Sylvia Barker, 74, of Walthamstow, north-east London, can neither see nor hear. Her fingers are not sensitive enough to feel Braille, so she communicates through deaf-blind finger-language. (Her 10-year-old grand-daughter Jessica learned the language when she was four and is her grandmother's favourite interpreter.) "Life would be very barren indeed without my Moon books," wrote Sylvia in a letter to Barbara Fairfoul at the National Library for the Blind.
Barbara Fairfoul looks after the library's 4,000 Moon titles, which comprise over 20,000 volumes, and their circulation to 300 Moon readers.
The Moon system, devised in 1847 by Dr William Moon, is more accessible and simpler to master than Braille. Based on a simplified, raised-line version of the Roman print alphabet, itscharacters are large and bold.
"Most of our readers are elderly people who have lost their sight in later life," explains Barbara, who sends out 7,500 Moon volumes a year. They all have a passion for reading and can adapt to Moon because the symbols resemble the alphabet they know.
"Many of them are also deaf, so they can't use audio tapes; and the nerve-endings on their fingers have grown insensitive, so the small Braille dots are hard to feel."
Despite the dominance of Braille, Moon has always had a committed minority of readers. Now, with an increasing population of elderly blind and deaf people, demand for Moon books is rising.
Perhaps even more significant is the revival of Moon for children and young people with a visual impairment and additional difficulties. The first conference for those interested in Moon for all ages is being held in Birmingham in October.
Steve McCall together with Mike McLinden of Birmingham University have been monitoring and evaluating programmes concerning the use of Moon in schools as part of a project started in 1992. Its advantages as a teaching medium are, explains McCall, as follows: Moon's relationship to the shape of the print alphabet makes it easier for a sighted teacher to learn; children who have once had vision, or have a deteriorating visual condition, can utilise visual memory of print letters in learning the alphabet; the line-based characters can be enlarged without affecting legibility; and the code is simpler than Braille in that it makes use of fewer contractions.
Computers with specialist software and a variety of peripheral devices have been used to teach Moon to children with additional learning difficulties. But there are still technical limitations for the child who wants to "write" in Moon.
Says McCall: "Work with children and young people suggests that a machine is needed which would allow a child to write Moon and immediately 'feel back' the letter that has been written. We hope that funding can be found to develop a working prototype very soon."
Moon can clearly enhance the literacy potential and thus the quality of life for many visually impaired people of all ages.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind produces Moon magazines for adults, teaching packs for adults and children and two titles each month for distribution via the National Library for the Blind.
"This is nowhere near enough to satisfy our readers' demands," says Barbara Fairfoul. "We are working hard to find ways of producing our own books in Moon for adults and children."
Back in the 1840s, Dr William Moon survived blindness, extreme poverty and repeated eviction of his family by landlords, who objected to the noise of his printing press and to the tendency of its supports to crash through the floor.
He succeeded "with the help of the Lord" (he wrote) in bringing the Holy Scriptures to blind people all over the world. He even taught himself "Pekin Colloquial" in order to spread the Good Word to blind Chinese, via Moon and missionaries. A philanthropist "sent by God" provided the good doctor with Pounds 20 start-up funds.
Surely, 150 years later, in our fully computerised age, ways of funding the development of this essential resource into the 21st century can be found . . . with or without the help of the Lord?
MORE ON MOON
* Moon books and teaching packs can be borrowed from the National Library for the Blind, Cromwell Road, Bredbury, Stockport SK6 2SG. Tel: 0161 494 0217.
* Leaflets and magazines inMoon and teaching packs are available, for a small fee, fromRNIB Customer Services. Alphabet cards, giving the Moon equivalentto print letters, are also available (free of charge). RNIB Customer Services, Moon Production, PO Box 173, Peterborough PE2 0WS.Tel: 0345 023153.
* Moon users can recogniseessential objects if they are appropriately labelled. An alphabet sheet with 15mm Moon letters for labelling purposes costs Pounds 3.50.For a full range of products contact: Fingatip Labels, Unit 26a,Lenton Business Centre, Lenton Boulevard, Nottingham NG7 2BY.Tel: 0115 942 0941.
* Moon base is a national resource centre for those wanting to findout more about teaching Moon. It is a project developed by the RNIB and the University of Birmingham, and is based at RNIB's residential school for pupils with a visual impairment and multiple disabilities, Rushton Hall near Kettering, Northants. Contact Caroline Knight.Tel: 01536 710506.
* For information about researchinto Moon, contact Mike McLinden (tel: 0121 414 4837) or Steve McCall (tel 0121 414 4803) at the School of Education, Universityof Birmingham.
* For further details of the Moon Conference, to be held at Birmingham University on October 3, 1997, contact Barbara Fairfoul at the NLB. Tel: 0161 494 0217.
Bristol Workshop for the Blind stand H52
RNIB Communications Department stand SN12
Royal London Society for the Blind stand K15