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BBC Radio 4 In Touch
6th January 2009

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BBC Radio 4
Room 6084
Broadcasting House

RNIB administrator, John Godber;
French teacher, Marie-Rene Herbert;
former cabinet minister David Blunkett

The programme commemorate the life and achievements of
Louis Braille, born two hundred years ago this week, who devised the Braille system while he was still in his teens and which survives almost unaltered to this day.

Louis Braille was born, the son of a saddle-maker, in 1809. He was blinded at the age of three, while playing with knives in his father's workshop.


Tel. 0845 762 6843
Provides a wide range of library and information services for people with sight problems. Resources include talking books, Braille and giant print books, and online reference services. Formerly known as the National Library for the Blind (NLB)

Website currently unavailable.


105 Judd Street
Helpline: 0845 766 9999 (UK callers only - 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
The NLB is a registered charity which helps visually impaired people throughout the country continue to enjoy the same access to the world of reading as people who are fully sighted.

Freepost MID 02164
CV37 9BR
Tel: 08457 622 633
Textphone: 08457 622 644
The DRC aims to act as a central source of advice on the rights of disabled people, while helping disabled people secure their rights and eliminate discrimination. It can advise on the operation of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

380-384 Harrow Road
W9 2HU
Tel: 0845 130 9177
The Disabled Living Foundation provide 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.

The BBC is not responsible for external websites 

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TX: 06.01.09 2040-2100



Good evening.

Braille's been crucial. I could have managed in my early days simply from memory but actually in the end doing the job properly on equal terms and with dignity has required Braille.

For me it means everyday life, even when I use my computer I always have a Braille display, so it's my memory in fact.

I'd like to get people away from the idea that Braille is about technology or books and actually it's about very practical - it's a pen and paper. All sighted people have their pen and paper even now, even though you have all the Blackberries and stuff like that you've still got that. And I just don't have a pen and paper.

RNIB administrator John Godber, French teacher Marie-Rene Hector and former cabinet minister David Blunkett. Just three people who acknowledge how deeply their lives have been enriched by the reading and writing system of Braille. And I'm another. Braille is how, as always, I'm reading this script to you now and how I've been able to make a career in the highly competitive business of broadcasting. And we owe it all to one man - Louis Braille. Born 200 hundred years ago this week and who devised a system while he was still in his teens which survives almost unaltered to this day.

Well later in this programme, indeed throughout this year, In Touch will be exploring various aspects of Braille - its production, the effect on its future of technology, the way it's viewed by decision makers and indeed by the general public. But first I've been on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of someone to whom I shall be eternally grateful.

I've just got off the train at Marne la Vallee Chessy, which will be well known to many tourists as the station you alight at for Euro Disney but maybe it deserves to be better known for the fact that just a few kilometres away is Coupvray, the village where Louis Braille was born and was originally buried. We're going to give Euro Disney a miss and find out more about Louis Braille.

It's a bit steep.

That's alright.

Okay and you'll have a [indistinct word] on the right.

That's okay.



Louis Braille was actually born in this house, the son of a saddle maker, in 1809. He was blinded at the age of three while playing with knives in his father's workshop. A personal tragedy for the family but for some of us a hugely life enhancing event.

This actually looks very like the writing frame that I would have learnt on. I went to school - a blind school - in 1952, so that was exactly a hundred - I've never thought of this before - but it was exactly a hundred years after Louis Braille died and I learnt Braille on something that looked pretty much like that.

Anyway I must be careful, I don't want to be the one who breaks it. That's quite a moment really to touch the - it may even have been one that he invented the system on.

The frame I was examining in Louis Braille's house was rectangular and divided up into small cells, which look rather like domino pieces - a very French analogy - each Braille letter in the alphabet that he devised is made up of a combination of one to six raised dots arranged in two vertical rows of three dots each. So you read it with your fingers, as most people know, with, for instance, A formed by one dot in the top left hand corner; B two vertical dots in the top left hand corner and so on, not time to give you a complete Braille lesson now. Originally, as you heard, you had to write it in that very time consuming and laborious way, making individual dots by hand which because you had to indent from the other side of the paper had to be written from right to left and upside down - no wonder children and older people alike find Braille hard to learn.

As time went on mechanical ways were devised to write Braille. I visited a museum devoted to Braille in Paris where many of these machines are preserved. Curator Noelle Roy showed me how to load the paper on one of the earliest and clunkiest machines.

So you slide it in there, under the roller, do you have to hold it down so it's - yeah.

So all the mesh in.

Am I allowed to write with it, can I try it out?

Yes you can.

Okay, so if I write - if I write Louis. L O - it's quite noisy isn't it - U. So it would have been quite noisy wouldn't it, if you'd had this in a class with everybody using them? In fact they were noisy, even - I mean when I was at school in the '50s and '60s we would use these and we'd all be dictated to in the class and we would all write together and it was an enormous clattering noise that you got, it was - it probably turned - should have turned it into a school for the deaf I think. Well that's a splendid machine, I've never seen one of those before.

