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Archives for October 2012

Robin Christopherson: Living IT (Technology and disabled people series)

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Damon Rose Damon Rose | 08:58 UK time, Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Robin Christopherson

Robin Christopherson, 41, can often be seen at accessibility conferences and workshops extolling the virtues of inclusive technology. Working for the UK disability tech charity AbilityNet, he has an intriguing 21st Century job title: Head of Digital Inclusion.

Born in Durham, Christopherson comes from a family with a retina inflammation disorder which has left them all visually impaired. They are thought to be the only family in the world with this condition which also renders them unable to sweat. By the time he was at university in the late 80s, Robin's sight had failed to the point where he was using a talking screenreader on his laptop to aid him in his studies.

After university, he attended a nine week residential course at a Royal National Institute of Blind People rehab centre in Torquay. His intention was to get a little more up to speed with computers but, while there, they offered him a job as an IT instructor and he remained for a further two years before it closed and he moved on to AbilityNet where he's been ever since. Robin is married with children aged nine and 11.

For Robin, technology is a passion, and working in computer accessibility has been the basis of his career. Below he answers our questions and shows his ongoing enthusiasm.

What technology do you use regularly?

I have a laptop with Windows on it but I tend to leave it in the office and use my iPhone even for things like putting presentations on screen. You can show videos and powerpoints and websites with it this way. The iPhone is accessible to me as a blind person because it has a built-in screenreader called Voiceover.

At home I have a talking microwave and scales and so on. I know a lot of people would consider it heresy but I don't feel I need to use Braille, It's an invaluable skill like touch typing, but for me it has proven quite dispensable and I'm pretty rusty with it now.

I use loads of iPhone apps. If I need to do a web search for something I just ask the famous talking assistant Siri which will either speak the info I need straight away or do a web search. I've also got a light detector app to help me tell if a lamp or monitor is still switched on, a colour identifier and VizWiz app where I can take a photo with my phone and have a volunteer somewhere telling me what a food product is. I once asked VizWiz where the @-sign on my keyboard was, it was a US keyboard and I just couldn't find it; someone texted back to tell me within seconds.

I know they've been slated by sighted users but I use the new Apple Maps on my phone to help me find my way when out and about - they're very accessible for blind people. It'll speak aloud the road you're in, if you're approaching a junction or whether the road is east to west, for instance. Also, just say to Siri "take me to Buckingham Palace" and she'll speak turn by turn instructions to get you there. You can also use the maps to get an idea of your surroundings by tracing a finger across the screen, differently toned beeps help you know if you're following the road you're interested in (doonk doonk doonk) or if you've gone off route (ping ping ping).

What technology do you wish had never been invented?

There are a lot of websites which are difficult to use with a screenreader because they've got lots of flab and padding such as "like" buttons and ads. They're obviously really useful if you can see, and if you didn't have to listen to that every time you wanted to glance at a page, they would hardly get in the way at all. Visually people ignore them, they look at the centre of the page - but for me they're in line, they're spoken aloud by my speech synthesiser as part of the flow. So, as I arrow down a page, often I hear the headline of an article, then about 30 or 40 lines of sharing widgets and ads and stuff, then the first few paragraphs of the article, then some ads, then the rest of the article - so it's just very very intrusive.

All of this gets stripped out on the mobile version of the page so I often use mobile sites on my desktop or read the "printer friendly" version which does a similar thing, though with a view to saving your ink.

Asking what I wish hadn't been invented is a difficult question to put to a technophile and I'm tempted to answer with the obvious: chemical warfare and the atom bomb. I don't tend to get annoyed by technology.

If the web was taken away from me today I would ...

Well, if I couldn't access any content online it would definitely impact me.

I don't do shopping down the high street, I haven't done that for years. eBay and Amazon are the places I tend to go to but via their apps, not websites. So, I certainly wouldn't be able to do shopping. Most of what I listen to wouldn't be available like TWiT TV and dozens of technical podcasts I subscribe to. I would be bereft without them really, that and the ability to download audio books. So all of my media consumption - shopping, news and information - make me reliant on the internet.

What has been your most adventurous feat in technology?

I'm not the kind of person who's daunted by having to get to grips with technology, I'm the opposite. I'm the sort of person who has listened to dozens of podcasts instructing me on how to use Voiceover screenreader on the Mac, even though I don't use one - it just interests me. I could probably pick up a Mac and use it right now. I just love technology.

Having to learn to use a computer with speech output in the 1980s was a significant learning curve but I wouldn't call it daunting. The things I've learnt do not feel like a major achievement. I'm just a bit sad - I like to consume everything about a product so that I know it really well. I would not want to have a smart phone without knowing every last corner of its functionality, for instance.

My family, who can't see, might call me with questions about the computer but they're often quite basic; I don't know how they perform effectively on a daily basis at that level. My mum with Jaws screenreader learns things by rote so if something changes about an app or a website she's stuck. She finds it very difficult to learn the concepts of what keystrokes do and has to re-learn it if it alters. I can apply my knowledge more flexibly.

How do you use social media?

I read tweets from lots of people interested in technology, it's fantastic for informing me on things I need to know for my job. I follow users like AppleVis which tweets recommendations for blind accessible apps. I retweet a lot of articles I'm interested in which I know is not the best way of using it but I do a lot of original posts as well, sharing articles or blogs that I've posted up on the web or interesting articles I've come across myself, all techie stufff and all very work-focused.

