RSS feed
18 September 2014 Last updated at 10:20 ET

Blindness, by those in the know

A blind person holding a cane about o cross a road

There are a small number of questions that blind people seem to get asked regularly. But here are five lesser-known things about blindness from those who know.

Can blind people hear better than sighted people?

There is an often-quoted view that a blind person's remaining four senses are heightened to compensate for their lack of vision. In popular culture, sightless superhero Daredevil makes use of his super senses to save the world, and in the film Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino's blind character could tell one perfume from another at the drop of a hat.

Many blind people feel their hearing is no better than sighted people's - it's just that they have to listen more intently to sounds around them. They gauge distance and direction of traffic by ear to avoid being hit by a car, and will tune into announcements at stations to find out which platform their train is on. Sighted people are more likely to focus on the display boards when travelling.

But there is some evidence to support the heightened senses theory. Research at the University of Montreal in 2012 suggests that a blind person's brain does re-wire itself to use the visual cortex. Normally preoccupied with seeing, it's hijacked to improve the processing of other information such as sound and touch.

Many blind people use reflected sound waves to build a mental picture of their surroundings (similar to bats and dolphins) in a process known as echolocation. Most use it all the time without realising, to avoid walking into things. Others claim to be able to tell an object's distance, size, texture and density by clicking their tongue against the roof of their mouth about three times per second and are able to go hiking and cycling without a white cane or a dog.

Can blind people see in their dreams?
Two people asleep in bed, a man and woman

People who were born blind have no understanding of how to see in their waking lives, so they can't see in their dreams. But most blind people lose their sight later in life and can dream visually. Danish research in 2014 found that as time passes, a blind person is less likely to dream in pictures.

The same research says that people who are born blind have more nightmares than sighted people. The theory is that nightmares are mental rehearsals of potentially distressing events, and they can help develop coping mechanisms. For example, blind people in the study reported dreaming about getting lost, being hit by a car or losing their guide dog.

How do blind people choose their clothes?

Over time, many blind people will get a feel for the shape and style of clothes that suit them and they will tend to shop with trusted people.

The fashion-conscious blind person puts considerable energy into ensuring that their outfits match, but technology is often needed for differentiating between colours. A colour detector is a talking gadget which, when pressed against a piece of clothing for a second or two, loudly announces "light olive green" or "dark blue" in a posh English accent. They aren't totally accurate and tend to be used occasionally when sorting laundry and checking items which feel similar.

Blind people have various systems for keeping track of their clothes. Some will sew different shaped buttons on to labels to denote colours. Others might cut the labels in various ways. Some favour the Pen Friend, a barcode reader with labels that can be loaded with information about the clothing, including colour and washing instructions. Others will just try and remember the information or buy clothes that all match.

What do guide dogs actually do?

Contrary to popular belief, guide dogs do not tell their owner when it is time to cross the road and they do not take their owner where they want to go based on an instruction such as "find the shops".

Guide dogs walk in a straight line, always on the left of a person, and are trained to keep an eye on their owner's right shoulder to protect against collisions. They avoid obstacles and stop at kerbs. They know their left from right. Sometimes dogs might lead their owner into overhanging branches because its trickier for them to judge overhead obstacles. It all takes practice. It's a partnership and owners often consider they're driving the dog rather than being led by it.

A guide dog lying down asleep in the middle of a group of people

Unofficially, guide dogs can provide good companionship for isolated blind people. Their presence can help owners feel safer while out and about. And of course, a dog can be a good ice-breaker in a social situation.

How do blind people use computers and smartphones?

Blind and visually impaired people use computer technology in three ways. Some, who can see a bit, can get software that magnifies everything on the screen to a size they can easily read.

Totally blind people have two options. A Braille display can sit underneath a keyboard and provide a tactile version of words on the screen, one line at a time. But less than 1% of the two million people with vision problems in the UK can read Braille, and anyway, the display can cost thousands of pounds.

A far more popular option is a screenreader - software which reads the screen in an intelligent way, using a synthetic voice. Voices are improving in quality all the time but many old-school blind computer users stick to the one that sounds like Stephen Hawking, because it can be understood at a fast speed and because they're used to its pronunciation. After a while, users stop noticing what their screenreader sounds like and crank it up to a speed that's unintelligible to the average person. Some use both Braille and speech together.

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

Should there be a TV channel just for sign language users?

See Hear filming in the Isle of Wight. Can see the cameraman and soundman and the presenter Memnos

This week a consultation by media industry regulator Ofcom comes to an end. It could lead to more funding for television programmes made in British Sign Language (BSL), if there is enough support. But should there be a dedicated sign language channel?

Other British minorities have television channels funded via government and the BBC licence fee. Gaelic speakers have BBC Alba where you can watch Gaelic versions of TV shows like Peppa Pig and the much anticipated drama Bannan, due to be broadcast later this month. In Wales, S4C delivers Welsh language television like its famous soap Pobol y Cwm and their nightly news, Newyddion.

Many are programmes created from scratch, made and presented by people who speak that language and who were brought up in the corresponding culture. Bar one or two exceptions, when sign appears on TV it's as a translation of a spoken English programme from an inset signer. But should there be a channel where the signing happens centre-screen, coming from the presenters and a deaf perspective?

