Gita Conn reports on devices that help blind children - and meets a family that uses them.
Ten-year-old Robert Turner from Bury, Lancashire, is doing well at his primary school. He loves art, football, music and games and is looking forward to taking up his place at Tottington High School next year.
Robert is also blind. His eyesight began to fail in his second year at school and, when he was seven, he was diagnosed as suffering from retinitis pigmentosa.
Pam and Gary, his parents, found the consultant's explanations difficult to absorb. "We were traumatised," says Pam. "The only word that seemed to sink in was `degenerative' - it just kept echoing in my head."
If parents can be described as a "resource", then Pam and Gary Turner are the best that Robert could have. "We didn't shed a tear," says Pam, "we just got on with it."
They carried on with the holiday they had planned. Off they went to France with Robert, Claire (now seven) and a Perkins Brailler in the boot of the car. By the time they returned home, Robert had mastered the Braille alphabet.
The Turners consider they have been very fortunate. They have excellent support and work with their local Visual Impairment Service. Robert is assigned a fully-qualified teacher for the visually impaired, as well as a special support assistant.
Robert's story is an example of the implementation of the code of practice on special educational needs that came out of the 1993 Education Act which says that, where possible, children should be educated alongside their peers in mainstream schools.
But it didn't happen easily or automatically. Pam worries that children with less assertive parents or a less supportive school and local authority may never gain access to all the available resources.
"We didn't really know what we had to ask for," she explains. "We had to fight to get a statement."
When the statement arrived, Pam refused to accept it as she did not feel it met all Robert's requirements. With the help of the Royal National Institute for the Blind's Advocacy Service, she rewrote it and went to see the local authority's head of support services.
The Turners, with the support staff, have made themselves aware of every scheme and resource available to increase Robert's independence. "The support is there but you have to look for it," says Pam.
Despite huge technological advances, the Perkins Brailler, a Braille typewriter, is the most essential resource. Robert's Perkins has a special attachment that prints out in Braille and in print, so his teacher can mark his work.
Essentials for school include a talking calculator (he also has a talking watch), tactile rulers and protractors, a cubarithm, on which weighted and Braille-embossed cubes can help with maths; a hot-spot fuser which prints out raised diagrams and, for art work, a set of scented marker pens.
He can tell the colour by the smell: black, for instance, smells of liquorice. One new product on the Turners' shopping list is a globe with all the main features identified by tactile markings.
But his lifeline resource is books. An avid reader, Robert explains that, although he listens to audio cassettes (talking books), he prefers to read for himself. "The tapes are, you know, contracted," he explains. "And I want to know the whole story."
The National Library for the Blind, with thousands of children's titles, supplies him with books for school projects and leisure reading. "It's as easy as going into any library," says Pam. "You phone them up and the books usually arrive in the post the next day."
Gary adds wryly: "The trouble is we can't stop him reading in bed by turning the light off. We often find him fast asleep with his fingers still on the page."
The library's two-way books, Braille and print side-by-side on the page, mean that Robert can actually check his sister Claire's reading skill
Braille-adapted games such as Scrabble, Cluedo and Monopoly and raised squares on the chessboard are well used by the Turners and Robert's friends. Gary has perfected a system of drilling small holes into games' counters to give Robert the "feel".
Robert can even play football. He and his pals use a bright white ball. They shout its location to him and he can pick up the image with his slight residual vision.
In her search for stimulating resources, Pam telephoned all the theatres in the area and, eventually found that the Octagon Theatre in nearby Bolton held one "audio-described" performance each run. Blind members of the audience are given headsets and listen to a description of the scenes.
Innovatively, the Octagon also has a Touch Tour on which visitors are escorted on stage to feel the set and costumes. They can also borrow audio tapes which give background details of the production. Forty blind people turned up for the recent Touch Tour of Victoria Wood's play, Talent.
Like many of the country's 8,000 visually-impaired children in mainstream schools, Robert is the only blind pupil at his. But, with his help, 12 of his fellow pupils have formed a club and can now read Braille. He also recently gave a presentation of his resources to another primary school.
Pam and Gary do everything they can to raise general awareness. "Maybe one or two out of those children will grow up and be in a position to adapt their business environment for blind people. We have become so aware of things like overhanging branches, or cars parked on the pavement, especially now that Robert walks to school on his own."
For that journey, he uses the simplest resource of all - a white cane, together with a certain protocol. The other day, an elderly lady asked if she could help him cross the road. He says: "I knew I had to let her and say `thank you', but really I could have taken her across the road."
PRODUCTS, HELP LINES, TALKING BOOKS AND OTHER AIDS
*The Visual Impairment Service can be contacted through a local authority. It is sometimes listed under "Sensory Impairment Service" or "Special Educational Needs Service". A full list of all local authority services in the country is available from the Royal National Institute for the Blind Education Service, tel: 0171 388 1266.
*The RNIB Advocacy Service advises, supports and, if necessary, supplies a personal representative to help parents of blind or partially-sighted children negotiate special educational provisions under the 1993 Education Act with their local authority. Contact Sue Johnson, RNIB family services co-ordinator: 01203 366133.
*The National Library for the Blind has more than 5,000 children's books. Transcription into Braille is complete and unabridged even, says a library spokeswoman, "when the language is inappropriate. Roald Dahl uses disgusting words in print and they are equally disgusting in Braille. Kids love it. " Titles cover all the children's classics from Enid Blyton to Dick King-Smith and Nigel Hinton. These books can be borrowed from the library for up to six months. The service is free, with the Royal Mail delivering and collecting them free. Tel: 0161 494 0217.
In addition to thousands of Braille books, the library supplies the following, also free: Braille music; Moon books (Moon is a simpler system than Braille, more suitable for those with additional learning difficulties); large-print books of the classics, which can be supplied to public libraries; two-way books; magazines; teaching packs. The library also supplies courses for teaching Braille and Moon, including the Birmingham Braille Course for teachers of the visually impaired.
Talking books and the following products can be purchased through the RNIB's customer service, which can also supply catalogues. Tel: 0345 456457. The prices quoted are for organisations - individual purchases