For Twitter I use an amazing app for the PC called The Qube; it has no visual user interface, it's free and made just for blind people who use a screenreader. I have no major interests beyond technology ... and my kids, of course. I don't use the internet very much at home, it's either work or family really.

What tech innovation would you like to see?

There are loads of technologies which are really quite mature today that hold great promise. Autonomous vehicles for example, born of the DARPA project and that then turned into driverless Google cars. They drove around the states for two years and had no accidents bar being pronged from behind once.

In Berlin there is a company who wants to setup a fleet of driverless taxis and which already have legal permissions that could eventually lead to this.

Driverless vehicles have an obvious application for many disabled people to get round independently, particularly those who are blind. But in order for it to be able to work it would need to have an inclusive interface, say, via a smart phone app which would speak back to you and have accessible controls and so on. I'm really excited about this and would be very disappointed if it wasn't coming in an accessible way in the near future. I can easily imagine an autonomous vehicle being on sale at your local car showroom in just a couple of years, the only inertia is commercial consideration really; it needs no new road infrastructure or anything. It's in the interests of the commercial and public sector to get these things on the road for safety and I imagine that if a company thinks they can sustain a taxi service and make a profit then it will surely be on sale at a price that's affordable to the average consumer. My wife drives but, should they come on sale, the next time we replace our car I'd be happy to spend an extra, say, £10,000 so I could drive it as well.

• This interview is part of a series about technology and disabled people. Follow @bbcouch on Twitter, like the Ouch BBC Facebook page or bookmark the Ouch! blog homepage to keep tabs on this series, which continues throughout November.

Kaliya Franklin: Campaigning online and flexible working (Technology and disabled people series)

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Damon Rose Damon Rose | 08:45 UK time, Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Disability campaigner Kaliya Franklin with Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Ian Duncan Smith

Kaliya Franklin is a 36 year old campaigner from the Wirral who, with her blog The Broken of Britain, brought her concerns about disability benefit reform to the public in 2010 after the government revealed its plans for change. She captured imaginations and reflected many anxieties of disabled people in the UK, and was one of those who helped bring disabled voices to the debate, thanks to the internet.

She is a graduate in law, and before her health worsened in her early twenties she volunteered as an army cadet instructor, enjoyed swimming and worked in a US summer camp. The condition she has, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), has prevented Kaliya from climbing a career ladder and often leaves her in pain with exhaustion; she takes morphine to stave off the effects but this slows her right down.

Since 2007, Kaliya Franklin has blogged as Benefit Scrounging Scum where her main aim was to bring awareness of her condition. She was surprised when she was described as a campaigner by a Leeds column on The Guardian website which quoted a blog entry she'd written about an EDS specialist service losing its funding.

By 2011 she and fellow disabled campaigner Sue Marsh were raising their concerns about benefit reform plans with others via social networks and in January this year they published a report called Responsible Reform. It became known as The Sparticus Report and was based on information and ideas they collected online from many contributors. They then used similar crowd-sourcing to raise funds to have it printed and delivered to MPs and peers.

Technology has played a big part in Kaliya's campaigning. Below we talk to her about how she uses it and how she'd like to see the available technologies used more intelligently in future.

What technology do you use regularly?

I use a laptop and a smart phone. The smart phone is a fairly recent addition, I didn't use it when I started all this.

The laptop was bought by my best friend a couple of years ago as a birthday and Christmas present. It was meant to be something to make a massive difference in my life, and it did. Interestingly, it was a present from a friend which first got me online back in 1998; I was given a modem and a year's subscription to AOL.

What technology do you wish had never been invented?

As much as I'm a fan of social media, I mourn the introduction of 24-hour rolling news in all its forms. It's both the best thing and the worst thing at the same time.

I think it's great to scrutinise politicians and political processes but it's made us a lot more fearful as a society. We all now believe there's been a rise in child abuse and paedophilia when there hasn't, for instance. It's a false belief which has grown thanks to over-reporting and sharing on Twitter.

Social media can do good though, like the recent marshalling of volunteers to find April Jones and cleaning up after last summer's riots. But now, Downing Street is constantly beset with crisis stories spawned by media. Ten years ago these were things we didn't know and wouldn't have wanted to know.

If the web was taken away from me today I would ...

... be terribly isolated, like many disabled people would be.

Although it shouldn't be the case, I'd say the majority of disable people are isolated from mainstream society. Whether they're too unwell to access it, have physical barriers or experience prejudice, disabled people are probably the group which social media has liberated the most - it has transformed what being housebound means. There's now less isolation and disabled people are talking to each other and have become a connected group like never before. It's a different way of accessing the world of making friends, accessing information and sources of support, it's not a replacement for real world accessibility though.

What has been your most adventurous feat in technology?

Learning how to edit videos. It was startling. I started using video blogging as a different platform, really different, I didn't know you could edit so it had to all be done in one take. It wasn't scripted, it was just me talking to camera being very cross. Then i found out you can stop recording, start again, and put the two together - so if you lose your thread in the middle of a sentence but get your flow back 30 seconds later, you can edit the gap out.

It was the video letter to David Cameron that made the whole Broken of Britain thing come off, though I didn't intend it to start a campaign. I was so horrified by the comprehensive spending review that i made this amateur video all in one go. The first I knew of its impact was when my friend contacted me to say congratulations on getting onto the front page of the Guardian website.

How do you use social media?

