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21 August 2014 Last updated at 17:53

Dawkins: Abort Down's foetuses

Dawkins headshot

Richard Dawkins, the atheist writer, has caused a stir on Twitter claiming it is "immoral" to allow unborn babies with Down's syndrome to live. But what do the relatives of people with Down's syndrome think about the comments?

The Oxford professor posted the message on Twitter in response to a user who wrote she would be faced with "a real ethical dilemma" if she became pregnant and learned that the baby would be born with Down's syndrome.

"Abort it and try again," Dawkins tweeted in reply. "It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice."

His comments have caused anger online and have been dismissed by charities, but he insists his views are "very civilised", tweeting: "These are fetuses, diagnosed before they have human feelings."

For Caroline White, whose son Seb has Down's syndrome, the comments are offensive. "What saddens me most and what can't be denied is he backs up his argument by saying it's what the 'majority of women' do anyway," she says. "Yes, it is. It's what most women do. Women who, like him, like me, most probably grew up in a time of exclusion. A time where disabled people and people with Down's were labelled and then hidden away, never given the chance to integrate, reach their full potential or form meaningful relationships with their wider community."

Dawkins defended his comments on the social media website saying: "I do not for one moment apologise for approaching moral philosophic questions in a logical way. There's a place for emotion & this isn't it."

Twitter conversation between user saying "I honestly don't know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma." and Dawkins reply saying "@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice."

In a subsequent blog post he acknowledges that his posts may have offended those who know and love someone with Down's syndrome stating that he has "sympathy" for those who thought he was saying that their loved one had no right to exist.

"I would never dream of saying to any person, 'you should have been aborted before you were born,'" he writes.

But for many, especially the relatives of people with Down's syndrome, the comments have caused anger and upset. One mother, who has a child with the genetic condition wrote: "I would fight till my last breath for the life of my son. No dilemma."

And another user tweeted: "What do we do when we're all physically and mentally perfect? Congratulate ourselves on eradicating the need to help each other?"

For Anthony Ozimic, communications manager of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) Dawkins's comments raise the argument about when human life begins. "All unborn children, whether disabled or not, are equal members of the human family, and therefore have an equal right to life with the rest of humanity," he says. "As a scientist, Dawkins should know better than to deny that human life begins at conception. As a former foetus, I am against abortion in all circumstances."

But in a subsequent blog post outlining what he meant by his tweets, Dawkins writes that he supports those philosophers who say that an adult, a child and a baby should all be granted the rights of a person. "An early fetus, before it develops a nervous system, should not," he concludes.

Twitter conversation between user saying: "@RichardDawkins 994 human beings with Down's Syndrome deliberately killed before birth in England and Wales in 2012. Is that civilised?" and Dawkins replying ".@AidanMcCourt Yes, it is very civilised. These are fetuses, diagnosed before they have human feelings."

For Caroline White, who wants attitudes to change towards Down's syndrome she says she is relieved and happy that she didn't know Seb had the condition when he was born.

"I cannot imagine my life without Seb," she says. "He breathes so much energy into our typical family. But I only know that now, now that I have him, now that I know him. I could never have known this when I was pregnant, having never met anybody with Down's and my mind full of outdated stereotypes."

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Did you hear the one about the blind comedian?

Jamie on stage

Blind comedian Jamie MacDonald tells BBC Ouch how he makes jokes about losing his sight and the sticky situations he finds himself in.

"I was in a supermarket buying fruit and the stall dividers were mirrors. I saw a hand reaching for the same apple as me and said sorry."

Apologising to his own hand was Jamie MacDonald's first clue that his eyesight had almost gone. The 34-year-old Glaswegian has the degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa, which became aggressive in his mid-to-late teens. It was a hard time, he says, but doesn't like to dwell on the negative moments. He sees a funny side to it and prefers to focus on that.

By way of example, MacDonald recalls a skiing trip: "The instructor made me put on a lot of high-visibility clothing and then, rather than shouting directions like I expected him to, put reins on me and guided me with those. We skied down that mountain like a high-visibility advert for triumph over adversity."

MacDonald was not always comfortable with his disability, though. It wasn't until his early 20s, while studying law at Aberdeen, that he realised he should use a "stick" or white cane. "It was probably the best thing I ever did," he says. "Life became easier and the reactions from my friends and family, which I feared, were all amazing." Their general feeling was that it was about time, he says.

MacDonald has always been something of the "funny man". Before studying law, he read history at the University of St Andrew's. There he founded a radio station where, on air, he made prank calls. "I would call up Oxford University," he says, "and ask if I could get on to their catering course."

Jamie standing with his white cane

After university, MacDonald headed for the City, and became a corporate financier, just before the credit crunch hit. Eventually redundancy gave him the excuse he needed to follow his comedy dream.

He is now happy to carry a cane and can be seen using it as a comedy prop on stage. While waving it about in the air during his stand-up show, MacDonald recreates being attacked by a wasp in the crockery isle of a department store.

Good prop it may be, but he says he has had no formal training on how to use it correctly.

Blind people are taught to sweep from left to right in front of them, making sure they are fully protected from all sides. "I don't sweep it," he says. "I poke and spin it around. I'm pretty lethal in a crowd."

MacDonald's comedy is described as anecdotal, character-driven and, he laughs, "observational".

His routine is peppered with stories about the encounters he has as a young, single blind guy at large. Instead of beer goggles, he talks of "ear goggles", where someone's voice sounds better after alcohol.

He tells his audiences that when you are blind, people can quickly slip from helpful to patronising. "I got chased down the street once by a man making a considerable effort to stop me. When he did, it was just to tell me that my lace was undone. He asked 'Do you want me to tie it for you?' When I said no, he attempted to high-five me."

Jamie MacDonald: That Funny Blind Guy 2 - The Good, the Stag and the Ugly is at Assembly George Square Studios until 25 August 2014 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.

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Photographing a changing body

Patricia Lay-Dorsey takes intimate photos of life with MS

On discovering she had multiple sclerosis, Patricia Lay-Dorsey decided to photograph how her body and her life have altered, and how she feels about it.

The Detroit-based artist was diagnosed with chronic progressive MS in 1988 when she was 45. At the time she was running marathons for fun and taking 200-mile bicycle tours.

Lay-Dorsey started taking self-portraits six years ago. She says it has made her think more positively about her body and hopes her work will change attitudes.

Interview by Dan Damon. Music by KPM Music.

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Lesser-known things about Asperger's syndrome

Albert Einstein writing an equation on a blackboard Albert Einstein is believed by some to have had Asperger's syndrome

When people hear the words Asperger's syndrome, they often think of children or Albert Einstein - even though he was never formally diagnosed. But here are some things about Asperger's that are less well known.

Asperger's syndrome, sometimes known as an autistic spectrum disorder, is a lifelong disability which affects people in many different ways.

While there are similarities with autism, people with Asperger's syndrome have fewer problems with speaking and don't usually have the associated learning disabilities.

They sometimes call themselves aspies for short. In recognition of the fact that their brains are wired differently, people with autism and Asperger's say that they are "neuro-untypical". They call people who don't have either disability "neurotypicals", or NTs.

And that's just for starters. Here are some more lesser-known or misunderstood aspects of Asperger's syndrome from those who know.

Is it mainly a boy thing?

Although Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger thought it only affected boys when he first described the syndrome back in 1944, research since has found that there are likely to be a similar number of females on the spectrum.

The National Autistic Society says that because of the male gender bias, girls are less likely to be identified with autism spectrum disorders, even when their symptoms are equally severe. Many girls are never referred for diagnosis and are missed from the statistics altogether.

Two men and a woman all on the spectrum share a drink at a social event People of both genders on the spectrum at a National Autistic Society event

Asperger's affects females in a slightly different way. Girls will have special interests but instead of building up an incredible wealth of knowledge on subjects like trains or dinosaurs - like boys with Asperger's might - they tend to like the same things as neurotypical girls their age, albeit in a more focused way.