This is ...

This is a Stainsby.


Now this is the thing I first learnt on and the first thing you notice about this is that on the place where you kind of go along the lines it's got this wicked set of teeth and how we didn't all cut our hands to ribbons I don't know because it's got the six dot system again and it goes along as you press, it goes one cell at a time. So that's what these would sound like, only this has obviously also seen better days.

It's an amazing collection here, I mean I've seen machines today that I've never seen before in my life. Why are you so passionate about Louis Braille and his invention?

Because it's an incredible story. It's a very young man who was unknown who discovered a system - logical, simple - and which became universal and without - how to say - [French words] ...

With no fuss.

Noelle Roy, with a bit of help from our interpreter.

I felt I couldn't leave Paris without visiting the school where Louis Braille had devised this system based originally on a tactile method of writing in darkness, used by Napoleonic soldiers.

Will you lead ahead?

Yes. It's a heavy passage which has been trodden a lot, you can see the ...

Marie-Rene Hector is a devoted Braillist who's taught at the school for 30 years. Like me she loves Braille and sometimes fears for its future.

Well I feel so sorry that children who have very tiny sight tend to be taught to read in print and when they realise, at the age of 13, 14, that they are so slow they cannot follow a normal lesson either in mainstream or here they realise that they're slower than those who learn Braille. We even had here a child who came at the age of 15 and he was persuaded that he could read, when he came to my class and saw that the blind could read and he could not follow he was definitely depressed.

But is that too late for them to build up a good speed in Braille if they start at 13 or 14?

Yes, most of the time.

Right, so they've missed out on both ...

In the majority of cases.

So is it still - is it true here too that you think not enough people do learn Braille?

Yes, we - all the teachers here are convinced, you know, but now the word is also given to medical people, psychologists, and they say oh it's traumatising for parents if their children are regarded as being blind because they learn Braille, you know, so because of the adults' traumas children are blocked.

This must frustrate you enormously when you know what Braille has done for you.

Yes because I was myself partially sighted when I was four - I could run, I could see colours, I could read, I could see large print but my parents were told that I might lose my sight, which happened when I was 43, so they decided that I should learn Braille and I think they were very wise people. So I'm very frustrated when I see what happens to some students.

What do you think we could do about it, I mean if you like people like you and I who know what Braille can do?

I think we have to speak a lot.

Marie-Rene Hector. And speak a lot we shall on this programme as the year progresses.

Of course some will see this anniversary as a great opportunity to beat their own particular drum. Quick off the mark has been the Scottish Braille Press in Edinburgh, which for over a century has been producing Braille books and magazines. To boost its £2 million fund raising campaign, to go on doing what they do, they've recruited best selling author Ian Rankin, creator of detective John Rebus. Ian has a blind son who attends a special school in Edinburgh. He told me more about the campaign.

We're celebrating the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille's birth. But on top of that the Scottish Braille Press, which not only produces Braille books but magazines and newspapers, bank statements for people all over the UK, it's got some state of the art equipment but it could always use more and also the premises are getting a little bit dilapidated. And what we want to do is to make sure that the Braille Press, per se, strides into the 21st Century bravely and without fear of funding. There are never enough books, it's a long process, it's an arduous process and it's an expensive process. In fact here - I'm actually at the Braille Press here in Edinburgh and they have this morning been printing off the first novel of mine to be transcribed into Braille. I think it's very important because kids, students, with visual problems want to be inclusive, they want to sit the same exams as everybody else but if the books aren't available in Braille then a lot of the time that's very difficult. So yeah there's always room for improvement.

Actually I've got some news for you because I think there are more Braille versions of your books than you think because I read Hanging Gardens in Braille quite a long time ago in hard copy Braille and there are other copies - the National Library Service for the Blind has got about 11 of your books in Braille - so they are ...

That's absolutely thrilling. This is the first one I've come across that's been produced by the Braille Press in Edinburgh.

Right, okay. But it does lead to the nub of the problem in a sense that I've read some of your books in hard Braille, I'm a fan but subsequently the last three or four books that I've read of yours I've read in electronic Braille because that's what's beginning to happen amongst people who are lucky enough to have the know how and the computers and so forth to do it. So what's happening is the potential is there to produce Braille in forms where we could get books quickly but what seems to be not there is perhaps the willingness of the publishers to kind of cooperate with this process. I wondered how much you know, as an author, about what actually is going on on this whole business of the problems of copyright and producing books in a way that blind people could read them really quickly?

