BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

BBC Radio 4 In Touch
21 October 2008

Listen to this programme

Factsheet of this programme
Transcript of this programme

Print this page


Guest: David Blunkett, former Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Peter White looks at the political reaction to last week's lobby of parliament in aid of increased benefits to blind people.

They were asking for the higher mobility rate of disability living allowance, to offset the greater costs of getting around which blindness inevitably creates. This would be an additional thirty pounds a week, an amount which it is being argued blind people need as much as the severely physically disabled people who do qualify for it.

While it is understood that the government is sympathetic to the argument, so far there has been no money forthcoming.


Telephone: 0800 88 22 00
Textphone: 0800 24 33 55
A confidential freephone service for disabled people and carers. You can call the Benefit Enquiry Line and ask them to send you a claim pack. They can send the claim pack in Braille if required.

The Benefit Enquiry Line is open 8.30 am to 6.30 pm Monday to Friday and 9.00 am to 1.00 pm Saturday.

Or visit website below to make a claim online:


Guests: Stephen Hallett, former BBC World Service producer and Ian Macrae, Editor of Disability Now.

Over three years ago, an RNIB official told In Touch that we were about two weeks away from a groundbreaking agreement about the availability of books to blind people.

So far however no such agreement has been brokered, despite the available technology now to turn print both into audio and Braille.

Blind and partially sighted people are still finding their own solutions to get the books which they need to work, to study, and just to enjoy what is to many one of the greatest pleasures of life.

In Touch reassembled two members of its occasional book panels, to talk about the books they are enjoying and to look at the lengths they have to go to get them.


Title: Half of a Yellow Sun
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Read by: Adjoa Andoh
Harper Collins Audio Books

Author: Johnny Beerling
Title: Radio 1 - The Inside Scene
Web -


Sony E-Reader

Iliad Reader

Victor Stream Reader



105 Judd Street
Helpline: 0845 766 9999 (Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm)
Tel: 0207 388 1266 (switchboard/overseas callers)
The RNIB provides information, support and advice for anyone with a serious sight problem. They not only provide Braille, Talking Books and computer training, but imaginative and practical solutions to everyday challenges. The RNIB campaigns to change society's attitudes, actions and assumptions, so that people with sight problems can enjoy the same rights, freedoms and responsibilities as fully sighted people. They also fund pioneering research into preventing and treating eye disease and promote eye health by running public health awareness campaigns.

John Derby House
88-92 Talbot Road
Old Trafford
M16 0GS
Tel: 0161 872 1234
Henshaws provides a wide range of services for people who have sight difficulties. They aim to enable visually impaired people of all ages to maximise their independence and enjoy a high quality of life. They have centres in: Harrogate, Knaresborough, Liverpool, Llandudno, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Salford, Southport and Trafford.

Burghfield Common
Tel: 0118 983 5555
The GDBA’s mission is to provide guide dogs, mobility and other rehabilitation services that meet the needs of blind and partially sighted people.

14-16 Verney Road
SE16 3DZ
Tel: 0800 915 4666 (info & advice)
Tel: 020 7635 4800 (central office)
Registered charity with national cover that provides practical support in the areas of housing, holidays, information, employment and training, cash grants and welfare rights for blind and partially-sighted people. Leaflets and booklets are available.

Central Office
Swinton House
324 Grays Inn Road
Tel: 020 7837 6103
Textphone: 020 7837 6103
National League of the Blind and Disabled is a registered trade union and is involved in all issues regarding the employment of blind and disabled people in the UK.

Far Cromwell Road
Tel: 0161 406 2525
Textphone: 0161 355 2043
Trustees from the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) and the National Library for the Blind (NLB) have agreed to merge the library services of both charities as of 1 January 2007, creating the new RNIB National Library Service.