My biggest use of Twitter has often been when I'm not well enough to focus. There's something about it being only 140 characters meaning it's short enough for me to manage a bit of tweeting even if I can't manage to concentrate on a whole television programme, for instance.

People drop on and off Twitter without giving notice. If you disappear in the middle of a conversation and don't come back for 12 hours because you're exhausted or in pain, no one is offended. It's not a social faux pas like putting the phone down.

What tech innovations would you like to see?

I'd like to see businesses appreciate how the internet can change the way we are able to work if we choose to do so. I think it would have very specific benefits for disabled people with fluctuating conditions who don't fit into existing work patterns.

If you're feeling up to it, you might perhaps be able to make greetings cards or something like that but you wouldn't then be allowed to sell them on eBay because it would negatively affect your benefits. We're saying it shouldn't all be about sanctions and compliance.

Traditional homeworking is things like stuffing envelopes; it's low paid, tedious, often exploitative, and completely out of reach for lots of impairments. But if your skills are that you are a trained dressmaker, you may feel able to take on two pieces of work a year that you could find through the internet. You wouldn't be able to make a living that way but you would be pleased to do a bit of sewing and then sell it on. In a one-to-one meeting I had with him at the Conservative Party conference this year, Iain Duncan Smith seemed open to such ideas and offered the example that you could be an accountant who puts in three hours a month.

Our idea is that you wouldn't come off benefits, it's not about that, but you would gain by having a bit of extra money and you'd be keeping your hand in. Business then benefits by having someone to take on small chunks of work.

It's about being able to make a contribution with a recognition from society that you're not someone who's festering at home on benefits because you choose to, and that you are willing to contribute in whatever small way you can.

• This interview is part of a series about technology and disabled people. Follow @bbcouch on Twitter, like the Ouch BBC Facebook page or bookmark the Ouch! blog homepage to keep tabs on this series, which continues throughout November.

Upcoming assistive technology events

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Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 16:08 UK time, Monday, 29 October 2012

The tech season is beginning to ramp up ahead of Christmas.

Microsoft and Apple have just unveiled a new operating system and new tablets - one big, one small, respectively. And, in accessible technology, there are a number of events and campaigns that I'm sure you'll see discussed on your social networks over the next month or so.

Let's take a look at what's on the agenda for November in disability and technology, here's what we know about already:

The Royal National Institute of Blind people's Switch on to technology month takes place throughout November. The charity are running 50 free workshops around the UK, to help blind and visually impaired people get to grips with using the internet, mobile phones, computers and book readers. Simple written guides on each of the four subject areas are also available.

Enabled by Design-athon is a "two day ideas and product prototyping-fest" happening in London on 2 and 3 November. Enabled by Design, a community of "assistive product aficionados", will join forces with designers, hackers and manufacturers to "challenge people's preconceptions of assistive equipment, showing how products can be personalised, purposeful and beautifully designed".

Sight Village London The UK's biggest exhibition of technology, equipment and support services for people who are blind or visually impaired, takes over Kensington Town Hall in west London on 6 and 7 November. Blind people love their gadgets and the free Sight Village event is always a good way of getting a hands on demo of the latest specialised accessible kit.

Everybody Technology is a free accessibility event, organised by assistive technology charity AbilityNet and the Royal London Society for the Blind. It takes place on Friday 30 November, at the Grosvenor hotel in London and will look at the emerging trend of mainstream technology that can meet the needs of 100% of the population. Speakers include Robin Christopherson from AbilityNet and web accessibility guru Leonie Watson.

• Looking towards January 2013, we have a real "under the bonnet" sounding event called Accessible ICT:
Priorities for Future Research on Accessible Information and Communication Technology Systems and Services
at Institution of Engineering and Technology in London.

If you know of other events relating to assistive technology taking place soon, tell us about them in the comments below.

Disability news roundup: Winterbourne View care workers jailed for abuse

Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 12:51 UK time, Friday, 26 October 2012


Ever since Panorama exposed violent abuse of patients at Winterbourne View last year, residential care for learning disabled people has been under the microscope.

The subject has dominated headlines again this week. Today, 11 staff convicted of assaulting patients at the hospital were sentenced and on Monday, the Care Quality Commission warned a separate Bristol unit for people with learning difficulties to improve or face enforcement measures.

In the Winterbourne View case, ringleader Wayne Rogers, who admitted nine counts of ill-treating patients, has received two years in prison. Five further care workers were jailed, while five more were given suspended sentences.

Presiding judge Neil Ford QC has told the court that the private hospital had been "run with a scandalous lack of regard to patients and staff".

In another development for the home, Monday's BBC Inside Out West reported on an assault of a patient at Winterbourne View, which took place prior to the Panorama investigation.

Rebecca Cafe writes for the BBC News website today on the impact the shocking abuse at Winterbourne View has had on the nation.

Next Monday's Panorama programme will feature previously unseen undercover footage from Winterbourne View, showing evidence of poor training and false record keeping.

Reporter Alison Holt will reveal that a number of former patients have faced further assaults, or unnecessary restraints, in other care establishments. One year on from the original programme, she will ask whether the most vulnerable people in society are now better protected.