Yeah, I mean it's the sort of thing where authors themselves obviously are often ignorant, I mean I'm not as ignorant as most because my youngest son is blind, I mean he goes to the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh. I mean sadly he's doesn't have the intellectual capacity to learn Braille, he's using electronic switches instead and computers and things. But yeah I mean a lot of authors don't know this and a lot of the publishers also don't know it and of course if there isn't money in it for the publishers, which of course there isn't, it's actually an expensive process, they're not always as thrilled, I mean they're in it for commercial gain. And I think it's up to authors and the various pressure groups available to actually publicise the problem and to say to publishers you should be doing more about this, you should be making the world of literature, this fantastic world of the imagination, open to as many people as possible. So yeah I mean it is an ongoing problem. But as we move into the 21st Century I mean technology, as you've stated, is improving all the time, the stuff is getting quicker and it's in some cases getting cheaper, once you've installed the technology. So maybe that isn't going to be as big a problem in the future, as long as the funding is available.

Well that is the point really, I mean what is happening in the real world is a lot of blind people who desperately want to read are scanning copies of books themselves and e-mailing them to each other, now that costs absolutely nothing. Now clearly if you did that on a proper basis there would be costs of administration but they wouldn't be very big costs. What we've got here, it seems, are human beings and worries about money and copyright stopping a technological development.

Yeah I mean I think you've flagged up something quite important and I think it's something that maybe we should take up with the Publishers Association and with the various trade bodies that exist in the UK to see if something can be done about that.

I mean because the RNIB has been in negotiations it seems almost since time began but it's certainly four or five years, with the publishers, with various producers of software and yet nothing seems to happen. I've always thought that the authors perhaps had a stronger voice than they knew that they had. I'm wondering in a way if I can almost commission you on this programme to lead your authors into battle.

I'm not sure I can lead authors into battle. I don't know if even I've got that power. But there are organisations for writers and they have quite a strong voice, as far as publishers are concerned. I mean the Society of Authors, I would have thought, would be the first people who might be interested in taking this forward in an organised way.

This problem about copyright, I mean you can understand why people are worried about it, we've had the same thing in the music world, do you think that maybe the publishers think they're protecting the authors?

Well they're probably protecting their own interests and that is also they think the authors' interest. No author wants to lose a sale and if this stuff is being almost bootlegged - whisper the word because people are sort of sharing the stuff - then ...

Well it's happening - it's happening out of desperation Ian because people want to read the latest Rebus when everybody else reads the latest Rebus.

Absolutely and I mean I've got no problem with that whatsoever but I can see why publishers might think there is a problem, it's the sort of thing that makes them draw in their breath - the idea they might be losing sales.

Two thousand and nine - 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, it really would be the ideal year to really try and push on this wouldn't it?

It would and I think your very programme can do quite a lot towards that, I mean you've already started the ball rolling, keep it going all year, let's see what happens.

And keep the ball rolling we shall. By the way I've found out since I talked Ian Rankin there's seventy Rebus books there.

So first step: What is happening to the RNIB's Right to Read campaign to make publishers, agents, authors, governments more willing to help with the huge possibilities technology is opening up? Well this is what the RNIB has told us today:

RNIB statement
There can be no doubt that Braille is as vital in everyday life as print is. However, while there has been a lot of progress 96% of books are still never made available in formats that people with sight problems can read. Many blind and partially sighted people therefore have to rely on voluntary organisations for their right to read. RNIB is working with the publishing industry to change this and we ask more writers to work with their agents and publishers to make sure their books can be enjoyed by blind and partially sighted readers too.

But reading between the lines, and that 96% figure, not much progress since the last time we reported on this.

So why is it taking so long to get Braille out of the 19th Century into the 21st? Braillist Jackie Clifton, observing some of our own coverage of the anniversary of Braille over the weekend, has e-mailed us a possible explanation:

Jackie Clifton e-mail
Given all the inevitable items about Louis Braille this year I'm extremely concerned that the BBC is putting this kind of item under a health heading. Is it any wonder that we have so many problems with blind people being taken seriously? The basic right to literacy isn't a health issue surely, it should come under education I would think.

Well as someone who certainly doesn't regard my blindness or my use of Braille as a health issue I've a good deal of sympathy with that point of view. We put the question to our UK online team, this is what they told us:

Online team statement
Each story on our website goes under an index heading. For stories about the Middle East or about education this is straightforward, other stories don't fit quite so easily into a single category. Items about disability are often labelled as politics stories because that's where the policies are being discussed. A recent story about a blind man navigating a maze was a health report because it originated in medical research. In the case of the Braille report it was templated as health simply because our health team happened to have received the information. In reality that doesn't mean the story is only accessible in the health section as articles can appear on a variety of indices. Having said that to avoid any future concerns we have relocated this particular story to our UK index and can assure your listener there is absolutely no question of marginalising issues about blindness.

Well your reactions to all the issues that we've raised in this programme please to our action line on 0800 044 044 or you can e-mail us. This is not the end but the beginning of our coverage of Braille during this year, if there's an aspect of it that you'd like us to cover tell us. And by the way you can download a podcast of today's programme as from tomorrow. From me, Peter White, my producer, Cheryl Gabriel and the team, goodbye

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