For example, a young girl with Asperger's might make it her business to collect all of the outfits that Barbie has ever worn.

Women and girls can find it easier to mask their difficulties, making the condition harder to recognise. It might only become obvious at around age 11, when the pressure to be the same as friends gets too much.

Some girls with Asperger's will manage to keep their difficulties under wraps at school, but might have "meltdowns" at home, where they feel safe to relax and release the feelings that they have been squashing down all day.

What is a meltdown?

A meltdown is where a person with autism or Asperger's temporarily loses control because of emotional responses to environmental factors. They aren't usually caused by one specific thing.

Triggers build up until the person becomes so overwhelmed that they can't take in any more information. It has been described as feeling like a can of cola that has been shaken up, opened and poured out, emotions flowing everywhere.

A portrait picture of a girl holding her hands over her ears

They can look like a common or garden tantrum, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can't be stopped by giving the person their own way.

Dependent on the cause of meltdown, it may be best to help the person leave the situation they find distressing. Everyone is different but some say that what they need to recover from a meltdown is being left alone in a place where they feel safe, listening to music, having a bath or sleeping.

After a meltdown the person often feels ashamed, embarrassed, and very tired.

Is everyone diagnosed with AS a genius?

There are people with Asperger's who have a high IQ and others who don't. A person on the spectrum could be better at maths then a neurotypical but some even have dyscalculia, a specific difficulty with numbers.

The amazing abilities that some people like Raymond from the film Rain Man have with maths and dates are because of savant syndrome - a separate condition from Asperger's. Some people on the spectrum may have it, but not all.

It is not unusual for someone on the autism spectrum to have a co-occurring condition. These range from Coeliac disease and other digestive problems, to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There is no definitive answer to why this is the case.

Do people with Asperger's have empathy?

Contrary to popular belief, people with Asperger's do have empathy. They care about how others are thinking and feeling but they often have difficulty putting themselves in other people's shoes. This is a skill that can be learned over time.

Two couples holding hands

Trouble picking up how others are thinking or feeling via tone of voice or body language can make people with Asperger's appear less than empathetic when they don't mean to be.

The autism community talks about the double bind empathy problem. This is where neurotypicals can seem less than empathetic - by failing to take into account how people with autism see the world. They might ignore the fact that autistic people have a tendency to take things literally, asking someone to take a seat rather than sit down.

How do you say Asperger('s) syndrome?

A hard or soft "G"? Like burger, or like merger?

  • The disability is named after Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger, whose surname is pronounced with a hard "G", like burger.
  • Many in the Asperger's community, and relevant charities, say Asperger's syndrome with a hard "G". Merriam-Webster dictionary also has this pronunciation.
  • But some other dictionaries use a soft "G", like Merger, in their online audio pronunciations of Asperger's. The written dictionaries mention both versions.
Asperger Do apostrophe tiles exist?

With or without an apostrophe before the final s?

  • The UK's biggest autism charity, the National Autistic Society, writes Asperger syndrome without an apostrophe and final s.
  • Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Asperger's Foundation write Asperger's with an apostrophe and final s. This is the author's preference and is used in this article.
Does it officially exist?

In March 2013, Asperger's syndrome was removed from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Instead, people with the same set of difficulties who are diagnosed using the DSM after that time are described as having an autism spectrum disorder.

But people who were assessed before March 2013 keep their original diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome.

The DSM is the mental health diagnostic bible for US doctors, but UK doctors tend to refer to the World Health Organisation's International Classification of Diseases (ICD) instead.

No similar change has been made to this manual, and so UK doctors continue to diagnose Asperger's syndrome.

The term is much used in the international autism community and is part of many people's identities. It is likely that many in the US will continue to say that they have Asperger's, despite the changes.

Examples of typical difficulties that may be faced by someone with Asperger's syndrome
  • Understanding non-verbal communication, such as body language or tone
  • Interpreting the feelings, thoughts or motives of others
  • Relating to non-literal uses of language, such as idioms, jokes or irony
  • Following social conventions such as respecting another person's physical space
  • Depending on familiar routines and feeling anxious if these are not adhered to
  • Experiencing sensory difficulties, for example being overpowered by visual, auditory or tactile stimuli
  • Limits to body awareness, for example walking round obstacles or carrying out fine motor tasks.

(Source: BBC Skillswise)


Robyn Steward was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome at 11. She is a trainer and consultant, as well as a National Autistic Society (NAS) ambassador.

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Chopsticks: A Japanese access issue

Woman with one finger holding specially adapted chopsticks

In Japan, chopsticks are a cultural instrument, universally used and understood for the role they play. But for disabled people who may have limited movement in their hands, or missing fingers, they can be tricky to use.

In the UK, using chopsticks badly might be met with laughter from friends and a bashful grab for a spoon. But in Japan, it's a matter of far greater importance - particularly if your disability stops you from using them in the accepted way.

Michael Peckitt is a UK national who has been living in Japan for two years. He has cerebral palsy and, a little shaky himself, believes that holding chopsticks in a non-standard way is viewed as a "social deviance".

"There is a proper way to do things," he says. "Simply holding chopsticks incorrectly wouldn't get you thrown out of a restaurant of course, but someone, usually a waiter or waitress, will laugh it off to excuse your failure to follow the 'Japanese way'. Of course, people who are physically disabled find it very difficult to follow these etiquettes."

Food is a very important element of Japanese culture and the use of chopsticks an integral component of Japanese identity says Chris Perkins, a lecturer in Japanese at the University of Edinburgh. He adds, "it would be very strange to see a Japanese person in a restaurant eating with a spoon or fork" - something a less dexterous disabled person might have to do.

Chopsticks are mentioned as early as 1,400 years ago in the Kojiki book - a chronicle of Japanese history thought to have been written in 712 AD. But historians believe they made their way to Japan from China via Korea much earlier than this, and have been a fundamental part of Japanese eating since.

Close of person using usual chopsticks to pick up soya beans

Katsuyuki Miyabi, a Japanese craftsman, doesn't think anybody should be excluded from this age-old tradition and is custom-making chopsticks for clients who are disabled.

Based in the Fukui prefecture of Japan, Miyabi's solution is spring-operated, and requires little strength and dexterity to use. Although they look like chopsticks, they operate almost like tongs. Squeeze them together to pick up food, and once the pressure is released, they spring back open.

Individually designed, Miyabi says each set of chopsticks needs to meet the specific needs of the owner. For example, a person lacking a thumb would need a completely different design to somebody who has paralysis.

A close up of the specially designed spring controlled chopsticks The individually designed chopsticks are spring-operated
A line of specially crafted chopsticks on display. They have a thick, moulded wooden piece that fits into the hand and is moulded to the shape of the palm and thumb. They are screwed together and a spring is inside. Out of that comes the two long thin chopsticks.

Miyabi meets clients face-to-face. First they choose the style of chopstick together, then Miyabi carves them according to the precise shape and measurement of the client's hand, and factors in other disability needs such as strength. The end result is a pair of bespoke chopsticks, uniquely suited to the individual client.

According to the Japanese cultural blog Spoon & Tamago, the meetings are not just so Miyabi can simply get measurements, but also so he can understand how the disability of clients affects them in daily life.


Chopstick etiquette in Japan

  • Food should not be passed from one person's chopsticks to another
  • After eating, if the chopsticks are not disposable, they should be placed with the tips raised on a rest
  • Chopsticks should not be tapped or banged on the side of a bowl
  • The thicker end of chopsticks should be used when transferring food to an individual bowl, unless a separate pair of "serving" chopsticks are provided
  • Chopsticks should not be placed upright in a bowl of rice
  • Food should not be stabbed with chopsticks

(Source: Fabio Gygi, lecturer in Japanese anthropology, SOAS)


The correct use of chopsticks is not just a matter for the Japanese dinner table, as Alan Cummings from London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) explains. "In Japanese funerals, relatives use chopsticks to pick pieces of their loved ones bones out of the ashes to place them in the urn."

