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TX: 16.05.05 - Listening Books

PRESENTER: JOHN WAITE
Downloaded from www.bbc.co.uk/radio4

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

WAITE
Imagine finding yourself in hospital after an accident with nothing much to do and you can't even read a book because your hands are damaged. Well that's what happened to Norma Skemp some 45 years ago and the experience led her to found a charity called Listening Books, which gets well known voices, including Radio 4's own Jim Naughtie, to read books out loud on to tapes which the charity then sends to people who are unable, for whatever reason, to physically read a book themselves. It's a very similar concept to the well known Talking Books for the Blind, except that listening books are available to people who have other barriers to reading - who are dyslexic, for example, or have MS and find it difficult to hold a book and turn its pages. There are more than 4,000 members and a thousand books a week go out to them but there's one crucial difference between this service and Talking Books for the Blind and that's one of money. Gilly Howarth is the charity's chair and she's here. Gilly, explain to us first how the charity works. If I think I could benefit from your service what would I do?

HOWARTH
Well you'd contact us and you'd - we'd arrange for you to become a member and you'd pay a 70 membership fee, though if you were on a low income - and you can imagine many people with physical disabilities are on a low income - we would try and give you a sponsored - what we call a sponsored membership because those are supported by our charitable trust.

WAITE
And who are your members?

HOWARTH
Well a great variety of people, 15% of them have a visual impairment, they can't read because of their eyesight, but 25% are physically disabled and a very high proportion are members with learning difficulties, particularly severe dyslexia.

WAITE
Well one of your members is 71-year-old Mrs Pauline Woollam from Banbury in Oxfordshire who has suffered from chronic arthritis for the past 40 years and she can't hold a book in her hands and she's been on the books of Listening Books for about 12 years.

WOOLLAM
I have the cassette playing in the dining room and I can sit there and listen or I could lie down and listen and I can walk around and listen to it as well because I've got a wireless headset, so I can go anywhere and listen to it in the house or in the garden and also when I'm resting and then it's absolutely essential for me now because handling things is no good, my hands are very crooked.

WAITE
And what sort of books do you like to read Pauline?

WOOLLAM
Well I thoroughly enjoy a really good story and I like travel books very much and I like history, now that they're presented in a very interesting way. I've had Annie Proulx The Shipping News, that was a lovely book.

WAITE
That's a good book.

WOOLLAM
Isn't it. And I've had In Siberia by Colin Thubron, absolutely brilliant. And I've had Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

WAITE
What sort of people, Pauline, then read these books?

WOOLLAM
Well Martin Jarvis is my favourite, I think he's the Queen's favourite as well, and Judy Dench and Alan Bennett, Miriam Margolyes - all the very good readers.

WAITE
And what does this service mean to you Pauline?

WOOLLAM
Oh absolutely essential, it's like food and drink, I need it and I'm hungry for it and it's a big, big pleasure in every day of my life. In fact if I hadn't got that I don't know what I would be doing, it's the best present that you could give to anyone.

WAITE
A very satisfied customer there, Pauline Woollam. So Ginny Howarth, what is this financial difference between the service that you offer and that from Talking Books for the Blind?

HOWARTH
Well a very, very big one. People like Pauline, for example, who is physically impaired - the cause of her print impairment is a physical disability, we don't get any - we're not covered by the articles for the blind scheme in our postage for her, we spend 85,000 a year on postage, more - it's rather shocking to think - than we actually are able to spend on audio books. We're very generously supported by the publishing industry who give us very good concessions on our purchase of books, we record books ourselves but that's expensive. But 85,000 a year is a big dent in our resources, if we didn't have to spend that money we'd be able to reach many more people and we'd be able to sponsor more members - members who are on low incomes.

WAITE
So if you can show that you are blind or visually impaired then - and you sign up with Talking Books for the Blind - you'll get your books sent free through the post first class, you're saying you have to pay the postage for your clients second class?

HOWARTH
No, well we have a 15% proportion of people who do get the articles for the blind scheme - those who have a visual impairment - all the others - and it's a big discrepency between the two categories - all the others we have to pay for.

WAITE
And that's 85,000 a year.

HOWARTH
And then to add to that, in order for us to economise, we send their books second class, not that we want to give them a second class service you can imagine.

WAITE
Well we're also joined by Andrew Devoy who's responsible for articles for the blind at the Royal Mail. Andrew, tell us first about articles for the blind, I mean what does it mean - how did it start?

DEVOY
The articles for the blind service was introduced in the 1850s, at that time the Postmaster General, who was the head of the Post Office, Henry Fawcett, was in fact blind and he felt that blind people were put at a disadvantage because Braille items were particularly heavy and expensive to send and therefore it basically excluded blind people from the mail service. So that's why we introduced it for not just Talking Books but all kinds of items that blind people need, such as guide dog harnesses and...

WAITE
And it's now enshrined in law under the Postal Services Act. It costs you, I know, 30 million a year, which is an awful lot of money, wouldn't an extra 85,000 to help out a charity like Listening Books that wouldn't seem too much of an extra burden for you would it?

DEVOY
Well you're quite right the lost revenue every year from the service is about 30 million. There are many disability groups and charitable organisations that do and can make a good case for free mail service but unfortunately it would get prohibitively expensive for Royal Mail to extend further the free mail service that we currently provide for blind people.

WAITE
So Ginny, what would you like to see?

HOWARTH
Well last year the government made an important step in recognising the impact of physical disability on people's capacity to read and recognising that print impairment was a principle rather than visual impairment and they introduced the Visually Impaired Persons Copyright Act, which enables books which have been put into alternative formats for visually impaired people to also cover books for physically disabled persons to read. And this was a really important acknowledgement that print impairment is not just visually based. We're looking to the government to extend the articles for the blind scheme to include all those with a print impairment, it would make a real difference to us.

WAITE
Okay, well there we'll have to leave it for now but Ginny Howarth and Andrew Devoy thank you both very much indeed. And details of that Listening Book scheme will be on our website a little later.


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