On a dedicated BSL channel, the newsreader would sign, and half-time sports analysis would come from a sofa full of people using their hands rather than their mouths. Drama, children's programmes, and others would also be signed by the presenters or actors.

Start Quote

Sign language recorded on camera is exactly the same as writing on paper - it is the only way of archiving our language and culture”

End Quote Brian Duffy Deaf film-maker

But Gaelic and Welsh are languages woven into the very fabric of the UK itself. They're part of its culture and its history. Is BSL on the same footing as these ancient languages?

BSL can be found in the UK's history though has only been around in force since the mid-1800s. But do we judge importance by the amount of time that's passed or in other ways?

See Hear, BBC Two's long-running sign language magazine programme gets around 200,000 weekly viewers. By way of comparison, BBC Alba and S4C together claim around 600,000 weekly viewers.

Though there are some estimates of up to 200,000, Ofcom's own research commissioned in 2006 estimates that 66,000 people understand sign language - that's more than the 58,000 who speak Scottish Gaelic. There are around 750,000 Welsh speakers in the UK.

Some say BSL is an endangered language and is being whittled away on several fronts. Cochlear implants, controversial in the deaf community, though life enhancing for some, are seen as shifting people away from being natural sign language users. The trend for closing down deaf schools is leading to deaf children being mainstreamed and learning by lip-reading English speakers, not by sign.

Though many would see medical solutions and equality in education as positives and logical progression, a large number of those in the deaf community prefer to think of themselves as a minority language community rather than disabled, and the idea that their culture might be "cured" is offensive. It's inescapably political.

A still from an episode of Doctor Who including an in-vision signer in the bottom right-hand corner About 5% of the BBC's coverage is signed either with an in-vision signer or a signing presenter, including Doctor Who

BBC Alba and S4C help keep their respective language and culture alive. So if BSL really is an endangered language then perhaps television, presented by sign language users, is needed more than ever.

The closest the UK has to a sign language channel comes from the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust (BSLBT), who air their programmes online, as well as on Film4 during the day, and on the Community Channel. They make about 20 programmes per year and have employed many hundreds of deaf people behind and in front of the cameras.

BSLBT receives money from smaller channels, those with between 0.5 and 1% audience share, like Sky One or Dave, who opt to give them money instead of making their own signed content. Each channel pays 20,000 pounds, giving about a million pounds to the trust. The amount has not risen since BSLBT began in 2009 and this current consultation process by Ofcom seeks to find out if they should be receiving more money.

S4C gets £100m a year from the BBC and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. BBC Alba receives around £15m each year from various sources, with a minimum of five hours of new content each week.

BSLBT's million pound budget makes programmes which typically draw 20,000 viewers on TV with more on the website.

Find out more

See Hear titles
  • Watch William Mager interviewing Ofcom's head of Content Policy for See Hear.

Deaf film-maker Brian Duffy has made and appeared in BSLBT programmes and is a passionate advocate of sign-presented TV. He says: "Language should be delivered in its natural form from a native speaker of this country, having it translated is not the same thing. In-vision signing is quite literally the language being pushed aside to the corner. That's an indication of the attitude we get from providers."

But Duffy also points out that, being a language of gestures, BSL cannot be written down like English, Gaelic and Welsh. He says: "Sign language recorded on camera is exactly the same as writing on paper - it is the only way of archiving our language and culture."

In making decisions about the future of television for deaf people, Ofcom faces a confusing picture. Not all deaf people use sign language, and the TV regulator says many more deaf people in the UK rely on subtitling rather than signing.

When, in the final of 2011's the Young Apprentice, the BBC ran live subtitles with a delay of five seconds, there was uproar. But when the BBC News channel decided to drop its scheduled 1pm BSL bulletin for breaking news coverage such as Nelson Mandela's funeral, they didn't get many complaints. Ofcom could be forgiven for thinking this means subtitles are far more important than sign language.

Whatever your views on the importance of BSL on television, they're worth sharing. Ofcom's review of signing arrangements closes at 5pm on Monday 22nd of September. In particular it will look at whether funding for BSLBT should start to rise with inflation. For more information follow this link.

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

'Stand up' says Kanye West to wheelchair-user

Kanye Weston stage for his Yeezus tour

US rapper Kanye West hit the headlines this weekend after stopping a show in order to ask a disabled person in a wheelchair to "stand up". There have been arguments both attacking West's actions and defending his intention but is it ever OK to point out someone's difference in a crowd?

It was one of those moments that quickly sweeps the internet. Kanye West stopping his concert and repeatedly asking a wheelchair-user to stand up, and caught on YouTube.

"I decided I can't do this song, I can't do the rest of the show until everybody stands up," West told the Qantas Credit Union Arena in Sydney. "Unless you got a handicap pass and you get special parking," he added.

It turned out that some of his fans did qualify for a "handicap pass" and, rather than being passed over, they were brought to the attention of the entire arena who urged the disabled fans to "stand up, stand up" as prompted by the star.

Another fan who remained sitting was then pinpointed by West who complained: "This is the longest I've had to wait to do a song, it's unbelievable."

With the crowd booing, some closer to the fan tried to signal to West that the boy was in a wheelchair.

After apparently seeking further verification from a bouncer, West realised he had made a mistake. "If he's in a wheelchair, then it's fine," he said before launching into his next song.