Elsewhere in the news

China passes mental health law (The Guardian, Friday 26 October)

Newlife Birth Defects Research Centre to open (BBC News, Thursday 25 October)

How social enterprise can save Remploy (The Guardian, Thursday 25 October)

Keeping the Paralympic legacy alive (BBC News, Wednesday 24 October)

Winterbourne View: Autism society wants punch probe (BBC News, Tuesday 23 October)

Doctors don't understand self-harm, a new report claims (BBC Newsbeat, Tuesday 23 October)

NHS hearing services 'being cut' (BBC News, Tuesday 23 October)

Disability hate crimes' rise by a quarter in a year (The Telegraph, Tuesday 23 October)

Disability charities welcome increase in award of unconditional benefits (The Guardian, Tuesday 23 October)

Mental health strategy tackles stigma and 'everyday pressures' (BBC News, Monday 22 October)

Disabled fearful of income loss, campaigners say (BBC News, Monday 22 October)

Bolton Remploy factory reopens as social enterprise (BBC News, Monday 22 October)

Disability Living Allowance Changes 'A Huge Worry' (Huffington Post, Monday 22 October)

Assisted suicide: 10 years of dying at Dignitas (BBC News, Sunday 21 October)

We're still unRemployed (Daily express, Sunday 21 October)

Prince Edward backs disabled mother of dead soldier who has had income support and benefits stopped (Mail On Sunday, Sunday 21 October)

No one should have to endure the endless torture that destroyed my handsome 'Dorian Gray': Dead model's girlfriend reveals how chronic pain tore their lives apart (Mail On Sunday, Sunday 21 October)

London Film Festival gives top prize to Rust and Bone (The Observer, Sunday 21 October)

Experience: I can't stop stealing (The Guardian, Friday 19 October)

Relaxed performances: Making theatre trips possible for people with autism or a learning disability

Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 11:34 UK time, Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Disabled theatre-goer Anna Dragicevic with actor Nicola Walker from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. (Photo taken by Lucy Clark)

The foyer of the Cottesloe at the National Theatre is buzzing when I arrive, as groups of disabled and non-disabled people bustle about, organising tickets and purchasing drinks. We are all here to see a dramatized version of Mark Haddon's highly successful 2003 book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

The sell-out play tells the story of 15 year old Christopher Boone who has Asperger's syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder. Those with the condition are typically high functioning, can have social difficulties and are often very sensitive to light and sounds.

The author of the original text did not have Asperger's and neither do any of the actors, but today, many in the audience have autism or a learning disability of some kind. I am at what's known as a "relaxed performance", which is summarised on the National Theatre's own website in a very friendly and inviting manner: "The atmosphere in the auditorium will be relaxed to provide a more supportive environment - a bit like the quiet carriage on the train ... but the opposite! Audience members will be free to come and go as they please throughout the performance and make noise if they want to."

Relaxed performances at other theatres have had a chill out room where people who need quiet time can go before, during or after the show. Some even relay the play on a big screen, so that if someone needs to leave the auditorium they can still follow the story. Today, the Cottesloe foyer has been designated as a quiet space.

Most relaxed performances so far have been for shows aimed at families with children who are learning disabled or on the autistic spectrum and who would otherwise be unable to go to the theatre. But The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is pitched at those over the age of 13 and a notice on the website sensitively advises: "This play is most suitable for those who will enjoy a narrative-driven performance."

To prepare audience members with autism who find surprises uncomfortable, a letter was sent out in the weeks leading up to the performance. It reassuringly explains precisely what we can expect from the day, including at what time we can enter the auditorium, when the show will start, how long it will be and the length of the interval.

The play starts slightly later than billed but nobody seems to mind. This is The National Theatre's first attempt at a relaxed performance, so they can be forgiven for not realising how long it can take us disabled people to get seated ... particularly when travelling in large groups.

The show is in two parts, separated by an interval.

It takes a short while for the audience to settle down, and I wonder just how "relaxed" the audience might get.

The theatre is not silent but not hugely noisy either. Sometimes I can hear people talking quietly to each other or commenting on the action, at other moments a vocal tic or noise can be heard, and there is a constant gentle rustling, as people shuffle in their seats, move involuntarily or leave to take a toilet break. Instead of proving a problem, this underlying sound makes everything feel rather cosy and natural.

There is plenty of laughter. This is partly because the play is, at times, very funny but some audience members also laugh out loud when the actors use a swear word.

Possibly the most unusual occurrence in the auditorium is during a violent scene between Christopher and his father. A group of people laugh throughout a tense and dramatic moment which, I'd imagine, would ordinarily be met with silent horror.

It could be that this reaction is from a section of the audience struggling to understand what is happening on stage, however, all theatre-goers will have received "visual stories" or storyboards, a couple of weeks before this relaxed performance, so that they already know the narrative and feel prepared for each bit as it comes along.

For a group of people with autism and learning disabilities, a disabled person experiencing violence at the hand of a parent must have been frightening to see. In emotional moments, sometimes people laugh if they don't know how else to react.

I meet Anna Dragicevic at the interval. Like Christopher in the play, 19 year old Anna has Asperger's syndrome. She also has a diagnosis of ADHD.

She has seen The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time twice before and, although the performance hasn't been changed, she notes that some thoughtful minor tweaks in this relaxed version have left her much less tense.

"I notice that the sounds are a lot quieter. Loud sounds can put me off and take my attention away. I also have trouble sitting still and keeping quiet, so to be able to speak and to move around much more freely makes me feel better."

Many relaxed performances also make changes to a plays lighting, sometimes keeping the lights half up throughout. Today, some of the play's usual strobe lighting effects were tempered. Strobe lighting can cause problems for people with epilepsy.