Cremations in Japan are different and pieces of bone remain after the tissues and organs have gone. The bones are then passed between relatives with chopsticks.

"Sometimes relatives hold the same piece of bone with their individual chopsticks," says Cummings. "This is the only time that two people's chopsticks may touch. In all other circumstances this is a reminder of the funeral process and taboo."

With rituals like this central to Japanese life, and death, disabled people could benefit from accessible chopsticks rather than resorting to Western cutlery.

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'My beautiful Down's son'

Seb on holiday playing around the swimming pool

The case of the Australian couple accused of abandoning a baby born with Down's syndrome, has made Caroline White - whose son has the disability - determined to change attitudes.

I have been saddened by the recent coverage of baby Gammy, a child with Down's syndrome born to a Thai surrogate. It shocked me that we still attach a value to people's lives. We are talking about twin babies here. Twins, who shared a womb for nine months and share the same birthday. Yet the way they have been treated has been very different.

I am forever grateful that I did not know that my six-year-old son Seb had Down's syndrome until he was in my arms. A pre-natal diagnosis would have sent me into a frenzy of fear, but thankfully I had no choice but to get to know my baby, and fall head-over-heels in love with him. Gammy's Australian parents have said that they didn't know until late in the pregnancy that he had Down's, and his father has said that if they had he "probably" would have asked the surrogate to abort. This isn't surprising. After all, more than 90% of positive pre-natal diagnoses in the UK end in abortion.

Start Quote

I see everywhere we go how Seb touches people with his vibrant personality, his lust for life and giant, beaming smile”

End Quote

But Seb, in six tiny years, has taught me more than any words or textbook or Facebook page ever could and I would not swap a single thing about him or our lives together. I now have a very different attitude and understanding, not just to Down's syndrome or disability, but generally in life. I now do see that we are born equals, all with our own different and unique strengths and weaknesses, we are all of equal value and it saddens me that others cannot see this.

It seems it is only those of us who have a child or relative with Down's, or those who have worked with children with Down's, who are not afraid of it.

I see everywhere we go how Seb touches people with his vibrant personality, his lust for life and giant, beaming smile. People always comment on how gorgeous he is - "a blessing". Sometimes it may be patronising, or pitying, but most of the time it seems genuine.

Caroline with Seb in the back of a car

And Seb does stand out - but largely due to his incredible social skills and impeccable manners - not because he has an extra chromosome. Seb makes friends with other children, eats in restaurants, plays table tennis, and loves swimming.

Yet there is still talk of the "risk" of having a child with Down's syndrome. Risk is a word associated with danger. It is placing your life savings, your house and your car on one number on a roulette wheel. I have lost count of the number of friends and colleagues who have told me, excitedly, that their pregnancy is "low risk for Down's". I am not silly enough to think anyone wishes to have a child with Down's, and I would be a hypocrite for being offended. After all, I was relieved with my subsequent pregnancies too that I was low "risk". But the word hurts me because, without realising it, people are telling me they are delighted they are at a low risk of having a child like mine. Such a big deal is placed on testing for Down's that it only serves to (wrongly) send fear through those who receive a positive diagnosis. I know it did for me, at first.

If we could replace risk with "chance" I think we would make a small bit of difference.

I can't help but wonder how the people who have interacted with Seb would feel if they themselves were told they had a high risk of their child or grandchild having Down's. I imagine they'd be full of fear too, but I like to think that Seb changes outdated attitudes wherever he goes, and I am sure this is true to a point.

People need to stop placing a value on babies' lives. They cannot be treated like a commodity, an accessory and a right. Both of the twins in the Thai surrogacy case have the right to equality and the potential to enrich and change the lives of those around them for the better - as Seb does for us.

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I'm not here to inspire, I'm here to make people laugh

Three disabled performers talk about their experiences of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Disabled performers are often put in the "inspirational performance" category whenever they get up on stage, but for this year's crop of disabled comics at the Edinburgh Fringe, they couldn't care less about that particular moniker.

Self-proclaimed "Touretteshero" Jess Thom is enjoying sold out performances of her first ever Edinburgh show Backstage In Biscuit Land.

"Humour is an incredible way of encouraging people to think differently about something," she says. But she knows that she is first and foremost a performer - changing attitudes is secondary.

Veteran Edinburgh stand up comic, Laurence Clark feels similarly. "I'm not here to inspire people, I'm here to make them laugh. If I've made them laugh then I've done my job."

To watch a version without subtitles, click here

Video journalist: Kate Monaghan

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Brain injury woman publishes diary of steps to recovery

Faiza in hospital

A brain injured mother has written a memoir she can refer to, so that her husband doesn't have to keep repeating the same stories over and over. Coupled with medical information, she has self-published the book and hopes it will prove a useful resource for others.

Faiza Siddiqui, not her real name, was a secondary school physics teacher in Oxford until one Saturday morning in 2009 when the car she was driving hit a van head on.

The 32-year-old received a serious traumatic head injury and has been left with frontal lobe brain damage. She had been driving on the wrong side of the road, although it has been difficult to establish whether something had started to go wrong inside her head before the accident. After spending six weeks in a coma, she woke to find she had no memory of the previous two years.

Siddiqui has been recovering slowly and learning strategies for life. Aside from the memory problems, she has limited use of one arm because of the brain damage. Her book, Diary of a Headcase, joins her personal experience with what text books say about this type of injury.

The book was written under a pen name because of details she has included about her post-injury sex life. Four months ago - five years after her accident - she gave birth to her first child.

Faiza Siddiqui spoke to Ouch with a little support from husband Ben.

Is it difficult being a mother with a brain injury?

Annabelle is a good sleeper, which is very important for me because once I get tired, I go a bit weird. I can't walk straight, I lose my balance and I make stupid judgments. All the disability forums say that babies adapt, and she has got used to not being held very securely. I would never drop her, but I have to dig my thumbs in.

Do you have strategies to help you remember things?

If I have to remember a shopping list, like bread, sugar and milk, I think of my route from home to the coach stop for school which I did every day when I was 14. Along that road in my mind, I'll imagine really big images to represent each thing on the list. For bread, I think of the sitcom Bread and the brown ceramic hen that the family put their money in. Sugar is a word [used in place of a swear word] so I think of dog mess that I might have stepped in on the way to school. Milk is a black-and-white daisy cow with big udders at the traffic lights, with cars trying to avoid it. It's the same technique I used for my exams at school, so when they mentioned it in hospital I knew it was something I could do.

How has the brain injury changed you?

That is a hard question. Is it because my brain's been meshed and damaged and interfered with, or have I changed because of this life-changing experience? And it is hard to answer honestly because it's difficult to see all the things that I am now, as not just being a damaged version of the old me. My memory is worse and I tend to get stuck in a cycle. I have to stop and notice that I've been going around in circles for quite a long time. I have to force myself to step back and ask myself a few set questions like: "What is it like from the other person's point of view?" "What patterns keep coming up?" "What are you thinking again and again?" It's a horrible way of being because it involves me saying that I am, actually, brain damaged.

Why did you write Diary of a Headcase?

When I asked Ben to tell me about parts of my life, he would get annoyed because he had told me before. He strongly encouraged me to write it all down. Now, I remember bits of my book better than I remember the thing itself... but it has helped me make sense of what my memories are.

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Deaf tech could transform lives

A close up of William wearing the Google Glass. The glass screen goes directly across his eye and his is pressing a button at the side of the glass

There are many new technologies that can help people with disabilities, like live subtitling 24/7 for deaf people, but how well do they work?

Deaf people always remember the first time a new technology came on the scene, and made life just that little bit easier in a hearing world.

I've had many firsts. Television subtitles, text phones, the advent of the internet and texting all opened up opportunities for me to connect with the wider world and communicate more easily.

Start Quote

After a while tiredness overtakes excitement and I take the headset off”

End Quote

So when I first heard about Google Glass - wearable technology that positions a small computer screen above your right eye - I was excited. Live subtitling 24/7 and calling up an in-vision interpreter at the touch of a button. Remarkably both seemed possible.