Arndale House
Arndale Centre
M4 3EQ
0845 604 6610 - England main number
0845 604 6620 - England textphone
0845 604 6630 - England fax
Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri 9:00 am-5:00 pm; Wed 9:00 am-8:00 pm (last call taken at 7:45pm)

3rd Floor
3 Callaghan Square
CF10 5BT
0845 604 8810 - Wales main number
0845 604 8820 - Wales textphone
0845 604 8830 - Wales fax
Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri 9:00 am-5:00 pm; Wed 9:00 am-8:00 pm (last call taken at 7:45pm)

The Optima Building
58 Robertson Street
G2 8DU
0845 604 5510 - Scotland Main
0845 604 5520 - Scotland Textphone
0845 604 5530 - Scotland – Fax
Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri 9:00 am-5:00 pm; Wed 9:00 am-8:00 pm (last call taken at 7:45pm)

380-384 Harrow Road
W9 2HU
Tel: 0845 130 9177
The Disabled Living Foundation provides information and advice on disability equipment.

The Geoffrey Udall Centre
Beech Hill
Reading RG7 2AT
Tel: 0118 9885688
Thrive is a national charity, founded in 1978, whose aim is to research, educate and promote the use and advantages of gardening for those with a disability. Thrive’s vision is that the benefits of gardening are known to, and can be accessed by, anyone with a disability.

Thrive has been supporting blind gardeners for over 30 years, and established the Blind Gardeners’ Club with RNIB in 2006 to help gardeners share information and techniques. Membership of the club costs £9 a year and includes:

The BBC is not responsible for external websites 

General contacts
Back to top



TX: 21.10.08 2040-2100



Good Evening. Tonight: political reaction to last week's lobby of Parliament for increased benefits for blind people. And we explore some of the lengths people are going to, to make up for the lack of available books, including cutting out the middleman, and dealing direct with the author.

Well last week, and for the second time in two years, blind and partially sighted people lobbied Parliament. They were asking for the higher mobility rate of disability living allowance, DLA, to offset the greater costs of getting around which blindness inevitably creates. We're talking about an additional £30 a week or so, an amount which it's being argued blind people need as much as the severely physically disabled people who do qualify for it, and often use that money to meet the costs of running their cars. Blind people, it's argued, don't have the option of driving a car. But while it's understood that the government is sympathetic to the arguments, so far there's been no money forthcoming, nor any real prospect of it. Hence the lobby. Well one man who's bound to have an interesting take on this is someone who would be eligible to benefit from an increase in disability living allowance, and who for a brief period could have made it happen, when he was Secretary of State at the Department of Work and Pensions. I'm talking of course about David Blunkett. So when I talked to him earlier today, I asked him what his attitude to the claim was.

I think it's unanswerable, I think it's unanswerable in terms of equality, it's unanswerable in terms of the moral imperative but it's also absolutely crucial to the government's overall welfare to work agenda because although they've decided to double access to work, and that's very welcome - when I was in the job three years ago I saved access to work from being cut - of course there's no point in having access to work if you don't get people to the point where they can access the work in the first place and that's about social skills, it's about training, it's about literally getting out of the house.

And yet this was given to us as the reason why they hadn't done it. When we talked to Anne McGuire, the former disability minister, on this programme a few months ago she told us, as you said, that it had been rejected but because the government would rather spend any extra money on widening the number of people who could benefit from access to work grants, you know, given to help people compete at work.

I don't think it's one or the other and it certainly shouldn't be because they're compatible, they're complementary but one doesn't cancel the other out. And for the - let's use the £40 million figure for the sake of argument because I think that's more accurate than the lower ones, I think over a period of time it would be possible for the government to do this. It is an unfortunate moment, obviously we've hit the buffers in terms of the world financial upheaval and the economic problems we face but I think that the commitment should be given. I think it should be given because there's going to be an equalities bill in the Queen's speech on December 3rd and that will be legislated on next year. I don't think it's possible - and I'm going to say this to colleagues - to actually go through with a glad heart preaching more equality when we've still got outstanding issues. And I do have a regret about not having sorted it out in the brief sojourn I had in the DWP - I said so at the rally actually last week.

That is what I was going to ask you - you could have done it, was it put to you at the time?