Start Quote

To call out people for not standing up, when they are disabled and cannot stand up, in front of thousands of people, is humiliating”

End Quote Craig Wallace People With Disability Australia

Despite encountering much negative attention in the media over the weekend, according to the Courier Mail Kanye West has once again decided to ask for proof of disability from the fans in the crowd at his latest show in Brisbane.

"If you can not prove to me that you are in a wheelchair you need to be standing, if you can it is OK to sit down," he is reported as saying.

According to those in attendance West defended himself against the media furore in a five-minute rant saying: "I'm a married, Christian man with a family, pick another target."

West has been criticised about the incident in Sydney by local disability campaigners. "To call out people for not standing up, when they are disabled and cannot stand up, in front of thousands of people, is humiliating," says Craig Wallace, of People With Disability Australia, in the Herald Sun. "What if it was a young person who's coming to terms with their disability?" he adds, saying West should apologise and would also benefit from disability awareness training.

The situation proved comical for some, disabled and not. On Twitter, Australian comedian and prosthetic leg-wearer Adam Hills joked about the situation: "Dear Kanye, I ain't sayin you should know better, but she won't dance if she a no-legger," he quipped.

Some take the incident more seriously. Scott Jordan Harris, a disabled journalist writing for the Telegraph, believes disabled people shouldn't have to prove they're disabled and adds that they have the right to go out without being interrogated.

"Kanye West gave so little thought to disabled people that he was surprised to find two among an audience of thousands," writes Jordan Harris. "When he did, he felt it was his right as an able-bodied person to determine whether those people met his personal standard for disability. This attitude comes from the belief that public spaces belong to the able-bodied and that disabled people can only ever trespass in them."

With 11 million disabled people in the UK alone, disability comes in many shapes and forms. But the rapper referred specifically to wheelchair-users as those who might not be able to stand.

A tweet. People at the Kanye West concert tweeted his comments

For Suzanne Bull, the CEO of a charity that improves deaf and disabled people's access to live music venues, it is important to teach others that not all disabled people are in wheelchairs.

"There are a range of facilities that disabled people need from a music venue," she says. "For example, non-wheelchair users find the viewing platform safer to be on in large crowds, visually impaired people need front row-seating, and provision needs to be made for assistance dogs."

Though widely reported as another of West's now famous gaffes, some believe his words have been misconstrued.

"Once he realised they were unable to he launched into The Good Life almost immediately," the Independent reported. And fans at the gig have defended him saying he exempted disabled people from his game from the start. They say he made it clear that if they were in a wheelchair they need not stand.

Jessica Kearney was in the arena at the time and says West's comments have been unfairly attacked. "There was no malice, if anything the audience (myself included) "booed" the person as no-one knew that person was in a wheelchair," she says. "Kanye asked and no-one replied, even though he repeatedly said, 'If you're in a wheelchair that's ok.'"

In the past, West has shown support for disabled fans. In June he asked his security team to give a wheelchair-user his microphone as a gift after spotting he had been blocked in and was unable to see the show properly.

Though stars often urge their audiences to get up and dance, disabled fans aren't often forced into proving their disability to those they admire. We're yet to hear how these particular fans felt about being singled out by the rapper.

Are you disabled? Have you ever been in an incident which resulted in someone on stage looking foolish? And who felt more humiliated, you or them? Email

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

Photographer with Down's syndrome 'sees the world differently'

Oliver Hellowell documents the world as he experiences it

Photographer Oliver Hellowell has Down's syndrome, which his mother says means he sees the world differently to most other people.

Oliver's unique way of capturing the natural world has recently gained him a lot of fans.

Just over a year ago his mother Wendy O'Carroll set up a Facebook page for the 18-year-old's photography. That page now has over 10,500 followers.

"It's not just the numbers that have surprised the family, it's the range of people," says Wendy. The page has fans from Brazil to Alaska.

Oliver hopes that photography - particularly of birds - can become his full-time profession.

To watch a non-subtitled version of this video, click here.

Video journalist: Kate Monaghan

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

Mum and daughter give dyspraxia help

Kerry and Phoebe at a cake sale

A mother and daughter with dyspraxia have been making friendly, informal videos to help those who share their condition.

Kerry Pace loves gardening and dancing. She runs a company that helps disabled students who find regular learning methods difficult, mentoring them over Skype on time management and organisation.

Kerry's daughter, 17-year-old Phoebe Pace, loves baking, craft and her Staffordshire bull terrier. She's currently studying for her A-levels and recently started a blog about how she tackled overwhelming anxiety.

They both have dyspraxia, a common disorder which affects motor co-ordination. It can make activities such as writing or riding a bike difficult, and can cause problems with language, perception and thought.

In their spare time the mother and daughter from Hornsea in East Yorkshire make chatty video blogs full of helpful ideas for others with dyspraxia - from sleep advice to tips on how to use a toothbrush, all based on their personal and professional experience.

In your videos you often talk about eating. Is it a typical dyspraxia problem?

Phoebe: I used to struggle getting everything on to my fork so it didn't fall off on the way to my mouth. One day, however, when there was no proper cutlery around, I resorted to using the child-sized forks left in the drawer. I found them so much easier to manage because they are lighter and have bigger handles. I love sporks - they're the perfect mixture between a spoon and a fork and are deep enough to balance food on. After watching our video, loads of people tried it and said "Wow, I wish I'd known that earlier."