That was a year ago. Since then, Tina Lannin of 121 Captions and Tim Scannell of Microlink have been working to make Google Glass for deaf people a reality. They agreed to let me test out their headset for the day.

First impressions are that it feels quite light, but it is difficult to position so that the glass lens is directly in front of your eye.

Once you get it in the "sweet spot" you can see a small transparent screen, it feels as though it is positioned somewhere in the distance, and is in sharp focus. The moment you get the screen into that position feels like another first - another moment when the possibilities feel real.

But switching your focus from the screen to what's going on around you can be a bit of a strain on the eyes. Looking "up" at the screen also makes me look like I'm a bad actor trying to show that I've had an idea, or that I'm deep in thought.

The menu system is accessed in two ways. There is a touch screen on the side which can be swiped back and forth, up and down, and you tap to select the option you want.

An example of the live subtitles. It reads ">>Lovely. So we have the option of continuing everything as it stands and trying to fit in if we get" Google glass can be used for live subtitling

Or you can control it by speaking, but this can be difficult if you're deaf. Saying "OK Glass" to activate voice commands can be a bit hit and miss if your voice is not clear, like mine.

One of the main problems is the "wink to take a picture" setting. But I wink a lot. I also blink a lot. So I turn that setting off.

After a few minutes of reading online articles via Glass, it's time to test out live remote captioning software in the real world. Lannin and Scannell's service is called MiCap, a remote captioning service that works on several platforms - laptop, tablet, smartphone, e-book and Google Glass.

We set up in a quiet meeting room. After some fiddling with wi-fi and pairing various devices, we put a tablet in the middle of the table as our "listener", and put the headset on. As three of my colleagues engage in a heated discussion about the schedule for programme 32 of See Hear, the remote captioner, listening somewhere in the cloud, begins to transcribe what they are hearing.

William in a meeting. There are three other people at the desk and lots of notes

My first reaction is amazement. The captions scrolling across the screen in front of my eye are fast, word perfect, with a tiny time delay of one or two seconds. It is better than live subtitling seen on television, not to mention most palantypists who convert speech to text. I can follow everything that is being said in the room. Even more impressively, this is the first time that the app has been tested in a meeting. I can look around, listen a bit, and read the subtitles if I miss something.

But after a while, tiredness overtakes excitement, and I take the headset off.

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. The new series begins on 15 October.

The headset itself is uncomfortable and fiddly, but despite this my first experience of Google Glass was enjoyable. It doesn't offer anything that I can't already do on my smartphone but the ability to look directly at someone at the same time as reading the subtitles, does make social interaction more "natural".

I am excited about the apps and software being developed by deaf-led companies in the UK. Not just remote captioning - also remote sign language interpreting. UK company SignVideo are already the first to offer live sign language interpreting via the Android and iOS platforms, and say that they'll attempt a Google Glass equivalent in the future if demand is high enough.

Other companies such as Samsung and Microsoft are developing their own forms of smart glass and wearable technology and as the innovations reach the mainstream the range of applications which could help disabled people seems likely to grow.

There are lots of exciting tech firsts to come but I still prefer a more old-fashioned technology - the sign-language interpreter. They're temperamental, and they might make mistakes too, but they're fast, adaptable, portable - and they don't need tech support when things go wrong.

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A disabled model in a 'perfect' world

Can advertisers be persuaded to use more disabled models?

In a new advert for disability charity Scope, model Jack Eyers strips down to his underpants, revealing not only his torso but also his prosthetic leg.

According to campaigning group Models of Diversity there are too few disabled models making it into the world of "perfect" bodies. "There aren't really any disabled model role-models in the public eye," says Eyers. "It's just assumed this isn't a path a disabled person would go down, whether they look good or not."

Disabled models have been used in high-street campaigns in the past but Eyers says these models are often dropped after the initial publicity dies down.

BBC News went to meet Jack Eyers on a shoot and spoke to him and others involved in the Scope campaign about ambition, beauty and the world of advertising.

To watch a version of this video without subtitles, click here

Video journalist: Kate Monaghan

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Deafness, by those in the know

Person signing

Beyond being unable to hear, there's quite a lot about deaf people and culture that non-deaf people may be unaware of. Here are five lesser-known things from those in the know.

How have advancements in technology helped people who are deaf?

It wasn't so long ago that deaf people had to use Royal Mail to arrange to meet up for a drink and hope their letter hadn't got lost in the post, so technology such as basic SMS texting has taken the "hit and miss" away from life if you can't hear.

Twenty years ago most people were dependent on phone calls to chat, talk at work, or to do business. This was a problem for deaf people, many of whom find it impossible to hear voices on telephone lines.

Around this time were innovations such as the textphone which allowed deaf people to type to one another with their words appearing on a screen, and many deaf people bought fax machines to exchange messages quickly.

The internet too has been transformative for how deaf people communicate, many are avid users of social networks like Facebook where they set up groups, create events or campaign for better rights.

For those whose preferred language is BSL, it's easy to sign or lip-read to each other via video services on the internet. Those all-important status updates can contain videos in which people sign about how their day has been. Video is often used for more formal reasons, such as getting in touch with companies to enquire about services.

Start Quote

A deaf person living in Bristol may sign the number six with their little finger, a deaf person living in London may sign the number six with their thumb”

End Quote British Sign Language Corpus Project

Hearing aids and cochlear implants are becoming more sophisticated. Sound can be made much clearer with the use of Bluetooth connections to phones or music players. New inventions claim to be able to translate between BSL and English, automatically capturing, interpreting and creating sign language.

Do all deaf people sign?

No. The number of people who use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language is often estimated to be around 70,000 people, though the British Deaf Association says the figure is more like 150,000. It's thought that over 800,000 people in the UK are severely or profoundly deaf and certainly there are many deaf people who do not use BSL.

Sign language users often identify themselves as being part of the "Deaf" community, taking pride in using BSL and being part of a "Deaf" culture rather than being lowercase-d "deaf", which describes those for whom the hearing loss aspect dominates.

Many deaf people continue to use English as their first language. They may wear hearing aids or cochlear implants to make the most of the hearing they have, and use helpful communication like lip-reading instead of learning sign. Other alternatives include Sign Supported English (where you sign many of the spoken English words unlike BSL which is a language with its own grammar and order) or cued speech (lip-reading enhanced by gestures to explain the sounds that can't be easily read from the lip movements).

Are sign languages the same across the world?

Sign languages vary from country to country. There are significant differences between BSL and American Sign Language (ASL) for example, including even the basic English alphabet which is conveyed by the fingers and known as fingerspelling. In the UK, we use two hands for this while Americans use one hand.

A selection of signs from the International Sign Language International Sign is used to communicate with people who sign in a different language

There are regional differences in BSL, as there are in most languages, because of how sign language evolved over the years in deaf clubs and schools around the country.

For example, the BSL Corpus Project found that while "a deaf person living in Bristol may sign the number six with their little finger, a deaf person living in London may sign the number six with their thumb."

At international conferences or events like the Deaflympics, deaf people can use International Sign which employs iconic universally understood gestures to help bridge the language barrier.

One unique facet of sign language is that many deaf people have sign names which are mostly created by their friends and are often related to something personal like an interest or habit they might have. So, for example, someone who talks a lot could be given the sign name Waffle.

Is it easy to lip-read?

Crime dramas often depict deaf people lip-reading across rooms, or working out what murder suspects are saying on CCTV, but the harsh reality is that around 70% of lip-reading is guesswork. This means it's easy for deaf people to make mistakes, or get very tired after concentrating hard on someone's mouth.

Most deaf people have an embarrassing story of something they misunderstood in public, much to the hilarity of everyone around them. For example, it's well known in deaf circles that mouthing the words "elephant's shoes" without making a vocal sound looks remarkably similar to saying "I love you" if you're lip-reading.

Think you can lip-read?

