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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.