And why did you make a video about sleep?

Kerry: Sleep can be a real problem. Like many with dyspraxia, I have a sensory processing disorder. So, if you know that you can't sleep but can't quite pin down the reason why, take time to evaluate what your senses are feeding you. Is the room temperature right? Is it dark enough, or light enough? Do you want music on or off? What are you wearing - is it tight around your wrists? Does it have an itchy label? I like flanellete bedsheets because they are warm when I get in, but Phoebe prefers cold cotton ones. I have a hot blanket that has a setting which lets you regulate feet and body separately, good for me because my feet are always cold.

You connect dyspraxia with anxiety in your videos. Why?

Kerry: On one of Phoebe's blogs, Dyspraxia UK commented that of all the associated secondary difficulties people can get with the disorder, anxiety is high on the list. That's because we use so much energy just to do everyday things. Coordination is the main symptom of dyspraxia, everyone knows about that, but many start to believe they have a mental health problem because they panic and can't function on an escalator, for instance. Escalators are known to be particularly difficult to use successfully because you need to process multiple things at once, like the fact you're going downwards, at an angle, or at speed. It takes longer to plan your movements to get off safely at the bottom. Occupational therapists tasked with assessing you for dyspraxia will often ask how you get on with escalators. In the video we talk a lot about self compassion. Be easy on yourself and be realistic in your goal setting. And take breaks, they're vital.

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

Lesser-known things about being deafblind

Liz Ball communicating fingerspelling with a friend

For Liz Ball, who no longer has hearing or sight, communication happens mainly through touching other people's hands. Here she reveals five lesser-known things about being deafblind.

The word on the breeze, and through the floor

Deafblind people aren't affected by things that many would consider a distraction. This means they can work through lively conversations, office tea parties, loud music, thunderstorms and the like.

But, create the tiniest of drafts by picking up a sheet of paper, or the smallest of vibrations by placing a foot gently on the floor, and this might instantly attract the attention of a deafblind person.

There are other kinds of distractions. I've declared one meeting venue unusable because its wooden floor amplifies vibrations from the fridge in the adjacent kitchen. The hearing people with me were unaware of the vibration until I drew it to their attention, but I found it intolerable.

You are what your hands say you are

There are many different forms of touch, or tactile, communication. Deafblind manual is a form of tactile fingerspelling, where each letter of the alphabet has a sign that is made against your hand. There's hands-on signing, where a deafblind person puts their hands over the hands of the person they are communicating with to feel the shapes and movements of British Sign Language. Some may use the block alphabet where large capital letters are drawn with a finger onto the palm.

The way a person touches can say a lot about them. From stiffness in the hands, to firmness and rhythm, or tactile language ability, snap judgements can be made about someone's personality or motives just as they can be with a look or a tone of voice.

Deafblind people might not see what others look like, or what they are wearing, but first impressions still count, and these get transmitted by hands.

Two men fingerspelling

Tense hands and awkward movements? Neurotic. Firm yet relaxed hands with a steady rhythm? Conscientious and open.

Like all ways of forming first impressions, it can be wrong, but who can stop themselves?

Talking while you eat

If you communicate by touch alone, it can be difficult to chat with friends over dinner. It involves stretching arms and contorting in order to communicate across the table while trying not to knock over drinks and other such messy hazards.

In a recent blog entry, deafblind poet and essayist John Lee Clark suggests putting people in the middle of the room and the table around the outside. I've seen people communicating with each other like this at events and it looks like a good way to make socialising at mealtimes more accessible.

There are more ways to communicate with deafblind people than there are deafblind people

Communication can happen in lots of different ways - clear speech, tactile fingerspelling, signing made more easy to see or feel, and so on. But, to complicate things further, deafblind people evolve their own variations on these methods.

I communicate using deafblind manual but use five different ways of communicating numbers, depending on who I am speaking with and what they know.

Some people might dot Braille numbers on the back of my hand or draw print numbers on my palm. Or those more familiar with BSL might adapt it. For example one is gripping my index finger, two is index plus middle, three is index plus middle plus ring.

Liz Ball on a bus fingerspelling with a male friend Deafblind people might carry information when going out to instruct people on how to communicate with them
Touch to talk

If a deafblind person is touched, they assume someone wishes to communicate with them as they cannot see or hear them.

When someone touches me I try and guess their intention. For example, if I am sitting on a train I assume it's the ticket inspector, and hold my ticket out.

I can speak and am able to explain how the person can communicate with me. I offer my Braille and print deafblind manual card so they can spell out words to me on my hands. But I may be speaking to thin air or to someone who touched me accidentally. Ironically, it can then take ages for them to explain on my card that they don't actually want to talk.

To get my attention, tap my shoulder, arm or hand. Stand close if you want to communicate but step back if you don't - I communicate very closely with people but also like a bit of personal space.

My colleagues and I invented a secret Morse code signal to use with me if they see me travelling alone and looking stressed or ignoring normal taps. We invented it after an incident at a London railway station where I was waiting for a colleague one morning. Staff and passengers were grabbing at me and not listening to a word I said about communicating with my card. I ended up getting very upset.

When my colleague arrived, she tapped me but I spoke out loud to tell whoever it was to leave me alone. So we invented the secret Morse signal as a quick way for colleagues to say "it's ok, I know what I'm doing, I can communicate with you".