The interval ends and the second half goes off without a hitch. So much so, that It is only when the play is over, that I realise how hard everyone has been concentrating on the performance. Even though moving and speaking was allowed, many had obviously been doing their best to stay still and quiet, because as soon as the curtain comes down and we are all wrenched back to reality, the people noise ramps up significantly.

I found this relaxed approach to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time genuinely enjoyable and in fact left the National Theatre wondering why theatre etiquette is so rigid and whether maybe, every performance should be a "relaxed performance".

• The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is sold out but there are still tickets available for the audio described performance on 27 October.

• Later this year, The Ambassador Theatre Group will be holding relaxed performances of three pantomimes, in Bromley, Grimsby and Richmond. If the pilot scheme is successful, ATG hopes to present a relaxed performance at one of its West End theatres in 2013.

Have you ever attended a relaxed performance? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Disability news roundup: Gary McKinnon, Universal Credit, blind man gets tasered

Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 12:15 UK time, Friday, 19 October 2012

Newspaper front pages

It was an unusually high profile week in disability news, as three separate stories each garnered multiple headlines.

• On Tuesday morning, Home Secretary Theresa May halted the extradition of Gary McKinnon to the US.

This has been a long-running affair. Ten years ago, McKinnon hacked in to the FBI's computer systems, harvesting passwords and other information, and it's alleged he caused at least 700 thousand Dollars worth of damage. US authorities have wanted him to stand trial in the states.

Now 46, Gary McKinnon has since received a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome and depression. Mrs. May said that she made her decision on advice that McKinnon was likely to take his own life were he extradited, saying this was a human rights issue. The case has now been passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions in the UK.

In an article for The Independent, Jerome Taylor wondered why politicians, celebrities and the media flock to Gary McKinnon's cause but stay silent about the likes of Talha Ahsan from Tooting? Ahsan also has an Asperger's diagnosis yet was extradited two weeks ago to face a charge of running a pro-jihadi website. This article prompted the 5 live discussion, This debate will doubtless raise its head again in the future if other cases involve people with the same condition.

• On Wednesday, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson dominated the news programmes. She was fronting a report by The Children's Society, Citizens Advice and Disability Rights UK, which says that Up to half a million disabled people and their families stand to lose out under the government's proposed Universal Credit - the much discussed unified benefits system set to take effect next October.

Responding to the report during PrimeMinister's questions, David Cameron said that support was being targeted at the most disabled and that overall funding was going up.

• Later the same day, the story broke of how Lancashire police had tasered a blind man, after receiving reports from the public that someone was on the streets waving a samurai sword in a threatening manner.

Colin Farmer has had two strokes and his vision is very low as a result. He was unaware that it was the police who were encircling him before he was tasered, he thought he was about to be mugged. Farmer says he is now too scared to leave the house.

A man with a sword was later arrested nearby. Police are said to have "deep regrets" about the incident and the case has been passed to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Elsewhere in the news

Brain injury 'link' to young offenders (BBC News, Friday 19 October)

Shropshire bone cancer schoolgirl gets titanium leg (BBC News, Thursday 18 October)

Olympic stadium set to hold the 2017 World Paralympic Championships (The telegraph, Thursday 18 October)

Corrie star tackles disability role (The Belfast Telegraph, Thursday 18 October)

Disability benefit change concern after inquiry (BBC News, Wednesday 17 October)

Disabled benefits: Tanni Grey-Thompson and Steve Webb (BBC News, Wednesday 17 October)

Is the benefits system too baffling to be solved? (BBC News Magazine, Wednesday 17 October)

Creativity 'closely entwined with mental illness' (BBC News, Wednesday 17 October)

450,000 disabled people to lose out under universal credit, study finds (The Guardian, Wednesday 17 October)

Stigma of mental ill health is 'worse than the illness' (The Independent, Thursday 18 October)

Opinion: Why did the BBC use real footage of disabled people being tortured in a trailer? (Independent, Wednesday 17 October)

Disability charities warn of families 'at breaking point' over gaps in care (The Guardian, Monday 15 October)

Disability benefit shake-up fears of organisations (BBC News, Sunday 14 October)

Jimmy Savile 'groped Julie Fernandez when she was 14' (BBC News, Friday 12 October)

Disability sport for fun, not gold medals

Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 15:25 UK time, Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Confession time. Before the Paralympics this summer, I had never witnessed any disabled people playing sport. Though my first experience was of an elite competition, few of us will make it to that level so I was keen to find out where your average person might go to compete for fun. I found out at a recent disability sport event in London.

Though unlikely ever to feature in the Paralympics, stick ball, bagatelle, darts and New-age kurling are perfectt for an afternoon of pan-disability fun.

As I enter the packed and noisy Aspire sports hall on a Sunday lunchtime in Stanmore, Middlesex, I immediately detect the atmosphere is charged with fun. I also sense a strong competitive undercurrent running through each of the seven sport zones.

There are around 60 disabled people from four London-based disability sports clubs who have been brought together through a Rotary Club initiative, for a few hours and, as well as the games mentioned above, table tennis, boccia, bowls, swimming and wheelchair slalom are on offer too.

I meet Chris Brown playing bowls. For long-time disability sports participants like Chris, this type of event is the equivalent of a weekend kick about in the park. Although pride is the only thing at stake, he is through to the second round of the bowls tournament and his competitive streak is firmly on show.

