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.