Though I've been concentrating on touch communication on this page, it's worth noting that many people who call themselves deafblind can see and/or hear a little.

Liz Ball works for SENSE the deafblind charity where she is Campaigns Involvement Officer. She has been blind from birth but also became deaf at 26.

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

The voting influence of disabled Scots

saltire and union flag

Disabled people in Scotland have said they feel they've been ignored in Scottish referendum campaigning by both sides. But how are disabled people voting, if at all, and why? BBC Scotland reporter Ian Hamilton looks at the situation with just over a week to go until the polls open.

The last UK census showed one in five of Scotland's population claims to have a disability or long term health condition - that's one million people. That's a sizeable enough community to influence the outcome of the 18 September referendum on independence.

In August, Disability Agenda Scotland, a consortium of six of the nation's largest disability charities, found that 73% of disabled people didn't feel engaged with the forthcoming referendum. This figure was the result of a survey of just over 100 disabled people. Not a huge number and not representative of the whole population admittedly, but the only number we have in the absence of any bigger disability focused polls recently.

Billy Watson, chief executive of the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) says: "For people with a disability, the outcome of the referendum could have profound and far reaching implications, touching on the services that they depend on much more than most Scots. Services such as health, social services, welfare and transport, for instance."

So how might disabled people vote? We can't assume that all disabled people in Scotland are a homogenous like-minded group, because clearly they are not. But many will be on benefits and so potentially affected by the recent cuts from the coalition government.

A disabled person getting into their car transferring from their wheelchair The referendum decision could change services for disabled people, including transport

Why might disabled people vote "Yes"? Some of those I spoke to believe the welfare changes coming from Westminster were having a disproportionate impact on them, so by voting for independence they would help create a fairer society.

A couple of disabled voters went as far as to say: "What have we got to lose by voting 'Yes' when you think of the further proposed cuts?"

It's clear that welfare changes are having as unsettling an impact on disabled people north of the border as they are elsewhere across the UK. The difference here in Scotland is that some disabled people feel they can actively avoid further changes by voting "Yes".

The Scottish government says they will halt the rollout of Universal Credit, stop the change from Disability Living Allowance to the new Personal Independence Payments and end the controversial Work Capability Assessments. They believe Scotland can easily afford to look after the poorest in society through a better distribution of wealth, plus getting more people into work and increasing Scotland's population.

And what about the disabled "No" vote? Those disabled people who would prefer Scotland to remain part of the Union say that the Scottish government's plans for welfare after independence are unclear and unaffordable. Given that the UK is struggling to maintain a large welfare bill, they ask, how could Scotland, with a population of five million, maintain disability payments for the one million who need that extra financial assistance?

Speaking on this month's disability talk show from BBC Ouch, Pipa Riggs, a blind voter who intends to vote "No" to independence, said: "It's all well and good the SNP and the Scottish Parliament giving us everything at the moment to show us how nasty the UK government has been, but once, and if, they become our 'supreme rulers', the shoe will be on the other foot, they will be the one having to watch their spending and possibly tightening their belts."

Somebody holding stirling pound notes and Scottish notes

Two of the Better Together parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, have pledged to reverse cuts in housing benefit which have reportedly hit disabled people the hardest. So if Scotland remains part of the UK, some of the controversial welfare changes may be abolished after the general election next May depending on the outcome.

Perhaps curiously, it's only recently that we've seen the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns target the sizeable disabled population as voters to be won over.

Hundreds of disabled people attended an event in Glasgow last week to question representatives from both sides of the debate. But is this attempt to communicate with disabled people coming too late in the game?

Other minorities have been courted: there are images of people of all races and backgrounds in campaign material from both sides, but none to my knowledge reflecting Scotland's large disability community. Also, perhaps further reflecting the lack of effort put into attracting the disability vote, some disabled people have complained about poor access at campaigning events and lack of accessible information.

Much of the campaigning has been done via social media, but there is also a grassroots movement taking us back to an old fashioned form of politics which has been filling town halls across Scotland, and disabled people feel as though they have missed out on much of this.

It's estimated that one million people will vote either for the first time or for the first time in many years. They've been dubbed the "missing million". The "Yes" campaign argues that these groups previously didn't feel the political process was for them, but the independence debate has succeeded in engaging them.

We know that the poorer the area you live in, the more likely you are to have a disability or a long-term health condition and so it could be that a significant proportion of the "missing million" are disabled.

Polling expert Prof John Curtice has urged caution over concluding that poorer groups could have a significant effect as it emerged that there are now fewer voters on the electoral register than 2012 in deprived areas of Scotland.

I've heard disabled people say it's up to both sides to work at including disabled people in any campaign strategy, and express the opinion that they could have a major impact on the outcome of the referendum. However, with two weeks to go, is it too late?

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

Disabled singer responds to childhood bullies in song

Ilse singing into a microphone in the studio

A Belgian singer with one arm tells BBC Ouch how she composes lyrics, and also displays a talent for turning negatives into unlikely positives.

As a child, when Ilse Gevaert was teased for having a prosthetic forearm her father bluntly advised: "If you get bullied just take your arm off and hit them on the head with it."