As he awaits his turn, he tells me that he is manager of the Aylesbury sports club. His wife is a wheelchair user and Chris himself is mobility impaired due to arthritis. They both compete at various sports with the club, which he says has a busy calendar of events: "We go nearly all over the country now, playing table tennis and bowls. We were in Durham last weekend but usually we compete in Buckingham, Berkshire and Hampshire."

Chris says there is no central organising body to help, the individual groups just arrange these meets themselves.

"There are about 14 or 15 clubs who get together regularly", he continues. "We meet up and have a bit of a laugh. There are three more events left this season and then we start again in May next year".

Although there are many Olympic and Paralympic T-shirts on show in the very warm sports hall, Chris's club has never produced a Paralympian. He tells me that this is not their priority, it's all about staying active and having a good time.

Not everyone here is used to playing sports regularly, though. I briefly chat to One young man, who was dragged along by his mum, in an effort to encourage him to spend less time on the computer. Next I meet the more sporty Buja who was invited today as a member of the Kingfisher club in Harrow.

Buja, who is totally blind, usually likes swimming, but today she is about to give stick ball a go. This is a game where each player throws Velcro covered tennis balls at a wall of sticky circles. Each circle has a different points value attached to it and your score is written down. At the end of the day, the person with the highest recorded score is the winner. Simple but fun.

Buja has tried most of the throwing sports on offer today, including darts. She says: "They put the board down for me, because I'm not very tall and couldn't get any of them in. I just hit the side of the board once or twice. I think they were nice to me and gave me a few extra chances."

The idea for this event comes from Barnett Rotarian Scott McLaughlin. Inspired by his stint as a Games Maker at London 2012, he decided that he wanted to facilitate more disabled people to get active. Knowing that other Rotary Clubs around the country were already running disability sports events, he encouraged his local branch to do similar, and they got help from neighbouring clubs to sponsor and run the afternoon.

Scott says the biggest problem was finding a suitable venue in the area. "I spoke to half a dozen sports clubs before approaching Aspire". Some weren't big enough, some didn't have a lift and had changing rooms on the floor above. Obviously Aspire was ideal because disability is their expertise."

Aspire are a charity for people with spinal injuries. Their centre at Stanmore has a fully accessible gym, swimming pool, sports hall and dance studios which are also used by non-disabled people.

Being a fellow disabled person, I couldn't head home without trying some of the sports for myself. At bowls, my ball ended up in the adjoining lane and most of my shots at stick ball bounced off the wall either side of the target and landed on the floor. But it was fun. And six weeks after the Paralympics had given me an initial push to get sporty, this was the top-up I needed.

So, where do you start looking if you fancy a bit of sport just for fun, not gold medals. The Parasport club finder has a clever system where by entering your impairment, your town or city and the sports you are interested in, the tool brings up a list of suitable clubs to contact. It is free, so if you fancy trying your hand at anything from sailing to boccia, give it a shot.

Big solutions from Bill Gates, and electric pants

Hotch Potch | 10:32 UK time, Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Ouch's Hotch Potch mosaic

Let's call today Solutions Tuesday, shall we?

Wouldn't it be great to have Bill Gates' job? The philanthropist, chairman and co-founder of software giant Microsoft, has spent the last few years trying to solve huge world problems from education to energy and health.

In 2011 Afghanistan had a "large outbreak" of polio and Gates has set his mind to eliminating the disease - a significant challenge in an area of conflict.

Last week on his official blog he posted A Great Meeting on Polio with Afghani Officials where he said he feels they are "on the right track" to curing polio in the country, which he believes important in fighting the disease worldwide.

Oh to be a multi multi billionaire able to solve big problems at a stroke (or three) and for everyone to want to listen to you.

Another big disability related problem that could have a solution is reported on the BBC Health pages this morning and it all surrounds the wearing of electric pants. It sounds like something straight out of Saturday Night Fever but can you guess what this 'special' underwear might help with? Clue: it's not incontinence, it's not a timely winter warmer for the nether-regions and it's not an aid to flying.

It's a possible solution to the age-old issue of pressure sores. The painfulness and significance to an individual is perhaps not widely appreciated. And once you've got one, it's a devil to get rid of and could leave you flat on your front for months in bad cases. Many have speculated actor Christopher Reeve died of complications stemming from a pressure sore he had at the time.

Paraplegics, I'm told, routinely check their hips and bottom in a mirror in the mornings and at night. So, if your disabled pal or colleague tells you they've got a pink patch on their behind, it's a big deal.

Prevention, then, is better than a cure and these amazing grundies - as I believe some people call them - jolt you with electricity to make your muscles contract and mimic a movement, or fidget, which people with feeling in that area would naturally do without thinking, or what you might do whilst asleep. The pants are being trialled presently.

Read: the stages of a pressure sore

Would you wear electric pants? What disability issue would you solve if you were a jet-setting philanthropist? Tell us below or on our social media.

Disability news roundup: World Mental Health Day

Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 12:12 UK time, Friday, 12 October 2012

Newspaper front pages

Wednesday 10 October was World Mental Health Day.

Nearly 450 million people have mental health problems worldwide, more than three-quarters of whom live in developing countries. In a story on current global efforts to improve mental health services, the BBC reports that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates eight in 10 of those living in developing nations receive no treatment at all.

