Wonder girl's support centre to fall victim to spending cuts

Lawrence McGinty

Former Science and Medical Editor

Claire Malone faces seeing her support centre close Credit: ITV

One of the privileges of my job is that you meet some remarkable people. And Claire Malone is one of the most amazing people I've met.

She has cerebral palsy but is now in her fourth year of study for a physics degree at Imperial College, London, one of the top three unis in Britain for physics.

That means she's obviously very brainy. She also has a great smile.

She uses a powered wheelchair to zoom around the college (and I mean zoom - my cameraman and I could hardly keep up with her).

But just as important to her are a range of technologies that enable her to function as a student - to take notes, to take part in tutorials, and to work out some pretty complicated mathematics.

Take just one technology. She uses software called Eyegaze to construct mathematical equations. It works like this.

On her computer screen she sees a keyboard full of maths symbols. The computer has a built-in camera that follows her gaze. When she looks at a symbol for more than a fraction of a second the computer "picks it up".

Then when she moves her gaze to the equation she's working on, the computer puts it in where she wants it. Watching Claire do it is amazing.

Claire is one of 5,000 people with severe communication problems who've been helped by an outfit called the ACE Centre in Oxford.

They assess people like Claire and pick out the best technology to help them communicate and make sure it works for them. But now the centre says it will have to close next month.

The reasons why are complicated but basically involve schools and local authorities cutting back on the number of assessments they pay ACE for, and a Whitehall maze which means their government funding is falling between stools. They need £150,000 to keep going.

On Wednesday ACE's local MP Andrew Smith asked the Prime Minister to intercede and Mr Cameron said he'd look at what could be done - he's visited the centre and knows about its work.

What a tragedy if a place like ACE, whose help means people like Claire can gain a real measure of independence, should close for the sake of an amount of money less than some MPs claim in expenses.