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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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.