Many are the survivors of infectious diseases, natural disasters and war. It is estimated about half of Afghans over 15 years of age have mental health problems such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Each year, World Mental Health Day focuses on a particular aspect of mental ill-health. In 2012, we are encouraged to talk about depression.

WHO has produced an animated short film to raise awareness. It features that common depression metaphor, a black dog. Writing in the Independent, Neela Debnath describes it as "a simple but effective insight into the disorder, looking at the emotions and feelings that it can cause. Along with the negative side of depression, the video offers hope and tips to viewers on how to deal with it."

Elsewhere in the news

Call to reform adult social care funding (BBC News, Friday 12 October)

Hospital admissions for eating disorders up by 16% (BBC News, Thursday 11 October)

Strokes in young people 'rising', study finds (BBC News, Thursday 11 October)

He's on a roll: Blind opera singer Andrea Bocelli shows off his rollerblading skills with a helping hand from his fiancée (Daily Mail, Thursday 11 October)

Suicides increase due to budget cuts, support group claims (BBC News, Wednesday 10 October)

Doctors say more MRI scanners would help MS patients (BBC News, Wednesday 10 October)

Are banks failing disabled people online? (The Guardian, Wednesday 10 October)

Canadian psychiatrist 'Dr Shock' stands trial on sexual abuse charges (The Guardian, Wednesday 10 October)

Ben Fogle, The Adventurer: Our inspiring disabled travellers (Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 10 October)

Samantha Cameron moved to tears as husband David tells packed Tory party conference how he used to feel pushing their late disabled son Ivan in his wheelchair (Daily Mail, Wednesday 10 October)

Buzz Aldrin bids to help people with disabilities to fly (BBC News, Tuesday 9 October)

Guide Dogs Week 2012 - in pictures (Guardian, Tuesday 9 October)

Coronation Street's Tracy Barlow on living with OCD (Mirror Online, Tuesday 9 October)

Mental health needs a place in the limelight (Guardian, Tuesday 9 October)

Killing kindness with red tape (Independent, Tuesday 9 October)

Conservative conference: Welfare minister told '"stop bullying us" (BBC News, Monday 8 October)

We need to keep talking about depression (Guardian, Monday 9 October)

Disabled Scots spared Atos assessment after firm forced into retreat thanks to Record campaign (Daily Record, Wednesday 10 October)

Signs of the times: deaf community minds its language (Guardian, Sunday 7 October)

Can prosthetics be art? (BBC News, Friday 5 October)

Independent Living Fund consultation to close

Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 12:40 UK time, Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Woman filling out a form


The Independent Living Fund, or ILF, provides financial help so that 19,699 disabled people with complex care needs, can be supported to live at home. A government-run public consultation is currently in place, to get feedback on how ILF users should be supported to live independently beyond 2015, when the fund will cease to exist.

The ILF costs £359m annually and pays out an average of £300 a week per recipient.

The decision to close the fund was made back in 2010, when the government concluded that "given the very different policy context to when the ILF was established in 1988, administering an increasing amount of social care funding outside the mainstream care and support system was no longer appropriate or sustainable". The fund, which was discretionary and managed by trustees, closed to new applications soon afterwards.

On hearing that the ILF was to be phased out, Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, told BBC News that the decision was "bemusing".

"The fund is comparatively very small and is designed to support disabled people to live at home rather than in care homes," he said.

"It's hard to see how phasing out this fund will do anything but narrow down options and push people towards greater dependence on the state."

The public consultation on future support for ILF users has been running since 12 July and will close to responses on 10 October.

The consultation document states that the needs of ILF users "now can and should be met within a single cohesive care and support system, administered by local authorities" and asks for the views of "users, their carers, local authorities and other interested organisations".

The deadline for submissions is fast approaching but there's still time to respond online or by email.

News round-up: What Katie said and other stories

Damon Rose Damon Rose | 13:28 UK time, Friday, 5 October 2012

Newspaper front pages

A mixed bag of disability stories this week.

• Journalists and bloggers in the left-leaning broadsheets have been ramping up the pressure about welfare reform - a subject that is only going to get bigger through the month of October and into the new year. And yesterday David Cameron added his voice to the missing 5 year-old April Jones' campaign in which he made reference to his late son; Ivan Cameron had cerebral palsy as does April we learnt in the middle of this week.

• The Guardian ran a very long and interesting interview with reality model Katie Price about her disabled son Harvey. The journalist reports that she has built "a cabin on a patch of land" where she hopes he'll live when he's older. I'm sure it's much more comfortable than the image I conjured after reading those rather stark words because she says she's built it as she doesn't want him to live in a care home - she's very wary of people who might work there after seeing documentaries on TV about it.

Elsewhere in the news

Bath to host Special Olympics GB 2013 National Summer Games (BBC Sport, Thursday 4 October)

Opinion: Enough is enough. Disabled people are driven to suicide because of the Government's welfare reform (Independent blogs, Thursday 4 October)

Disabled woman may lose internship due to shortage of suitable homes (The Guardian, Wednesday 3 October)

Get ready for work: what woman who needs constant care was told (The guardian, Wednesday 3 October)

Meet the one-handed pianist who starred in the Paralympics Closing Ceremony (Radio Times, Wednesday 3 October)

Blind young people aren't well connected to the internet ... yet (Guardian Professional, Wednesday 3 October)

Death of USA Paralympic dressage rider Jonathan Wentz brings worlds together in grief (Metro blogs, Wednesday 3 October)