Unlike many amputees who eventually reject the idea of wearing a prosthetic arm due to it being cumbersome or unhelpful, the Belgian has continued to wear hers into adulthood. And just as Prof Stephen Hawking hasn't updated his 80s speech synthesizer despite more human-sounding ones being available now, she has kept her original arm and hand. "It's a little heavy," she says, "but it's all I know and I can do everything with it except handstands."

She admits that the vintage prosthetic isn't ideal in a number of ways. A middle finger broke recently after attempting to fall properly in a yoga class, and, she says, "I'd love to be able to paint my nails but the varnish won't stick to the skin." Referring to an older covering, she says: "On my previous skin I could, but if I lent on a newspaper, the entire article would be printed on it."

Gevaert, who grew up in the college town of Ghent, and who has loved singing from an early age, studied psychology instead of her preferred subject music. She says this is because her parents were anxious about letting her study an arts subject. "My mom was worried because I couldn't be a waitress," she says unexpectedly, going on to explain that most actors and artists wait tables. "Mom told me I had to study something where you don't need your arm."

Black and white picture of Ilse sitting on a crate looking back over her shoulder, wearing a very glamorous dress with her prosthetic arm clearly visible

Though she was a little unhappy about taking her second choice subject at the time, Gevaert says that ultimately it has helped her to create better lyrics.

In her day job she mentors young song-writers. The degree, she says, "helps me to get to their core right away, because a young artist doesn't always know who they are.

"I always go back to their childhood: What did you want when you were a little girl or boy? What did you envision for yourself? That's who you really are. We change too much I think."

Gevaert has been living in New York City for seven years and says the first few years there were spent in poverty. "At one point I could only afford to eat bread and cheese, and then I found out that cheese isn't good for your vocal chords."

To keep her head above water, she took every singing gig offered but says she overdid it and lost her voice. She had developed a polyp, a fluid-filled collection that forms on the edge of a vocal cord when it isn't rested enough. She wasn't able to pay for surgery and her parents begged her to come home. Gevaert was then offered the chance to become a guinea pig for new laser treatment and decided to do it.

"It turned out to be the best surgery out there because they don't have to cut into your vocal cords," she says. "It's exactly the same treatment Adele had."

Find out more

Ouch banner
  • You can hear Gevaert's track on the latest disability talk show from Ouch, available via stream or podcast.

Gevaert was told not to speak for six months after having the procedure. She believes this silent period made her a better listener and helped improve her song-writing. In fact, she cites the polyp as a turning point in her career.

The Belgian singer then quickly built a fan base in her adopted home city and went on to sell out the famous New York alternative venue Joe's Pub. She has shared the stage with Lana Del Rey and worked with producers synonymous with R&B singer John Legend and Mercury prize winner James Blake.

On the internet, the video for I am Human, the title track from her forthcoming album, has received over 300 thousand hits on YouTube and she has 90 thousand Twitter followers.

She puts her song's success down to it being "from the heart" and says it's a response to the bullying and cruel looks she got as a child.

Gevaert's album is due out later this autumn.

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

Special needs changes a 'landmark moment' in education

A boy in a wheelchair with two female friends, one of them is sitting on a bench

Changes have been made this week which give children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) and their families a greater say in the support they receive. So how do the people affected feel about the new system?

The new measures are being described as some of the biggest changes in special education for 30 years. For a start there's been a name change - we now use the acronym SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities).

The new system will also give parents the option to apply for a personal budget. For the first time they can have more financial control over their child's education.

The government has said the new system is a "landmark moment" for children with SEN, which will stretch from birth to age 25. For children and young people on a statement - they receive statutory support in school - they will be moved onto Education Health and Care plans. This means the local council, NHS and school will work together to create a plan for the child.

For many of those I have spoken to - teachers, parents and young people - while the changes bring much hope there are concerns at the speed with which they have been rolled out.

There are currently 1.7 million students with various learning difficulties - about a fifth of England's schoolchildren - so creating one system that works for all is no mean feat.

Robert Bailey, who has high-functioning autism, and his mother discuss how the reforms to special educational needs will affect them

The previous system is testament to that. In 2010 Ofsted carried out a wide-ranging review of SEN and found real frustration from parents who felt they had to "fight for the rights" of their children. The inspection body carried out detailed studies of 345 young people and found that although in some areas it was working well, there was not enough consistency and equality in the support being given.

Assessments were often time-consuming and repeated a number of times leaving young people without the help they needed to reach their full potential at school.

After visiting a centre in Greater Manchester which gives extra tuition to children with special educational needs including dyslexia, autism and Asperger's Syndrome, it is clear some parents are tired. Tired of fighting for their child's education but terrified by what they are calling "the unknown". It seems these parents didn't have much respect for the old system but feel in the dark about the new one.

This fear is reflected by Robert Bailey, a 14-year-old I spent time with over his summer holidays. He has high-functioning autism, and likes routine. What he doesn't like is "the unknown" as he says the support is important for his education.

"If I didn't have extra support I don't think I would have coped, I think I literally would have snapped like a small tree branch."

A little girl with Down's syndrome playing with an abacus

Changes to SEN

  • Statements of special needs and learning difficulties will be replaced by education, health and care plans (EHC)
  • SEN support will replace School Action, School Action Plus and their equivalents
  • The system will support those from birth to 25 - instead of only those aged between five and 19 years.

