The price of a good read

How blind and partially-sighted people are discriminated against when it comes to reading

When David Blunkett appeared on Mastermind, his specialist subject was the rather non-cerebral choice of the Harry Potter novels. This may seem to be surprising until the very limited range of literature available in Braille and audiobook format is taken into account.

Cases like these reveal an oddity or, dare I say, hypocrisy about the importance attached to literacy. We are always told how vital it is that children should be taught how to read and we are encouraged to feel sorry for blind and partially-sighted people who are unable to enjoy conventionally printed books.

However, this is a problem which is not difficult to solve. All of the technology required to make the printed word accessible to disabled people already exists. The only major stumbling block is merely a lack of political will.

The simplest solution would be for publishers to commercially produce their books in a variety of accessible formats. At present, a fair number of major bestsellers are converted into audiobooks, which are also popular with sighted readers who enjoy listening to the dulcet tones of the likes of Stephen Fry, but they represent a surprisingly small proportion of the overall output.

Furthermore, unabridged versions of these books are expensive, and are often sold at around four or five times the price of their printed equivalent. Braille and large print editions are particularly rare from publishers and instead are usually left to be produced by charities. According to recent research carried out by the RNIB in support of the Right to Read campaign, a huge 96% of books are never made accessible in any way.

This commercial apathy is usually justified by saying that there is just not a large enough market among blind people. However, this excuse fails to consider the large number of people with less significant sight problems or with dyslexia, who would also benefit from alternative formats. But the major problem with this argument is that it is contradicted by the stance of the publishers when it comes to self-help conversions of books by disabled people.

It is relatively straightforward process to scan a book into a home computer and there is software available to produce an imperfect spoken version using optical character recognition, or indeed a copy in Braille or large print. The only disadvantages are that the equipment remains very expensive, upwards of one thousand pounds in total, and each individual scan takes a long time, several days in the case of a very large book. Both of these difficulties could be overcome through file-sharing but publishers refuse to allow it.

Their fear is palpable and, suddenly, it seems as though a fairly small minority, regarded as being commercially insignificant, has become a horde of potential pirates. This idea is absurd. Nevertheless, the lobbyists of the publishing industry continue to crusade against any relaxation of the current laws on copyright. In the United States, a special exemption exists which allows the Library of Congress to produce talking books for blind people and this same loophole has been used to allow a more extensive sharing of books via the internet site Bookshare.

Unfortunately, when the UK government reformed the law in this area a few years ago, it was designed specifically to avoid a similar scheme from being possible here. Instead, disabled readers are only permitted to scan books which they already own at the expense of considerable time and money. The industry is not willing either to make reading accessible themselves or to allow anyone else to do it for them.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.