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New record for the story world

A Braille and audio version of the Children's Laureate's tale is helping to boost the book repertoire for sight-impaired pupils. Raymond Ross reports

A Braille and audio version of the Children's Laureate's tale is helping to boost the book repertoire for sight-impaired pupils. Raymond Ross reports

Browsing through the books on sale at the recent Edinburgh Book Festival, it was a sobering thought that only 5 per cent of the titles could be accessed by blind people through audio or Braille.

"It would be the same in any bookshop or library," says John Legg, director of the Royal National Institute for the Blind Scotland. "Imagine having to say to your child or your pupil, `No, you can't have that book - or that one or the other one. They're just not accessible to you.'"

It's a state of affairs which also exercises the mind of Children's Laureate Julia Donaldson.

"I can't imagine being deprived of my favourite stories from childhood - and I want to help ensure that no child today is excluded from the world of books that, even early on, can do so much to help shape the person we become."

Ms Donaldson was speaking at the launch of a Braille and audio version of one of her stories, Freddie and the Fairy. She has recorded it personally onto audio disc at the RNIB Scotland transcription studio.

"No child should be denied the chance to enjoy the same stories as their peers, stories that stretch the imagination and sense of wonder," she says.

It takes on average five days to record an RNIB talking book and costs between pound;1,000 and pound;2,500. It's a time-consuming process that depends heavily on the use of volunteers.

"You have to capture the voice of the book, from a young voice to an 80- year-old. We sometimes use actors or drama-student volunteers but, importantly for us, teachers do volunteer as well," says Mr Legg.

The RNIB's Talking Books service began in 1935, when audio versions were recorded on vinyl (old 78s to be exact), and since then more than 75 million audio books have been issued to people with sight problems in the UK.

More than 8,000 RNIB talking books are issued every day and over 2 million every year.

"From vinyl we moved onto cassettes, and now to CDs and online downloads. Audio books are especially important for people who lose their sight with age, because they are maybe too old to learn Braille or their fingers lack the necessary sensitivity," says Mr Legg.

"But also, there is the question of sheer bulk. When we published a Braille version of a Harry Potter book, for example, it had to be issued in 10 boxes. Think of that as compared to simply downloading an audio version or popping in a couple of CDs," he says.

The RNIB book service does contain as many bestsellers as possible, but also caters for individual interests and hobbies like chess, fishing, cookery and crafts, and it publishes in Scots, Gaelic, Punjabi and Urdu, among other languages.

"It's a huge undertaking and our presence at the book festival every year is very important, not only to publicise what we do, but also to meet sympathetic writers who come forward each year and volunteer to audio- transcribe their work," says Mr Legg.

"Michael Palin is a case in point. He transcribes all his books for us, free, because he can see the worth and value of what we do."

All RNIB audio books are unabridged, making the organisation the largest unabridged audio library in Europe.

"With audio books you can also flip pages back and forth, as you would with a printed book, and you can also mark pages - say, a favourite poem or recipe - as you might with a print version," says Mr Legg.

The vital importance of the RNIB audio library hardly needs underlining - but it is, when your eyes are drawn to a large sign in the festival book tent. It quite simply reads: "Every week in Scotland, 10 people start to lose their sight."

Another sobering thought.


The RNIBS Book Festival event drew attention to how book illustrations - a vital part of literature for young children - are being made accessible to children with sight loss.

"Pictures help children learn, and blind youngsters can feel left out if they don't understand the pictures that are such an important part of children's stories," says Liz Davies, production manager with the charity Living Paintings.

"By providing images that can be `felt', Living Paintings' Touch to See books ensure that children with limited or no vision can share the experiences of their sighted friends.

"They can gain so much from the special experience of feeling the characters and scenes in picture books, and listening to the descriptions of the illustrations. The painted `feely pictures' help them connect meaningfully with characters and story.

"The audio soundtrack describing the illustrations is packaged with the book, and the book pages are interleaved with the text of the story in Braille.

"This gives blind and partially-sighted children equal access to books and learning and enables them to begin to understand the visual world of storytelling for themselves.

"Touch to See books are designed to be inclusive and fun - and this is what the children tell us they want.

"Because of the design of the books, they also enable the child to share the book with sighted friends, reading the same story together and enjoying the illustrations together too."

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