television director Ramon Woolfe argues that there are already TV channels which transmit exclusively in Gaelic and Welsh language. BSL is also recognised as a language in its own right in Britain so, he says, there should be a BSL television channel.

"I'm British, I pay for it, so I should be given my own channel," he says. "Every week my children can't access the television, leaving me having to translate into BSL what they're watching on the screen. They can't read the subtitles because the English is far too advanced for them."

There isn't a BSL channel but there are individual programmes. There is See Hear on the BBC for 32 weeks of the year, and the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust (BSLBT) which makes about a dozen half hours per year which can be seen on the Community Channel, Film4 and the BSL Zone website.

See Hear title sequence from the early 1980s See Hear title sequence from the early 1980s

But deaf television isn't only for a hardcore audience of deaf signers. It's also for deaf people for whom BSL isn't a first language, and for hearing people with a personal and professional interest in the deaf language and community. With signers front and centre rather than an inset box, it gives deaf people visibility on the small screen, showing sign language as it should always be seen - in fluid motion.

Deaf television records milestones in deaf history, highlights the issues we face and above all, shines a light where other mainstream programmes very rarely venture. That's why it still matters.

You can find out more in our short history of deaf television on See Hear, airing on Wednesday 19 March at 10:30 GMT on BBC Two. See a preview here. Find out more about British Sign Language Week, which runs from 17-23 March here.

Email us at seehear@bbc.co.uk with your stories and comments, like our Facebook page and enjoy watching our programme.

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A disability sex comedy

Amy Conachan

Amy Conachan is a rising young star of Scottish theatre, who's starring in a new stage comedy about the sometimes awkward reality of sex and disability.

Forthright and very open, 23-year-old actor Amy Conachan says her legs are "really small" and "don't work" because her spinal cord "doesn't go all the way down". She's already making an impact on the Scottish theatre scene, even though she's only in the second year of a BA in Acting and Performance at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland - the first disabled student on her course.

Conachan is also one of the first in her year group to be offered professional work - with some challenging material that is very close to home, as well as close to the knuckle. Wendy Hoose is a sex comedy, according to its publicity. Some reviews have preferred the phrase "comedy of manners".

It's about a one-night-stand between two twenty-somethings, Jake and Laura, for whom the course of true love (or sex) runs far from smoothly, after Jake realises his date has no legs. The play takes its title from Jake's (Scottish-accented) reaction to Laura's home, with its accessibly low kitchen worktops.

The pair have only met online, when Amy invites Jake to her flat. She is awaiting him in bed, covered up, when he first sees her. Having described herself as "legless" in texts, Jake thinks Amy means "drunk". He only discovers she means it literally during the throes of passion. The play explores the situation as it unfolds.

Amy Conachan spoke to Ouch before the play went on the road.

Tell me about the play

There are some very sexy scenes in it... and it is very politically incorrect. It's farcical and rather funny too.

Laura and Jake meet via a hook-up app which is a little like the much talked-about Tinder. Have you ever used an app like that?

I am on Tinder because absolutely everybody I know has it. It is a quick way to make a decision on someone. All you get is their Facebook profile photo, their age and their name. They appear (in your feed) if they have friends or interests in common with you. You swipe left if you don't like them. If you think they are attractive then you swipe right. If they like you too, you get a match. Then you can talk to them and can arrange to meet up if you like. I get a lot of hellos but it doesn't go any further, which is fine, because meeting people in that way freaks me out.

Is being disabled a problem for you when dating?

It is always on my mind to some extent, which is funny, because I don't really think about disability in any other aspect of my life. You are very vulnerable and it is about what they think of you - and there's still more to discover that they might think of as negative.

A scene from Wendy Hoose Jake and Laura get acquainted in Wendy Hoose

What is your character Laura like?

She is very sure of herself and knows what she wants from Jake. No matter how offensive or insulting he is to her, she's always able to match it with something else, while still being likable to the audience.

Start Quote

The point of these scenes is to show the audience that disabled people do have sex and that they do enjoy it”

End Quote

And are you anything like your character?

A bit. Living with a disability, your whole life makes you strong and a good judge of character. I make decisions about people really quickly and she does that in the play.

What's it like to act out scenes of a sexual nature in front of an audience?

The first couple of times were really uncomfortable but once you get through that, it becomes part of your job. I've had people ask me, "Have you had sex" or "Can you have sex?" I always think, "Oh for God's sake. Would you ask a normal person that question?"

The point of these scenes is to show the audience that disabled people do have sex and that they do enjoy it. I don't feel a great responsibility to show the world we're normal but I do hope they learn from watching because I'm aware that the question is on their minds.

Do you prefer playing disabled roles?

I'm keen to go for parts that aren't written as disabled. I feel I should be able to play those characters which, because I'm the actor, become disabled.

What's next?

After Wendy Hoose, I'm in Gerda Stevenson's new stage production Skeleton Wumman, which is all in Scots. I play a woman who was severely disabled when alive, unable to walk or talk. It is set in her afterlife. She's now a skeleton living under the sea telling stories about what happened to her during life.

Are you becoming the go-to Scottish disabled actor?

I'm enjoying the work to be honest so I'll take what I'm given. I've realised that at first, while my name and my face is getting out there, I am most likely to be cast in disabled roles. But hopefully, in the long run, it will fizzle out and I'll just get parts for being an actor.

Wendy Hoose, a co-production between theatre companies Birds of Paradise and Random Accomplice, tours Scotland during March 2014.

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About Ouch disability

Ouch explores the disability world in blog posts and a monthly internet radio talk show.

It is brought to you by an award-winning team of disabled journalists – Emma Tracey and Damon Rose – with help from guest contributors who all have personal connections to disability.

Ouch goes behind the headlines of disability news, and also lifts the lid on the little details about being disabled that are not widely talked about. You can add your comments on each story - click here for the house rules on taking part.

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