His mother, Justine, is one of those parents who has battled hard for her son's education and she feels that finally they have got to a place where Robert can learn and flourish. Looking through the new Code of Practice she is positive but is concerned about the speed in which they have been introduced.

"I just hope that local authorities are geared up to put those resources into place to be able to respond to that need because one thing we can't do is wait. Our children can't wait, they need support all the time," she says.

Teaching unions are worried the changes are coming in too quickly, but the government says they have done everything they can to involve the teaching profession and have also held several courses for teachers, headteachers and special needs co-ordinators. A fifth of local authorities have been implementing the changes over the past 18 months. I went to Hawkley Hall High School, a mainstream school in Wigan which also has specialist services for children with autism. The feeling I got - both from the children and their teachers - is that they played as much of a part in the overall tapestry of the school as the other pupils.

SEN (and disability) is very important to this school - and the changes have been introduced gradually and thoughtfully over the past year or so. Roy Halford, the headteacher, is positive about many of the changes and says it will give more tailored support for pupils.

Overall it is clear that everyone I met who is involved in special education is passionate about a child's ability to learn and reach their potential and the overall consensus appears to be that these changes are a good thing, they just wish they had had a little more time to implement them.

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

My disabled festival diary

Eileen Hutchinson at the Leeds Festival

Music fan Eileen Hutchinson has rheumatoid arthritis but she was determined - with a bit of help, planning and the correct facilities - to live it up at this year's Leeds Festival. This is her diary of the weekend.

Day one

On arrival, my personal assistant (PA) and I are given great directions to the disabled campsite and so miss loads of the festival traffic. I bought my festival ticket as normal and then used my reference number and proof of disability to apply for a free PA /carer ticket under the two-for-one disabled access ticket scheme. Many other major UK music festivals have similar policies.

We get to park right inside the site, whereupon my PA and volunteers from Oxfam unpack the car and put up my tent. I have brought a high, off-the-ground, camp bed, which is easier for me to get into, and a tent that I can stand up in to make dressing more comfortable.

The disabled campsite is run by the charity Attitude is Everything, a very cool bunch who believe that access to festivals by people with all types of disability is essential. There is room around each tent so that us self-described "wobblies "don't fall over guy ropes.

Picture of tents

Once settled in, I meet everyone staying at the disabled campsite. They turn out to be lovely friendly people and we immediately start talking about which bands we want to see - mine are The Kooks, and (ex-My Chemical Romance member) Gerard Way.

The disabled campsite has proper showers and toilets. There's also an info tent, with loads of helpful things including an air pump, phone and wheelchair charge points and a kettle. I use this to fill my hot water bottle, which helps with my joint pain, and to make pot noodles. Yum. You don't get such luxury on the main campsites.

I quickly discover that the disabled campsite is within the guest area, with its own bar and food place. It's like being a VIP.

Day two

Music starts today. We are so excited that we get up early, even though we stayed up whirling about to cheesy disco music until late. When we got back to our campsite last night, it was nice and quiet, with on-site security. It's hard for me to get out of bed quickly, which can make me feel vulnerable, so it's nice to know that someone is looking over my tent.

Disabled people sit on a raised viewing platform at the Leeds festival The view from Eileen's seat

I have a pass which lets me use the disabled viewing platforms. They are situated above the crowd, which allows me and other disabled music fans to see the stage from a seated position. The Attitude and Oxfam volunteers make sure that the platform has enough room and that everyone can see. People don't fall over me or elbow me in the face like they did before I found out about the platforms. It makes me feel safe.

Next we head for the autograph signing tent. My legs won't let me queue for an hour, so a lovely security guy lets me sit in a safe area until it's my turn. Then they help me up to meet the band. I of course turn into a wreck, not saying any sensible stuff to Luke Pritchard from the Kooks, only managing a mumbled "I like your suit" and "I think you are cute." Doh!

Eileen meets the Kooks Eileen meets the Kooks

The food is great but it is hard to find somewhere to sit and eat - I can't get down to floor level. There are some benches but as a disabled person, I am allowed to take essential pieces of equipment onto the site, so my PA carries a camp chair for me to sit on.

Day three

I'm exhausted so we opt for a chilled-out Sunday but then it all builds up for The Hives and Arctic Monkeys in the evening. The crowd looks amazing from our viewpoint and we can see the stage from the platforms really well.

Liz and a fellow festival-goer

Dotted around the site are disabled toilets. There is usually one beside each viewing platform, so we don't have to fight our way through the crowd. They are kept impressively clean too, which is great for those who transfer manually from chair to loo.

We wait on the platforms till the main crowd goes so as not to be pushed or shoved. Paths have been put in so that our wheelchairs or crutches don't get stuck in mud. As we head back to the campsite, we all sing "Follow the yellow brick road" because of their colour.

After swapping addresses, we all go to bed. Tomorrow, everything will get packed up again and we will be offsite with great memories and wishing it was already next summer.

Eileen and friends at the festival
Attitude is Everything

More than 3m deaf and disabled people experience live music each year, and as accessibility improves, this number keeps growing.

The charity Attitude is Everything works with musicians, disabled music fans and the industry, to make gigs more inclusive.

More than 90 venues and festivals have signed up to the charity's charter of best practice, which encourages them to go beyond legal requirements for accessibility.