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Take the Ouch lip-reading test

The good news is that the more practice deaf people have, the better they get at lip-reading. Some deaf people have even made a good living from lip-reading celebrities at major events, such as the World Cup, or the Royal Wedding.

And how many deaf people are there in the UK?

More than most people think. Deafness is often described as being the 'invisible disability,' because it's not immediately obvious to people that someone is deaf - unless they spot their hearing aids or see them signing. It's estimated that one in six people are deaf to some degree which translates as 10 million people in the UK. Numbers are set to rise, with Action on Hearing Loss expecting them to reach 14.5 million by 2031 - they attribute this number to people listening to loud music on portable music players.

Charlie Swinbourne is a deaf journalist and editor of The Limping Chicken, a popular blog which looks at deaf issues from a personal perspective.

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Curious Asperger's comedy incidents

Holding a keyboard

A man with Asperger's syndrome finds being a professional stand-up comic easier than any office job. Why?

Robert White had 67 jobs in seven years and kept getting fired due to his often very literal interpretation of life, born of having Asperger's syndrome.

"A team leader in one call-centre where I worked had a list of rules on everything," he says. "It didn't specifically say that I was not allowed to wear a Gareth Gates' mask. So I made one from a magazine and wore it for three hours." He was asked to leave.

Now a stand-up comedian, White is happier and says it's far easier to understand than an average office situation. He says: "On stage, I can make jokes in the context of making jokes. Saying the same things at work was perceived as a misunderstanding of the social situation and seen as inappropriate."

In promotional material, White calls himself an Asperger's, gay, dyslexic, cross-lateral, web-toed, ex-con, musical comedian. "Cross-lateral" means that unusually, his dominant eye is on the opposite side of his body to his dominant hand.

White's new Edinburgh Fringe show, The Curious Incident of the Gag and the Gun-Crime, is a play on the title of the popular book about a teenager with Asperger's but also refers to an incident that landed him in prison for three months.

Start Quote

I write things on my hand to remind myself how I should be”

End Quote

The explanation of how he found himself in prison is characteristically complicated. When a relationship ended he admits his actions were not standard ones. "A normal person would get very drunk but, because I have Asperger's, I decided to play a practical joke which got misconstrued by the police..."

He won't go into detail about what happened for fear of giving away too much about his Fringe show but says: "Prison was easier for me than for a lot of people because I'm someone who exists in my head, while many people [in prison] are very physically active."

While on remand, White became depressed and composed music in his mind to "heal" himself. "There wasn't any proper paper and pens to write it down with, so I started spreading toothpaste over newspapers and pulled my fingers through it to write notes," he says. This led to a spell in the psychiatric wing and the assessment which gave him the belated Asperger's diagnosis.

White's comedy is an energetic and unpredictable mix of audience participation, improvised songs with keyboard accompaniment, and groan-worthy one-liners with wordplay such as: "My present boyfriend is unusual, because it is unusual to get a partner as a gift."

Before each show he prepares himself to counteract the natural Asperger's syndrome responses he might have when on stage.

"I write things on my hand to remind myself how I should be - to program in aspects of social interactions," White says. "On one finger I put, 'just do, keep on', because it is very tempting to melt down or even shut down if something difficult occurs.

"On another finger I write 'groan' to remind myself that the audience groaning is not always a negative thing. They might be doing the pantomime thing and actually enjoying it."

*Robert White's the Curious Incident of the Gag and the Gun-Crime… Plus More Stuff! is at Heroes at the Hive as part of the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh.

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Learning disabled care campaign

Connor Sparrowhawk Connor Sparrowhawk died in a care centre in 2013

People with learning disabilities can find themselves in care hundreds of miles from home and their loved ones, with little or no choice on how they should be looked after, campaigners say. Now there are calls for a change in the law to allow disabled people and their families the statutory right to decide what kind of care and treatment is best.

Sara Ryan's son Connor Sparrowhawk was 18 when he died during a stay at an NHS in-patient unit for people with learning difficulties in Headington, Oxfordshire. He had autism, epilepsy and a learning disability and had been assessed there for four months at the time of his death.

Angry that he had died in a place meant to keep him safe, Ryan started a social media campaign under the name Justice for LB (Connor's nickname was Laughing Boy) which has gathered a huge amount of support and funding towards legal representation for an inquest into her son's death- a campaign which is ongoing.

Using that same support, another more ambitious campaign has emerged which is attempting to initiate a private members' bill - the LB Bill - to try and put the choices of disabled people and their families at the heart of the decision-making process.

The idea began with blogger Mark Neary who says: "I think we should be starting with the fundamental principle that a learning disabled person should be living in their own home, whether that be with their family, on their own with support, in a small group. If the state then thinks otherwise they should have to prove their case before a court." Such issues are close to home for Neary whose autistic son Steven Neary was unlawfully placed in a care unit for a year in 2009. The judge concluded that the council's use of a "deprivation of liberty" order unlawfully deprived Stephen of his freedom.

Mark Neary and his autistic son Steven Steven Neary (right) was placed in care away from his father for a year

Lawyer and disability campaigner Steve Broach quickly got in touch with Mark Neary to offer his support to the LB Bill. He says that their proposition is in agreement with one of the fundamentals in Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the right to independent living.

He argues that at present, in the UK system, ratification does not give disabled people an enforceable right to independent living - because for rights in international treaties to become real here, they have to be "incorporated" into the law through an Act of Parliament.

"What we are hoping for," he says, "is that we will make this into such a big issue that MPs cannot ignore it. We are struggling with a huge social question. Why are people with learning disabilities being put in these facilities? This campaign feels exciting, it's incredibly authentic and feels like it may be a tipping point." But he is keen to be realistic. "It's very early days. We need to spend the next few months really figuring out what should go in the Bill."

Connor Sparrowhawk's death reignited debate about assessment and treatment units. In 2011 abuse of patients with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View, a privately run unit, was exposed by BBC's Panorama. In the wake of the scandal, the Department of Health and a wide range of groups including NHS England, and the Local Government Association, signed a concordat that pledged to "support everyone inappropriately placed in hospital to move to community-based support as quickly as possible and no later than 1 June 2014."

Start Quote

People ask 'why don't I move to Birmingham?' That would take away Josh's chance to come home. ”

End Quote Phil Wills

Earlier this year the Care Services Minister Norman Lamb said that the effort to move people with learning disabilities out of hospital had been an "abject failure". The June target date came and went and disabled people and their families are still waiting.

One such family is that of Josh Wills, a 13-year-old with severe autism. His father Phil Wills says his son self harms so badly that his life is in danger and so needs specialist care. Until he was eleven Josh lived in Cornwall with his family where his father says he was content - he used to run on the dunes, skip in the park with his friend and visit the shops.

When the teenager's self harming increased in July 2012 it was decided, by the local NHS commissioning group, that he needed to be placed in a unit. The unit that was chosen was in Birmingham, 260 miles away from home. His parents, Phil Wills and Sarah Pedley, agreed because there was nothing suitable locally and it would be just for a six month assessment period to give everyone an understanding of the support and services Josh needed.

Almost two years later, Josh is still in Birmingham - a five-hour trip for his family. His self-harming has become so bad that he bit off part of his tongue and has recently needed surgery on an infected hand.

Josh with his dad Phil Josh Wills' parents visit their son in Birmingham on alternate weekends

Josh's father is keen to stress that the care his son has received is excellent but the problem for them is that Cornwall is his home where he's comfortable and where his family are.

"People ask why I don't move to Birmingham," he says, "but that is taking away Josh's chance to come home."

Last week the Wills family received good news when Care Minister Norman Lamb summoned them to Westminster to tell them that he will ensure Josh returns to his community.

Unable to give a definitive date, Lamb says of the situation: "People with complex needs deserve the best possible care, in their own communities with the right support. I have shared the concern and frustrations of Josh's parents. I am pleased that progress is now being made."