No it wasn't. Obviously the campaign got off the ground in a big way in 2006. I regret that I didn't say to them - look we're saving access to work, let's look at ways as well that we can provide equality that's been outstanding for some considerable time. And this has, it's been a running sore really for the last 20, 25 years and we need to sort it. But of course that's true of all sorts of things that I wish - I wish - I wish in the eight years I'd been in government I'd been able to sort out.

I have heard another suggestion and that is that there might have been a compromise based on perhaps blind people accepting a lower rate of the care allowance, in other words the actual lower rate, in return for the higher rate of the mobility allowance. Now that wouldn't have meant as much money but it would have meant an increase, are you aware of that as a possible ...?

Well the difficulty with a suggestion of that sort, which has a superficial attraction, is you really do need to be distinguishing between blind people who have all sorts of motor difficulties, who are not as able, Peter, as you and I to manage on an every day basis but require therefore the dual effort of the higher rate both ways round. And we could manage and I'm particularly mindful of this because I have benefited from having transport, much of what I've been able to do would have been very difficult without. But a lot of people have real difficulty now, particularly outside London where buses don't stop at stops anymore, it needs sorting, it's an anomaly, it's really been outstanding since Barbara Castle decided that we'd help in terms of the car mobility.

But a lot of people will now be worried because we've been told that we've been given access to work help instead of that and given the credit crunch that you referred to, a lot of people will be worried that this is the end of the line, I mean is it and what advice would you give to people who are still campaigning on this?

Well keep campaigning. I think we were very close to winning in June, July. I don't think we're way off winning, I think that the efforts that Anne McGuire put in as a former minister, Jonathan Shaw's very able speech which actually used a letter he'd sent on behalf of his constituents to the Secretary of State before getting the job, indicates that there's extreme goodwill inside government. I think my job is to put the extra pressure on the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to find a way of committing to this even if we can't do it by April of next year.

David Blunkett, thank you very much indeed.

Now it's now over three years since an RNIB official told this programme that we were about a fortnight away from a groundbreaking agreement over the availability of books to blind people in accessible formats. But, as we know, a fortnight can be a long time in politics; in this case over three years; because as far as I'm aware, no such agreement has been brokered, despite the available technology now to turn print both into audio and to Braille. And blind and partially sighted people are still finding their own hand-to-mouth solutions to getting the books which they need to work, to study, and just to enjoy what is to many one of the greatest pleasures of living - escaping into a book.

So today we've reassembled a couple of members of our occasional book panels, not just this time to talk about the books that we're enjoying, but to look at the lengths that people go to, to get them. Stephen Hallett, former BBC World Service producer and In Touch's tower of strength in Beijing during the Paralympics, and sometime presenter and reporter for this programme, and now editor of Disability Now, Ian Macrae.

Ian, you, like me, are pretty much a book addict, what's your reaction to the current situation about available books?

Well the only thing to say about it is it's absolutely crazy. To show you how rife this cottage industry is: Philip Norman, a famous writer on pop music has recently published about two weeks ago in a blaze of trumpets and publicity - published a big new biography of John Lennon which everybody's talking about, everybody including visually impaired people like me wants to read, I know where you can go and get that book in a free downloadable electronic text version and you can just download it and read it yourself. I can't tell you where because if I did I'd have to kill you.

But presumably your point is that what we would want to see for the benefit of everybody is an organised way of doing that rather than people doing that rather than people doing it, as it were, on street corners?

Illegally, yeah exactly. The point is, you know, visually impaired people are being forced into the situation where they're having to act illegally. And I've been trying to find ways around that myself.

We'll come back to that in a minute. Stephen Hallett as a partially sighted person, I mean what are the frustrations you've faced?

Well it's a constant frustration. As you know Peter I read a lot on the move and I have to try and find suitable places, corners, dark places, with the right kind of lighting where I can use my magnifying glass and that's a great strain on the eyes. So if I want to read print I normally have to resort to reading on my computer, enlarging the font and I find that a great strain. And generally if I want to read for pleasure then I'm going to listen to audio tapes and I've recently had the great pleasure of reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun which I splashed out on and have really thoroughly enjoyed but it's something which I can't afford to do from week to week.