Muslim man's right-to-life court battle resumes (BBC News, Monday 1 October)

Top Gear 'breached guidelines' on disability (BBC News, Monday 1 October)

Doorstep lender criticised over loans to vulnerable (BBC News, Monday 1 October)

Epilepsy 'is a global health problem' (BBC News, Friday 28 September)

Katie Price: Harvey and me - tantrums and tough love (The Guardian, Friday 28 September)

Ouch! disability talk show #90: Punk, tics and Paralympics

Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 09:55 UK time, Friday, 5 October 2012

Liz and Rob with guest Jess Thom

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson reflects on the success of the Paralympics and explains how she stays fit and flexible now that she is no longer an athlete. Jess Thom, who has Tourette's syndrome, encourages us to laugh with her at her more humorous vocal tics. Plus, anyone for some Finnish learning disabled punk? Rob Crossan and Liz Carr present.

Download Ouch! as a podcast
Click to read a transcript

Links from the show

Leonard Cheshire Disability's Exercise Your Right campaign to make gyms more accessible
Paralympic festival plan unvailed The website of Jessica Thom.

An English version of the official Punk Syndrome website reviews The Punk Syndrome

• Pertti Kurikan are unable to visit the UK in October, so The Punk Syndrome will now show in select UK cinemas during February.

• Listen through to the end of this month's Ouch! talk show, for your chance to speak to Rob and Liz on the November edition.

First look: Liz Carr as Clarissa Mullery in Silent Witness

Damon Rose Damon Rose | 12:06 UK time, Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Liz Carr as Clarissa Mullery in Silent Witness

A glimpse of new character Clarissa Mullery

Disabled actress and comedian Liz Carr is to become a regular fixture on our TV screens in the popular BBC One science-based crime drama. Damon Rose caught up with her to find out more about the new character she'll be playing.

Regular visitors to these pages will know her as presenter of Ouch's podcast, others may have seen her in her one woman show It Hasn't Happened Yet or doing a comedy set somewhere round the UK. From early in the new year, however, Liz Carr will be playing forensic lab scientist Clarissa Mullery in Silent Witness, the long-running BBC One crime series.

So, who is this new, disabled, scientist on the block?

Liz says: "Clarissa is a clever no nonsense sarcastic woman who has incredible confidence and, despite having a sharp tongue, is very likeable. She's really funny - that's what attracted me to the role. She's also smart and perceptive.

"If I'm going to put a disability slant on it, she's someone who doesn't bang on about being disabled but, equally, has no problem with who she is."

Clarissa (pictured above) is the assistant of another new character, Jack Hodgson, played by David Caves. Jack insists that she joins him at the Lyell Centre after he gets the post. He is one of the youngest forensic scientists in the country and Clarissa has been crucial to his career progression in a very successful working relationship at his previous place of work.

The new stars, Caves and Carr, will join regulars Emilia Fox (Nikki) and William Gaminara (Leo). The duo bring their expertise to the Lyell Centre now that Harry, a pathologist played by Tom Ward, has departed. Silent Witness is in its 16th series.
and this is the first time they've added a fourth continuing character.

It's widely appreciated that television still struggles with portraying disabled people in the mainstream so it grabs the attention when somebody Like Liz lands a significant role.

Her difference goes beyond just being a wheelchair user because she is smaller than average and has a non-standard appearance. She acknowledges this: "I don't look like a normal person who's just sitting down, I look like I've been ill, I'm frail, I'm little, I've got thin arms; they're all the things that make me who I am. After the audition, I thought they wouldn't be brave enough to cast a disabled person who looks like I do. I was wrong."

In Silent Witness, the character Clarissa has a look which sets her apart from the curly-haired comedian we have come to know.

The forensic scientist is quite funky, Liz says, and dresses in a very contemporary way: "She doesn't look like mutton dressed as lamb and also isn't a dowdy disability stereotype with pleated skirts. They were originally thinking Girl with Dragon Tattoo in terms of styling.

"In the very rare shots where you see her feet, you'll see her wearing killer high heels or platforms. This is being a bit playful because, when you're sitting down all the time like me, you can wear high heels as you don't have to try and walk in them if you're a wheelchair user." She adds: "There aren't many forensic scientists wearing four inch heels round the lab."

Liz is very pleased with the progression of the character and excited to be working on such a well-established prime time drama.

Though we might now be used to seeing disabled people running, skipping and jumping after this summer's Paralympic Games, Clarissa Mullery is the very opposite of that active image. Perhaps due to the fact she can't move too well, she is more cerebral and therefore in the mould of a Hawking rather than a Weir.

When looking at her theatre background, Liz Carr has focused on stories about disability, exploring the humour and minutiae of a disabled life. So, will we hear Clarissa talking about those differences in the way she lives and works? Her answer shows she's very mindful of what her community might want from a prominent disabled character but says it could be that visibility, rather than words, may just be the most powerful message.

"I remember saying to one of the writers 'shouldn't we talk about disability?', and he said the biggest thing we can do, the most political acct is just her being there. She's a forensic scientist, she's married, confident, self-assured, she's got the measure of the other characters and all of that is what's political about her.

"You don't have to go on about whether she filled in an Access to Work form when she started at the Lyell Centre - who cares? Just her place in the show is important."

• The new series of Silent Witness will be on BBC One early in the new year; watch the channel for further details.

• Liz Carr co-presents the 90th podcast from Ouch! available to download or stream at the end of this week.

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