Now it has announced that a new steering group will prepare a guide on care for people with learning disabilities which will be released in October. Headed up by Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the Charity leaders' organisation, Acevo, NHS England announced that the group will also include healthcare, charity and voluntary sectors, as well as people with learning disabilities and their families. Campaigners including Broach and Neary are, however, concerned that there has been little information about the latter so far.

Claire Dyer Claire Dyer has told her family she does not want to be far away from them

But Sir Stephen wants everyone to join forces on this issue. "People with learning disabilities, communities, charities and social enterprises must come together to realise this vision - and I hope as many people as possible will share their knowledge, expertise and experience to shape what we do and how we do it."

Jan Tregelles, chief executive of Mencap, who sits on the steering groups adds it will produce a blueprint for developing the services needed to ensure that people with a learning disability can be well supported in their communities. "Ultimately this will end the unacceptable culture of long term placements in inpatient units, where people are at significant risk of abuse and neglect," she says.

Disabled campaigners are keen that decisions are made soon. A court hearing on Friday will decide whether or not a 20-year-old autistic woman, Claire Dyer, will be moved to a specialist unit in Brighton, 240 miles from her home. The campaigners are hopeful that if their Bill is successful it could signal the end of such long-distance care for people with learning difficulties and lead to significantly improved community care.

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Prosthetics, by those who know

Four prosthetic legs

Ever more sophisticated these days, prosthetic legs come in all shapes and sizes with various accessories, and amputees can get quite geeky about the subject. Here are five lesser-known things about prosthetic legs from those in the know.

On becoming an amputee, do you get a leg straight away?

After amputation the residual limb (or stump as many amputees prefer) can be very sensitive. Physiotherapists and doctors advise getting up and walking as soon as possible to build up strength and halt swelling.

To achieve this, amputees get their first taste of artificial limbs when using an inflatable walking aid designed for partial weight-bearing. The residual limb goes in a cage-like device which is then pumped full of air to hold it in place.

A man wearing the PPAM Aid

This allows new amputees to take their first steps and find out what wearing a prosthetic leg feels like while holding on to the parallel bars at first. Many say that when they first saw the device, known as a Pneumatic Post-amputation Mobility Aid, they thought it looked like an old-fashioned device from the First World War.

Can amputees wear high heels?
Aimee Mullins is a double below-knee amputee pictured here wearing heels Aimee Mullins is an American model and actress and double below-knee amputee

Yes, but those who want to wear heels will need legs which allow them to do so.

Wearing such shoes can be difficult at the best of times, ask a catwalk model, so wearing heels with prosthetics on is no mean feat.

Heels push the centre of gravity forward and on prosthetics this can be hard to control and requires strong core stability - particularly difficult when walking on two prosthetics.

But how is it possible to get a slim and shapely high heeled shoe on if it's not possible to wriggle your foot into it? There is a button, usually on the inside of the leg by the ankle, which can be pressed and held in while you move the foot up and down until it's at the correct height. Let go of the button and the foot will stay in that position. Amputees say that they can get through shoe horns at a rate of knots.

The general consensus seems to be that walking on stiletto heels is hard and so a sturdier shoe like a wedge is better.

American model and actress and double below-knee amputee Aimee Mullins wear high heels in her prosthetics
Can I wear them in the shower?

Many components in a prosthetic leg are sensitive to moisture. Therefore most amputees take their legs off when showering. This is because it is not good for them to get wet but also because it is extremely important to keep stumps clean.

Some amputees prefer to do water sports or swim with their prosthetics on. This may be for practical reasons - ease of getting into a swimming pool or walking into the sea for example - or for aesthetic reasons as some amputees say they feel more self-conscious with their prosthetics off.

Solutions exist for this: there are waterproof airtight covers which fit on over the leg and keep the prosthetic protected. Or, there are limbs available which are more suited to going in the water.

Prosthetic leg on the beach
Amputee surfer Ryan West on his surfboard

If on a waterproof leg the wearer wants "cosmesis" which makes the leg look lifelike, it's possible but they fill up with water. To counteract this a hole is put in the back of the leg and when exiting water the build-up simply trickles out.

Can you take the stairs?

Ankle joints are at a right-angle in most prosthetics, a bit like tensing your feet up. Because of this, walking downstairs can be tricky, or painful, and can jar the remaining part of your leg. Going up and down hills or slopes pushes amputees forward and inclines push the prosthetics backwards meaning that as much weight must be put onto the front of the foot as possible. As this affects centre of gravity, some amputees may have to take extra care to stay balanced.

A man walking up stairs wearing one above knee prosthetic leg
Man walking down a ramp in a below knee prosthetic

Robotic ankles are being developed which allow the ankle joint to move from side-to-side as well as up and down in a more natural way.

Where do all the old legs go?

Many amputees collect a stockpile of prosthetics over the years and some don't know what to do with them. As the old ones grow old or unused many legs end up at the back of wardrobes.

Some people decide to make things out of their old prosthetics - lamps and coffee tables have been known - whereas others may throw them in the bin not knowing that there are even options for recycling.

A line of prosthetic legs

The components can be returned to a prosthetics centre to be used again if suitable. Or old prosthetics can be donated to charities which distribute them to amputees in other countries where they are not as readily available. They are disinfected, and re-fitted to somebody else's limb.

In the UK a used prosthetic leg is seen as a biohazard and cannot be used again in the EU.

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Playing French horn with no arms

Felix Klieser is a professional French horn player who was born with no arms.

Felix Klieser was born with no arms, so uses his feet to do most things. This includes eating, dressing, writing ... and being a professional French horn player.

The musician has toured with Sting, is working on a second album and has a diary full of concert bookings up to December 2015.

The 23-year-old German recently became an ambassador for the One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust (OHMI), which helps fund the development of adapted or specially designed instruments for musicians with one hand and other limb differences. Rising star Nicholas McCarthy, a one-handed pianist, also supports the charity and it is due to be mentioned in the House of Lords on Wednesday in a debate about giving disabled children equal opportunities to learn how to make music.

Felix Klieser spoke to Ouch:

How do you play the horn with no arms?
Felix standing against a tree

The instrument is on a stand. With my left foot, I press the keys which are known as valves. The mute, (which changes the sound), is on a separate stand that rolls. I use my right foot to move that in and out of the bell (the bit at the end of the horn). When I started playing at age four, the horn was on the ground and I sat in front of it to play, my head level with the mouthpiece. But when I grew up, that was no longer possible, so I started to think about how I would hold the instrument. I went to a creative person who can build strange things and told him what the problem was. He made my first stand, which was fixed and couldn't be dismantled. We developed and developed it and the one I have now is perfect. I can take it to pieces and transport it in a box.

Musicians usually alter the horn's sound by putting their right hand in the bell, do you do the same with your right foot?

No. The body should be relaxed while playing so putting my right foot in the bell wouldn't work. I change the sound with my mouth and my air stream instead and sometimes I don't know how I do it. If I want to play an emotion, I think of something, like being in a bath of warm water when it's raining outside. It's like when you speak and you are happy, you make a different sound to when you are sad. You can't explain what you are doing.

Can you play anything else?

I am fascinated by all the different things you can do with the horn and have never wanted to play another instrument. The horn is really rich, with lots of different colours. You can do many emotional things with it. A lot of Hollywood music is horn music. The violin always sounds the same, the piano sounds almost always the same, but the horn can make different types of sounds.

Felix playing the French horn with his left foot
Outside of music, why do you dislike talking about living with no arms?

Because my life is very easy. I am a musician and I want to play concerts; the rest is private for me. When you go on stage, you are in public, with a lot of people looking at you. I hate public life. I am what I am and I do what I do but I don't want to become famous, I just want to be a normal person. I want to give people a nice time and touch them with music. Music is not a technical thing for me, it is emotional.

Video: Berlin Classics

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New disability minister's challenge

Mark Harper

Britain has a new Minister of State for Disabled People - Mark Harper, MP for the Forest of Dean. As he gets to grips with his new brief - the fourth person to do so in this government - Kate Ansell outlines some of the responsibilities he has inherited.