We'll come back to longer term solution for you. But Ian, so what kind of lengths do you find yourself going to to get the books you want?

Well the simple and most straightforward way is to say I want to read this book, I'll go into my local bookstore or I'll go to on an online bookstore and I'll buy it. And the book then arrives, I sit down at my PC at home, which has attached to it an electronic scanner and a very expensive, it has to be said, piece of software called Kurzweil, which is called optical character recognition software. I scan the book page by page by page by page - I'm currently scanning a book by Thomas Pynchon, which is a 1,400 pages or something...

How long is that going to take you?

I've been at it for about the last three months and I've got a family to consider here. So other solutions occurred to me and the first was I read recently a book by Michael Crick, a biography of Alex Ferguson and as at that time I was working at the BBC and so was he I rather cheekily e-mailed him and I said look I really, really would like to read your Jeffrey Archer biography which is supposed to be a very, very good book, in fact is a very good book, but I can't find it anywhere, it's not in Braille, it's not in audio and I've not been able to find it in a bookstore and he very kindly sent me a copy, which I then scanned and read. Taking that solution on a stage further. The book came out earlier this year in which I was interested, which was a history of the radio ballads, the very famous radio ballads that Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker did and I heard about this on a discussion list that I belong to. So I contacted the author, a guy named Peter Cox, and I said here's my situation I really want to read this book but I don't want to spend half the rest of my life scanning it, can you send it to me, which he did. And I've subsequently read it. The next time this happened a book came out which I was - as a radio nut I was absolutely fascinated to read - Johnny Beerling, former producer, executive producer and ultimately controller of BBC Radio 1, has just quite recently published his account of his time with the station and you can imagine that as someone who grew up in the '60s and '70s what a fascinating read that was. Actually this time I searched for Johnny on the internet, found his website, fortunately there was a link by which I could e-mail Johnny, which I duly did, again explained the situation and he said he would sell me a copy of the book, of course at a reduced rate and not because he's a particularly charitable chap but just because there's no postage and packaging involved.

So he's cutting out the middleman?


Well I'll tell you what we can talk to Johnny Beerling because he's on the line from the south of Spain, where he now lives...

Shows how many books he's selling.

Were you surprised to get this communication from Ian, Johnny?

Well yes I was but we had a mutual acquaintance who was another chap who had worked at Radio 1 in the past and so I was quite happy to trust Ian. Because the difficulty for an author is how does one protect the copyright. You know I was not aware of the technical difficulty of reading a book in Adobe and Ian explained to me that he needed in a Word format because that was much easier to read for him. So I sent him a Word copy.

In your case it was a financial transaction yeah?

Yes, yes sure, I mean, as we say, I put it at a reduced price because there was no print costs and no postage involved.

And my undertaking to Johnny was that I wouldn't then share that copy of the book with anyone but what I would do instead would be to tell people how they could contact Johnny - other visually impaired radio enthusiasts who were interested - how they could contact Johnny and read the book themselves.

But I suppose the key question is what's in it for you to do this?

Well I mean it just increases the readership, if you write a book obviously you hope that as many people as possible will be interested in the subject. When I was running Radio 1 we had something like 20 million listeners a week and I sat down and put together all my thoughts, as Ian said, and observations on what it was like running the biggest radio station in the world at that time and I had hoped that perhaps a percentage of those 20 million would buy it. Unfortunately because it's been an online publication it's not regularly available in the shops so marketing is difficult, it's difficult to persuade people to go to a website and look the book up and then buy it.

And how concerned would you be - because this to some extent is an act of faith, you sent this to Ian, you then have to rely on him - and this is the fear that everybody has that he will not simply send it to all his mates that he will refer them to you?

Yes I don't know how it would work with a regular publisher because I'm working with an online publisher I mean I control all the rights to it and I'm very happy, there's nothing really to lose is there and if a few hundred additional readers buy it because of that I'm very happy about that personally.

Johnny Beerling, thanks very much for joining us on the programme.

