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Hand Cycling Has Given Me My Freedom Back Edited from
When Neil Russell discovered hand bikes, he felt like he had found a way of getting his "freedom and independence back". The 36-year-old was born with spina bifida and walked with a bad limp until he had his right leg removed below the knee at the age of eighteen.

Spina bifida is when a baby's spine and spinal cord does not develop properly in the womb, causing a gap in the spine. Most people with spina bifida are able to have surgery to close the opening in the spine. But the nervous system will usually already have been damaged, which can lead to problems such as:

  • weakness or total paralysis of the legs
  • bowel incontinence and urinary incontinence
  • loss of skin sensation in the legs and around the bottom - the child is unable to feel hot or cold, which can lead to accidental injury

Neil, who was born in Fife but now lives in Stirling, had to undergo surgery on many occasions while he was growing up. One of his legs was shorter than the other, and the sores and infections from the operations caused him a lot of pain. "Most people don't have their leg amputated, but I wanted to so I spoke to my family to get their opinion. The Edinburgh University graduate had a kidney removed when he was twenty-one, and had a heart attack five years ago.

Neil first encountered handcycling when a friend asked him to take part in a paratriathlon. "You can't buy them here, you have to get them from America. I tried one and loved it, and thought where can it take me, what can I do with this? I felt emotional."

He bought a bike and started riding around Edinburgh, but found it was "scary" because he was so low to the ground in heavy traffic and lorries could not see him. Neil then discovered off-road handcycles and started practising on the trails near his house. He holds on to levers and powers them using his arms to turn the chain, which propels the bike forward.

He believes that his journey around Scotland will be the first of its kind. After handcycling across to the west of the country, he will visit Arran before cycling up the west coast to the Outer Hebrides. He will then travel along the top of Scotland and on to Orkney and Shetland, then back down the east coast to Edinburgh.

Neil will be supported by his girlfriend, Jess Paul, 34, who will follow him in a van - although in some sections he will be on his own.

Neil, who uses a wheelchair when he is not riding his bike, said mobility would be his biggest challenge. During the journey he will be pulling a trailer and will sometimes have to carry his wheelchair. He will also be carrying a prothesis so he can travel very short distances when he is not on his bike, although this causes him pain.

He said: "I want to show that with a bit of time and planning and 'go for it' attitude you can do it. I want to inspire others to get out and do whatever adventure they dream of, even if it's not the same type of one as me. I was never that person who sat there feeling sorry for myself or depressed. I've always had the mindset where I think that looks fun how do I find a way to make it happen, I've problem-solved and adapted." And he added: "I've always wanted to go around Scotland but driving you miss a lot.

Ballet Dancer Joe Powell-Main Seen As 'Wrong Type' – Edited from
Despite being Wales' first professional ballet dancer with a disability, Joe Powell-Main has faced some judgements. The 23-year-old has returned to dance from injury and uses his wheelchair and crutches to perform. He said it should be easier for others like him to enter the profession in future.

Joe, who is from Newtown in Powys, has danced since he was a child. But while he was training at the Royal Ballet as a teenager he suffered a series of injuries, leaving him with long-term damage to his left leg. The injuries left him depressed as dancing had been his world since he was a child. After three years he wanted to start dancing again, but found it difficult to be accepted in the ballet world.

"I've had people making snap judgements and be like: 'You're in a wheelchair, you use crutches, so how are you going to be able to do dance?'," he said. "It can be quite difficult to navigate." He said his movements don't necessarily conform to the strict rules of what people should expect, but that does not mean it is not ballet. "Sometimes it doesn't look like conventional ballet - people in point shoes, legs up by their ears... but there needs to be a willingness to look beyond that and see that its different," he said.

"What I'm still doing is ballet, I'm just sitting down or I'm using my chair or I'm using my crutches to assist me to be able to do things, just in a different way. I think if people can look beyond that and see that there's something there that you know, that can be taken forward and hopefully there will be more dancers like me."

The 23-year-old refers to himself as "differently abled" rather than disabled because he said it "adds a stigma that people think: 'Oh, well you can only do this'". Joe believes he is the first such dancer to have a professional contract with a ballet company. But he said it has been a difficult journey and he wants opportunities widened for others. "For me to be able to get the balletic movement again, even though it was in my wheelchair, spurred me on - I was like right there's no one else like me so I need to crack this for other people as well. Even now it can be quite difficult to navigate, but I think unfortunately that comes with the territory and if change is to happen, that is something I need to go through, for me and everyone coming after me as well."

He's twice been UK para-dance champion performing with his sister, and also performed with the Royal Ballet at the homecoming event for the Paralympics in September. Joe has also just completed a UK tour of Giselle with Ballet Cymru, a Newport based company which wants to change perceptions of ballet.

Its artistic director, Darius James, said the ballet world needs to change and see it as a "beautiful diverse ballet" as the dance was 80 years ago. "I would ask [people] to come and see Joe on stage and our entire company on stage and look at the diversity and see that it actually is ballet that if you take it back to the roots of ballet," he said.

Ballet Cymru also has a programme to encourage young people from more diverse backgrounds into ballet. Amy Doughty, who organises the project, said it is so those with different levels of physical ability, less affluent backgrounds and different body shapes all feel ballet is for them. "It's about talent and we know that talent is everywhere and we only see such a small proportion of that talent because historically it’s only been accessed by a small group of people," she said.

Strictly Come Dancing Inspires Deaf Signing Course For Teens – Edited from
A charity that supports deaf people is to run a sign language course for teenagers after this year's Strictly Come Dancing series sparked lots of interest.

EastEnders actor Rose Ayling-Ellis is the first deaf contestant in the BBC programme's history. Deafconnect in Northampton said interest in how the actor communicates had led to lots of inquiries. It said it had given them the impetus to put on a course for young people.

Chief executive officer, Jenny Dawkins, said the casting of deaf actor Lauren Ridloff as superhero Makkari in Marvel Studios' Eternals film had also raised awareness. "We have wanted to do [this course] for a long time but this has kind of pushed us," she said. "Now is the time because it's what everyone is talking about."

Ayling-Ellis and her professional dance partner Giovanni Pernice have been praised throughout the series but last week, they paid particular tribute to the deaf community, while dancing to music by Clean Bandit and Zara Larsson. Halfway through, the music cut out as the pair danced on, in order to show people what a deaf person's world was like.

The charity said Ayling-Ellis had given people an "amazing insight into life as a deaf person". Ms Dawkins said it was "fantastic proof that a deaf person can do anything they want to do. Not all deaf people can now dance, but our aim is to give all deaf people a chance to be fully included if they want to do something," she said.

She said they had wanted to run a course for teenagers for a while, as affiliated British Sign Language (BSL) courses are not really aimed at young people. Plus, deaf children were now encouraged to go to mainstream schools and the pupils want to communicate with each other.

The charity's six-week after school course for 11 to 18-year-olds covers a lot of the basics and, while it was not a qualification, it acted as a taster for the affiliated sessions. Ms Dawkins said there was a lot of interest in the class, which starts in January, and there they would have to start a waiting list or put on another class.


18:18, 26 Dec 2021 by Lesley Windle