The coalition is making substantial reductions to welfare spending, as well as making significant budget cuts elsewhere, as part of its reforms.

The new disability minister will be responsible for overseeing the wide-ranging changes to disability benefits, from the high living costs some disabled people have, to support for those who can't work at all, or those who find themselves temporarily unemployed.

He'll be taking on board recent rule changes to allowances which enable disabled people to work more effectively, and the narrowing of entitlements to funds which allow disabled students to access assistive technology and other services.

The government says they currently spend 50 billion pounds on disability benefits, and that Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claims alone have increased by 35% in the last decade. There may be some agreement that reform was needed, but campaign groups believe disabled people have been hit disproportionately by the changes.

Though often reported separately, it is possible that individuals are affected by more than one reform. For example, many of those who lose their entitlement to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) are likely to find themselves hit by cuts to DLA too.

Beyond benefits

The Independent Living Fund (ILF) - which gives financial support so that severely disabled people can live independently - is earmarked for closure next year. The government says that the money will be transferred to local authorities who will be solely responsible for care provision in the future, but the funds won't be ring-fenced, meaning local authorities could use it for other services.

Start Quote

People are finding their jobs in jeopardy because they've had support taken away, or reduced, or because they're waiting too long to know if they'll get support.”

End Quote Charlie Swinbourne Editor of deaf blog Limping Chicken

Sue Elsegood from Greenwich is 47 and has received ILF since the early 90s. She has a team of five paid personal assistants on rota and says she is "terrified" that her local authority will put her in residential care rather than pay for the level of support she currently receives with help from the ILF.

She has a room for her assistants at home and had to apply for a discretionary housing payment so she didn't have to pay what critics have dubbed the "bedroom tax". "It turned out fine, but it takes time and effort," she says.

DLA has been given to disabled people since 1991 to pay for extra costs related to disabilities. Now changing to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) the government says they want to help those with the greatest need. As a result, some people will lose the benefit.

Lisa Egan, who runs the campaigning blog Where's The Benefit? believes she meets the criteria for PIP, but is worried about being reassessed every few years - everyone will be, which is one of the major differences between DLA and PIP. She fears she will be turned down and have to appeal against the decision and is worried she won't receive support in the interim.

Ms Egan most fears the removal of Severe Disability Premium (SDP), a payment made to some disabled people on low incomes, which is being gradually cut as part of the changes to Universal Credit.

"My impairment causes overheating. I'm sitting here with three fans pointed at me. I forked out for a half-price air conditioner a couple of years ago." She also bought a dishwasher because she lacks the energy to cook and wash up - extra costs she says she couldn't have afforded without SDP, or DLA.

Sue Elsegood at a protest Sue Elsegood is concerned cuts to her benefits will mean she can no longer live independently
Access to Work

The government says the benefit changes are designed to help get disabled people into work and have also set up a programme to give employers confidence in employing disabled people, the other side of the employment problem - only 49% of disabled people have a job.

Those who can work but need support to do so can currently claim an Access to Work grant. Recently, however, criteria have been tightened and the system changed. The government says it has increased the funding available overall, but the changes have not been welcomed by everyone.

One of the groups hardest hit by these changes is deaf people. Charlie Swinbourne, editor of the Limping Chicken blog, says: "Our readers have told us that when they're trying to get support from Access to Work, they are often told to phone which is crazy considering they are deaf.

"People are finding their jobs in jeopardy because they've had support taken away, or reduced, or because they're waiting too long to know if they'll get support."

Last month, the government announced it was reviewing the changes, including the impact on deaf people, suspending some of the measures which affect deaf people in the meantime. Although this review has been welcomed, [Swinbourne says] uncertainty remains and adds to other work and welfare anxieties.

Local cuts

Outside the national benefits system, disabled people report that cuts to council and NHS budgets have had a huge impact on their lives. Jemma Brown has had direct experience of this. She is both blind and has mental health problems. She has been assessed and it has been agreed that she needs care but her local council will only pay a small proportion, indicating she will need to pay the rest. Brown says she can't because they haven't taken her debt into consideration. She says: "I was awarded seven pounds a week for care - putting me in a position where I can't afford the basic care I need to live a normal life."

Ms Brown has also been waiting over a year for a major needs assessment from an occupational therapist, but says that, on an everyday basis, cuts to council services have created a string of difficulties. She regularly walks into trees with overhanging branches because she can't see, she says this didn't happen before the council changed the way it manages open spaces to save money.

Campaigners carrying a banner saying "The Hardest Hit"

On a national level, the DWP told the BBC they carry out thorough impact assessments on all their policies, as well as equality impact assessments on any policies that might have a disproportionate affect on disabled people.

There's a general election next year, and the indications are that welfare reform will be a huge issue. Nick Clegg has withdrawn his support for the so called "bedroom tax" in its current form, stating he doesn't believe disabled adults should have to pay. This is a significant change, considering that it was his own party that helped vote the reform through in the first place, and commentators have speculated this U-turn is to win back votes.

It is another policy which has contributed to the much-reported general unrest in the disability community. "One of the biggest fears is uncertainty," says Sue Elsegood. "Things are very stressful at the moment. I'm anxious at not knowing what will happen. There are so many bureaucratic barriers."

More cuts are expected though charities and campaigners have already voiced concerns that disabled people have been too harshly affected by the austerity measures. It remains to be seen how Mark Harper will take on the challenge.

Kate Ansell is a disabled journalist specialising in social affairs. She has directed two Panorama films about the way welfare reform is affecting disabled people.

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Teaching blind choir conductors

How do you conduct a choir if you can't see the music or the performers in front of you?

How do you conduct a choir if you can't see the music or the performers in front of you?

Video has subtitles. To watch a version without subtitles, click here.

For blind opera singer Victoria Oruwari this is the challenge she faces as she joins four other visually impaired musicians who have come together for a conducting masterclass before publicly taking the baton and leading a performance of their chosen music at London's Wigmore Hall.

Run by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the class aims to help blind and visually impaired musicians gain a greater understanding of the role of a conductor as well as giving them the opportunity to learn from one of the country's best.

Victoria is completely blind and says that, when she's performing, she doesn't really think about what the conductor is doing. So having to master the skill in just one day is a real challenge, especially as she has to learn the complicated gestures by touch.

BBC News joined Victoria as she was put through her paces.

Video journalist: Kate Monaghan

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Autism school's legacy lives on

Paul Shattock's son Jamie was diagnosed with autism in 1975

Free schools for children with autism are gradually being setup in the UK by community groups, with another one due to open in Easter 2015. But in the 1970s, parents in Sunderland clubbed together to create what they saw as a real need back in a time when autism wasn't such a well-known disability.

In the 70s Paul Shattock's autistic son Jamie was six. Although they say he was a lovely child his parents - like many parents with autistic children - found they needed extra support.

"He slept 4 hours a night," says Shattock. "In the end the only option we had was for him to go to a residential school."

But the specialist centre available to them was in Aberdeen, some 394km (245m) away from their home in Sunderland. "I had to take him, that was the worst day of my life, I cried my eyes out and he did too," Shattock says.

Unhappy with his son being so far away, Shattock, who is the chairman of Education and Services for People with Autism in Tyne and Weir, wanted to do something to change the situation and so teamed up with local parents who had children on the autism spectrum.

Paul with Jamie Paul was desperate for his son Jamie to be closer to the family

They all wanted their children to be closer to home and still receive the correct care and education, so looked into setting up their own residential school.

The group started by purchasing a a former Jewish day school in Sunderland that needed quite some restoration. Despite raising the £70,000 needed to buy the building funds were low and the work was eventually done by the parents, with help from young unemployed people on Government training schemes.

"It was a wreck, a real 'seat of the pants' operation," says Shattock but reports there was tremendous support from the community. "We spent four years fundraising. Every working men's club in Sunderland had social events, we approached leek clubs, pigeon fanciers' associations, rotary clubs and round tables for funds…we tried everything. It was a Sunderland venture, a local venture."

By 1980 Shattock's mission to provide a local residential school for autistic children was complete.

On opening there were just two pupils in attendance. It was the first specialist autism school in the country offering a full residential service 52 weeks per year. But very quickly that figure grew to 12 children aged five to 16 and local authorities began to fund places.

Sunderland autism school's legacy lives on

But the school was the start of something much bigger. The founders realised there was a need for something more as the children became older and reached leaving age. The perceived need led to the setting up of a new college catering for young people aged over 16.

This time the parents took out bank loans secured against their houses in order to buy an old vicarage. It too is still running today and provides education placements for young people aged 13-19 yrs with autism, learning disabilities, other disabilities and/or mental illness.

Shattock with the mayor opening the school Paul Shattock (left) endeavoured to open a school for autistic children after his son Jamie was diagnosed in 1975

In 1998 Mr Shattock received an OBE for over 30 years of services to the autism community.

More on how free schools for children with autism are becoming more prevalent can be read here.

Film made by BBC North East Today.

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Being blind in Israel and Gaza

As fighting continues in Gaza and Israel, two blind women, one Israeli and one Palestinian, describe how they experience war through hearing it, and how it affects their lives.

"The sounds that come are different", says Dalal Al-Taji, a blind Palestinian woman from the Gaza strip. She lived through three previous wars, one in Lebanon and two in Gaza, prior to the current troubles and has become used to the noises of war. "I know when the bombings are coming from the sea," she says, "And I know when bombings are coming from planes because it's closer, high above your head.

"Another thing we have are drones. We call them zannana in Arabic because they go zin, zin, zin. I can hear them all the time."

On the other side of the divide, warnings via Twitter and the sound of air raid sirens alert Naama Shang when trouble is near.

Shang lives with her husband in the central Israeli city of Raanana, just north of Tel Aviv and almost 99km (61m) from the Gaza strip. They are both blind and so rely on their hearing to know what's happening and what action they should take.

Dalal Al-Taji with one of her students Dalal Al-Taji (right) is usually a teacher but hasn't left the house for two weeks

"If we can hear [the air raid siren] - and there were instances where we couldn't hear it - we have 90 seconds to get to a bomb shelter", says Shang, who was recently asked by her local social services if she needs help to get to one. She doesn't, because newer buildings in Israel have integrated shelters and she has one in her flat.

Al-Taji says that while some Palestinians in Gaza get flyers and phone calls telling them to leave the area, for her, the sound of bombing is the only warning that trouble is getting close. She says that at 45km (28m) long with a population of 1.6 million, Gaza is so densely populated that there's no place for shelters. Keeping safe is difficult for her.

Start Quote

We both want peace. We want to live and be with our loved ones”

End Quote Naama Shang

"Either you have to stay in your house, or you have to try to go somewhere far from the border", she says. Al-Taji chooses to stay in her house, she says: "We have to keep windows open because if any bombing happens and it shakes, then the glass doesn't break."

Although they are on opposite sides, the conflict has affected the women's day to day lives in similar ways and both have felt unable to leave their homes.

In usual circumstances, Shang has good mobility and can get around her town. Due to the troubles, she moved a planned trip forward and left Israel for the UK late last week.

Naama outside with her husband and a dog Naama Shang (left) lives in Israel and has a bomb shelter in her flat

Before the trip, she says she stayed home unless absolutely necessary. "I didn't want to be caught out and not know where to go. It's very hard to just follow other people or to see signs."

Al-Taji hasn't been out of her house for two weeks now. She works as a teacher but never travels unaccompanied because she says Gaza's infrastructure is not that well developed. "you never know what might happen," she says, "If I need anything, I just try to get someone to help."

Find out more

In Touch titles

In Touch is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20:40 BST on Tuesdays - or catch up on BBC iPlayer

Unlike Shang, Al-Taji has no plans to get out any time soon. "First of all, the border is closed, you can't really leave. Secondly, and most importantly, I can't just leave my house, my friends, my family, my people."

Shang and Al-Taji have a lot in common besides living in a conflict zone. They have both spent time in Scotland and are both music enthusiasts.

"One thing that keeps going through my mind is that Dalal and I are on the same side," says Shang. "We say the same things, we experience the same things. It brings the point even closer to home. We both want peace. We want to live and be with our loved ones."

In Touch can be heard every Tuesday at 20:40 on Radio 4 and later via podcast or the BBC iPlayer.

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First aid for the mind

Four people having training, sitting around a table with paper and pens

Charlotte Walker trains people to be the go-to person in the office if someone gets badly stressed or has a meltdown.

"Hi, how are you?" Most of us start the working day by asking how colleagues are doing, but we may not expect an honest answer. What would you do if a colleague replied: "I'm struggling with my mental health." Would you feel able to respond? Or worried you may say the wrong thing?

For years I was a first aider in a busy office, dealing with everything from nosebleeds to chest pain and stroke. My training gave me the confidence to get involved and the knowledge to decide whether I needed paramedics. People often said I handled these incidents well, but mostly I just provided calm, compassionate support until the professionals arrived.

These days I give first aid training in the workplace - but for the mind, not the body.

Start Quote

We just need to talk about mental health in the same way as we do physical health”

End Quote Poppy Jarman CEO, Mental Health First Aid

First aid for physical health has been around for a century, but only in recent decades has something similar emerged for mental wellbeing. Originating in Australia, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a programme which came to England in 2007.

Most mental health situations in the workplace won't be an emergency. Making a difference to a colleague who's struggling is easier than you might think and small acts of compassion can make a huge difference.

So what do these first aiders do? Often they do very simple things.

Somebody finding the start of the working day a little difficult, might welcome a friendly face at the bus stop or a bit of company on the walk to the office. A person with anxiety may appreciate you volunteering a desk swap so that they can sit somewhere quieter. A chat in a café at lunchtime or over a cup of tea can offer someone who's depressed a chance to say how they are really feeling, something they may not often get the chance to do.

One of the most helpful things anyone ever did for me was assist me to rearrange my "to do list" so that I felt less overwhelmed. Even those who are mentally well can help themselves keep things that way by building their resilience to stress and anxiety.

Simple strategies like buddying up for walks in the park or encouraging each other to leave work at a reasonable time can help nip workplace stress in the bud.

An MHFA training classroom with people sitting at desks listening to a talk MHFA offers training in mental health symptoms, diagnoses and services

Mental health first aiders are trained to deal with common problems like anxiety or depression, through to more urgent situations like psychosis (when somebody is no longer in touch with reality) or suicidal thoughts.

I taught a group recently in which an HR officer had signed up because of an incident at work. She'd been asked to speak to an employee who immediately burst into tears in front of her. She had wanted to help him, but was afraid of getting it wrong and making things worse.

In training sessions, participants often say they're concerned they may not be the right person for the task. My fellow trainer John and I are both mental health service users and know how important it is that mental health is dealt with sensitively, but we believe participants already have what it takes to perform this role.

One in four people experience a mental health problem, yet we are often afraid of discussing the topic. As Poppy Jarman, CEO of MHFA England, says, "The fear surrounding mental ill health and the misunderstanding around recovery is one of the biggest barriers for creating mentally fit workplaces.

A woman crying with another woman comforting her How would you react if a colleague cried in front of you?

"We just need to talk about mental health in the same way as we do physical health," she says, "but that can only be done if the culture of the workplace is set up in a way where mental health is promoted and there is empathy."

I really want to help develop that workplace culture of openness and empathy, because too many people with mental health conditions end up taking long-term sick leave or losing their jobs.

I would like to see every office have somebody trained in mental health first aid alongside physical first aiders, and according to MHFA England this is already starting to happen. And that means that more of the time when someone opens up in the workplace, a colleague will step forward and choose to keep that all-important conversation going.

MHFA England has around 600 instructors who have in turn trained over 77,000 people in first aid for mental health.

Charlotte Walker has bipolar disorder and blogs about her experiences here.

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