Promoters that work with Attitude typically report a significant rise in ticket sales to deaf and disabled customers - often by more than 100%.


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

Drama brings craft of eye-making to life

An ocular prosthesis being filed down by a small handheld filer Prosthetic eyes are individually moulded and painted with intricate detail

The art of artificial eye-making is brought to radio and the stage in a new darkly comic play.

Slipping is a new radio play about the relationship between Elena (Charlotte Riley), a woman with glaucoma who decides to have an artificial eye, and her ocularist Sean (Andrew Scott). Romance, lies and the art of prosthetic eye-making all contribute to this darkly comic tale.

"Between my colleagues we can tell each other's eyes a mile off," says Sean to Elena. "Trademark details - someone spreads his veins around a certain way, someone else's edges are a bit sharp, or they favour a particular shade of white.

"We've 10 shades of white. If you're young it's the brightest kind."

The art of making eyes is skilled, says playwright Claudine Toutoungi, who has herself undergone eye removal because of glaucoma.

Start Quote

Claudine Toutongi

Eyes are crucial - they're such a big part of love and romance and eroticism”

End Quote Claudine Toutoungi

"Ocularists see you for an initial consultation where they take a photo of your good eye," says Toutoungi. "They work from the photo to make a tailor-made, hand-painted eye. They want to match what they're making for you as perfectly as possible."

She says the final bespoke cosmetic eye she received had a more dilated pupil than an off-the-peg version - a personal feature in her existing real eye because of multiple surgery. "They have an attention to colour that you wouldn't have thought was possible.

"You slot it in almost like a very hard counter or lens. It moves completely naturally. It's like a little limpet made out of plastic with the eye painted onto it, and you can take it out when you need to clean it.

"In the olden days I think they would be round marble balls or something similar."

Toutoungi says she quickly recognised the dramatic possibilities which led to her writing the drama. "Eyes are crucial. They're such a big part of love and romance and eroticism. I worked on this script for quite a long time and really stayed with the characters. I feel like they exist. they're both people in quite chaotic places in their lives and I think it's completely plausible they could collide given how people in this situation are forced together in this strangely intimate way."

The two actors during production, looking at each other Andrew Scott and Charlotte Riley star in Slipping

When Toutoungi decided to have her bad eye removed eight years ago, she was quickly introduced to the "harsh" medical terminology that comes with the territory.

"As a patient whenever you do something new, you're entering a world which almost has a sacred language of its own," she says. 'Enucleation' (surgical removal of the entire eye) and 'evisceration' (eye's contents are removed leaving the muscles and white covering) are quite frightening sounding words when you first come across them. Then you hear you'll be having an 'orbital implant'."

Then there is the term "sympathetic response", which is used to express what happens when surgery on one eye triggers a problem in the other eye. "It sounds like a good thing, but it isn't," says Toutoungi, "Although it does appeal to the punning side of my nature."

How are prosthetic eyes made?
  • Made from the same acrylic used to make teeth
  • Veins are created by sealing tiny shreds of embroidery thread into the plastic
  • In the last 12 months the NAES made 4,662 bespoke eyes
  • They made a further thousand "stock" (generic not personalised) eyes in the same period

The National Artificial Eye Service


You can listen to Slipping on Afternoon Drama on Monday 1 September at 14:15 BST. A longer version of the play will be performed at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre between 3 and 18 October.

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

Ouch show 111: Religion and politics

Simon Minty and Shannon Murray

On this month's show: They say never discuss religion and politics. We're ignoring that advice.

We look at Guide Gods, a show about how different faiths think about disability.

With the Scottish referendum nearly on us, we ask two disabled Scots, one in the yes camp, one in the no, how independence might affect disabled people.

Also: Would you prefer a drug-dispensing microchip or a drug-dispensing testicle? Does the Ice Bucket Challenge bring awareness to Motor Neurone Disease as originally intended? Plus the monthly news quiz, music and plenty of disability talk.

Shannon Murray and Simon Minty present.

Your monthly way in to disability news through chat, humour and the little things of life.

How to listen

Ouch Podcast 111: Politics and religion

PDF download Read a transcript[220kb]

Show notes

More about this month's guests and discussions:

  • Our citizen journalist this month is Jocelyn Tompkinson, unofficially Ouch's cures correspondent. She works in spinal cord injury research at a university in Vancouver. Hear more from her on her podcast Gimpfacts
  • Dancer and artist Claire Cunningham talks to us about her show Guide Gods which explores how disabled people are treated and understood by different faiths. It's on at the Southbank Centre in London in early September.
  • Disability issues are beginning to figure in the run-up to next month's Scottish referendum. Read the Scottish government's welfare pledges around disability. and why one disabled MP is voting no.
  • Our studio guest throughout this edition is Mik Scarlet - disability journalist, pundit, trainer and presenter. Follow him on Twitter.
  • We end each show with an unsigned disabled artist, this month it's Ilse. Born in Belgium, she now lives in New York. She says her song, I am Human, is a response to all the quizzical looks and cruel words she received living in a small town and growing up with a prosthetic hand. Take a peek at the much-viewed music video on YouTube.
  • For other audio clips from Ouch, go to our Audioboo channel.

Producer: Damon Rose

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

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."

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

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.

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

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.

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


About Ouch disability

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

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

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

Tune in

Our archive

Ouch Tweets

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.