Ian, two questions reflect the anxiety people feel, even about broaching this subject at all, I mean the last time I raised it I got a very polite but firm admonition from a distinguished blind academic saying why are you actually making such a fuss about this, you know with the technology to scan books into computers I, he said, can get any book I want, why are we making the fuss. He's right isn't he?

Well all I would say is it doesn't do any of us any harm to just imagine ourselves in the position of let's say a 67 year old who's just been given a diagnosis of age related macular degeneration, been an avid reader all their life, where are they going to start getting their books from? They're not going to have the technology, they maybe not going to be able to afford the technology to do this. The publishers can do it for them now, it's possible for the publishers to provide print books with a CD stuck on the inside of the back cover that has the book in text format and you could do that for absolutely any book.

Let me bring in Stephen Hallett. You've been looking at another development, which is of particular interest to people with partial sight and that is the eReader. First of all, just remind us what the technology does.

Yeah well a few weeks ago we looked at one of the first eReaders to come on the market in the UK which is called the Iliad, which was available through Borders. And basically this is a new kind of technology which uses what's called an electronic paper display screen, which is a non backlit screen which uses ambient light, so it looks basically like paper. It assembles the ink particles in a way which looks very much like ordinary print, so it's comfortable to look at. But just following on from what you were saying now, one of the problems with the technology is that the manufacturers don't really seem to go that little bit extra to take account of accessibility for people like us. And that's a great frustration.

You have looked another model, the Iliad, you mentioned it, how do the two compare?

Well the new one is the Sony eReader which is available through Waterstones and it's a very neat ergonomic little device, about the size of a small paperback, it can hold about 160 books and has a very long battery life, has a slightly smaller screen from the Iliad but it's a pleasing little device. The problem is that the font size only goes up to about size 14. For me it was too small really to read comfortably even with reading glasses. So I think for people who are losing their sight or people who need larger print it doesn't really provide a proper solution.

And the other thing to say is that if the manufacturers went that little bit further to provide larger font sizes, possibly an inverted screen and also use some of the very available technology like screen readers that would provide a huge breakthrough I think for a lot of us.

Ian Macrae, you're a great champion of inclusiveness and accessibility, is this an opportunity missed?

Absolutely, I think what Stephen said about - it does, it looks like about a 14 point font to me, that's not possible for me to read without a magnification aid. They could for absolutely very, very little cost have incorporated what's called a text to speech engine which would have meant that any book you imported to the device could then be read to you in a synthetic voice. You can already play music on this device, they should really have made it possible to use it as what's called an audible player - there's an online audio bookstore - and they could very easily have made this machine capable of reading those books as well.

Do you think the fact that they haven't - is that a commercial decision, do they think that this is not a viable market or do you think they don't even know about the market?

You see we spent a long time, some years ago, you may remember, arguing with Apple about why they hadn't put speech onto their iPod products so that people could read the menus, follow the track lists and so forth, guess what they now have.

Stephen, your reaction to that - because the one worry about - the other thing about eReaders is will this actually strengthen the fears of the publishers and the authors who are so worried about this that people will start reading books on the tube or on the beach on their eReaders?

Well I think the point is that this technology is designed for the mass audience, so obviously they've taken this into account and they want to get as many people to use this technology as possible. And shops like Waterstones are selling books for something approaching the price of the normal published books, they're giving a small discount on it, so they've pretty well sown up the market there and I think they're pretty clear that it's not going to make a big dent on their normal profits.

Just one quick final question to Ian. The fears of people who knew we were talking about this whole scanning thing again was that people like the RNIB would say well people are solving this problem, wouldn't that simply make them say oh well it's pretty much sorted, therefore why are we going to all this trouble to try and broker this very difficult agreement and back off the whole thing?

The answer to that really is I'm simply here to say this is very easy, it's completely possible to do and I just want to know why in the spirit of equality and inclusiveness publishers are backsliding on it.

Ian Macrae, Stephen Hallett thank you very much indeed.

We would like to have your reactions to all the things we've discussed. You can call us on 0800 044044, one of the things you can find out is where you can get Johnny Beerling's book. From me Peter White, my producer Cheryl Gabriel, and my guests and the team, goodbye.

Back to top

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy