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Northamptonshire Association cuts, the Canute electronic braille reader

Northamptonshire Association for the Blind CEO Alex Lohman explains the impact of recent cuts to their funding and Tom Walker on how the Canute braille reader might help musicians.

Alex Lohman, CEO of Northamptonshire Association of the Blind explains the potential impact of a £73.000 cut to the charity's budget, by Northants County Council.
Tom Walker reported on the launch of the Canute electronic Braille reader and talked to music students James and Katie Risden about the potential help the reader would be with their musical studies. Despite 'on the day' technical errors, which meant opportunities to read music using the Canute were limited, the students recognised the potential of the technology to greatly enhance their music reading.
Tom Walker updated Peter saying that Ed Rogers, the Canute's designer explained that technical errors had prevented the device from working properly on the day of recording, but that these had now been fixed and the Canute is now fully functional.

Presenter: Peter White
Producer: Cheryl Gabriel.

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20 minutes

Transcript

THIS 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.

 

IN TOUCH – Northamptonshire Association cuts, the Canute electronic braille reader

 

TX:  20.03.2018  2040-2100

 

PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

 

PRODUCER:            CHERYL GABRIEL

  

White

Good evening.  Tonight, a stark warning for the local charities which provide many services for blind people.  What happens when the local councils, which help fund them, run into trouble themselves with their budgets?

 

Music

 

And the braille machine, which could be good news for blind mathematicians and musicians when it works properly, that is.

 

Music

 

But first, last Thursday Northamptonshire County Council was described as unfit for purpose and a report on its finances said it should be scrapped.  So, what’s that got specifically to do with visually impaired people, you may ask.  Well, quite a lot in fact.  Northamptonshire Association for the Blind already knew it was going to lose £75,000 worth of funding, which it received for acting as the council’s agent providing rehabilitation and other services to a number of blind and partially sighted people in the area.  So, where does this latest decision leave the association and the hundreds of voluntary organisations which serve blind people across the UK?

 

Alex Lohman is the Northamptonshire Association’s chief executive.  I mean just explain what was happening here, even before this announcement on Thursday.

 

Lohman

Well as you said Peter, we just heard that we were going to lose around £75,000 because the council had decided to terminate its services for blind and partially sighted people, services we’ve been providing for over 22 years.

 

White

They were spending too much, to put it simply.

 

Lohman

Yes, and they’re at risk of bankrupt, which of course local authorities are not allowed to do.

 

White

How serious is this loss of finance to you, I mean what proportion does it make up of your income?

 

Lohman

Well it’s around about 12% of the charity’s income but looked at another way, our community service, which is a rehabilitation and reablement service, costs in the region of £320,000 so it’s getting on for a quarter of that service’s budget.  If I could just make the point though, the council does still have its own directly employed rehabilitation officers.  At the moment it has two, although we understand from May it will only have one rehabilitation officer, possibly a trainee as well and that’s to cover a population of 730,000 people.

 

White

And how many visually impaired people do you know?

 

Lohman

Well we support over three and a half thousand.

 

White

What kind of services were you providing with that money?

 

Lohman

Well it’s all around independence and wellbeing.  So, generally speaking we conduct home visits, we assess people’s needs – so all aspects of their daily lives – to try and identify where they may need assistance.  We then either provide that assistance ourselves, if it’s relating specifically to their sight loss, or we refer on to other agencies, if it’s beyond our area of expertise.  So, for example, we would provide advice on lighting and magnification in the home.  We provide advice on home safety.  We also provide advice on daily living skills and tasks and the equipment that can help with that and that includes healthy living assistance, food storage, labelling, how to prepare meals if you don’t have a lot of sight.

 

White

And what happens to those services now Alex?

 

Lohman

Well, that’s the $64,000 question to be honest and the council will still have its rehabilitation officer, so if the council deems you eligible you can go in the queue to wait for help from them.  We’ll be sitting down – and that’s myself and my trustees – at the end of this month and trying to figure out how we respond to these cuts.

 

White

So, in all honesty you don’t really know yet?

 

Lohman

We don’t have all the answers.  I mean clearly losing so much income in one go is a body blow.  Our first instinct, I’m sure, will be to look and see how best we can protect the services we provide because quite frankly we’re not meeting the need, as it stands at the moment, so the last thing in the world we want to do is to actually withdraw or reduce our service.

 

White

Amongst the criticisms that have been made to the county council have been the extent to the way in which it had outsourced services, including to charities like yours.  What do you make of that, I mean is the implication that you were – you were too expensive for them?

 

Lohman

[Laughter] I doubt that very much, I think if you compare, for instance, salaries and terms and conditions in small charities with those in local government the gap tends not to be in favour of charities.

 

White

Alex Lohman, Chief Executive of Northamptonshire Association for the Blind. 

 

Well Fiona Sandford is the Chief Executive of Visionary.  Now that speaks for local organisations generally.  Fiona, I mean how are you viewing events because this must be sending shockwaves round the voluntary organisations?

 

Sandford

Absolutely Peter, it’s a really worrying time for everyone.  And Visionary, as you mentioned, is the membership organisation, so our role is to support the local organisations with whatever they’re dealing with and including dealing with these fairly dramatic changes that people are having to look at now. 

 

White

Do you think many of them may be potentially in this situation, that Northamptonshire find themselves in?

 

Sandford

I think it is likely that a number of the Visionary members will find themselves in this situation given the economic climate that everyone is in.  But what I would say do you know that often these short-term cuts are being made without really full consideration as to the long-term impact on blind and partially sighted people.  And quite often it’s fairly small amounts of money that we’re talking about here, which obviously forms part of a much bigger proposed cut.  What the proposed cuts can have is a significant detrimental impact on blind and partially sighted people, these are often the frontline services that are keeping people independent in their own homes, they’re keeping people out of hospital.  So, really in terms of a long-term saving this isn’t the way to go.

 

White

And what advice are you giving your organisations at this stage?

 

Sandford

The advice that Visionary would give is talk to Visionary, talk to us, because I think collectively if we look at the position as it’s developing then working together we can hopefully help support each other to do something about it.

 

White

Fiona Sandford, thank you very much indeed.

 

We did ask the Department for Communities and Local Government for a comment.  Quoting Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, they said the independent report raised considerable concerns about financial management at Northamptonshire County Council.  Sajid Javid said: “My priority is ensuring that local people receive the high quality of services they deserve.  I’ll be considering the report in detail before outlining the action I intend to take.”

 

We’ve also put in a number of calls to Northamptonshire County Council, at the time of recording they haven’t yet got back to us with a statement.

 

Now, never work with children or animals, that’s the traditional advice for actors who don’t want to be upstaged or humiliated.  And it’s got a parallel as well in our field – never organise a public launch of technology designed to help blind people.  Trust me I’ve been to a few and the stuff never works.  To be fair it’s often perfectly good science, just the application of sod’s law on the day.

 

Well it happened again last Friday and our reporter Tom Walker was there for us.  We’re talking about a piece of braille kit, a new piece of kit, called Canute.  Tom, just tell me a bit about it.

 

Walker

Well, there was a problem with the Canute, which meant that the opportunities to have a go with it were limited.  To be fair, it is in the early stages of development, so hopefully the next time we see it, it will be fully functioning.

 

White

But it is designed to help people, isn’t it, who don’t simply need to read text in a straight line but need to read a bit of music and maths notation.

 

Walker

Yes, the developers say that Canute eReader is designed to reverse the worldwide decline in braille literacy and will be officially launched this summer.  It’s different from traditional braille displays because it uses a unique electromechanical mechanism to display nine lines of 40 characters, each on a page of 360 characters.

 

White

And of course, that’s a bit technical, especially if you don’t know anything about braille.  But I suppose the real point is it enables you to look at a lot at a time, whereas the way braille is done at the moment on these new digital machines is you get one refreshable line and you have to look at that and only that until you move on.

 

Walker

That’s right Peter.  It will mean blind musicians will be able to read more than one line of a music score at a time.

 

White

So, although the Canute wasn’t actually working, some of the musicians did get to try it out?

 

Walker

Yes, indeed they did.  One of them, a singer called Charlotte Hardwick, did a few bars of a German song.

 

Hardwick

Well this is movement 25 from the St Matthew Passion – Was mein Gott will – and to start with I’ll just read the first line of words and then I’ll sing the line of music that goes with those words.

 

So, with the Canute you’ve got the first line of words – Was mein Gott will das g'scheh allzeit – and the notes to those words go… [singing].  So, you’ve got the line of words then the line of music underneath those words.

 

Walker

Can you imagine using the Canute actually while performing?

 

Hardwick

Definitely, because now you can read more than one line at a time, whereas you can’t do that on a single line braille display.

 

White

Did any of the other musicians have a go?

 

Walker

Yes, they did but they had to revert to reading the score in hard copy braille.  There were some fine musicians there too, including Kate Risden and her brother James.

 

James also had a try with it but before he did Ed Rogers, from Bristol Braille Technology, talked him through how the Canute works.

 

Rogers

You have a very simple library structure.  One button in the middle which gives you menu options or returns you back to the book, it’s currently loading the books.  Then there is an option down the side to select the library in which you – it lists all the BOF files and here you can just hear, it’s just loaded up the last book and I think this is taking us to the menu because you pressed the menu button.  So here are the different menu options, you have go to page and bookmark and so on.

 

James Risden

So, if I press the menu.  Okay you can also access – right – so if I press menu again would that go back.

 

Rogers

Yeah go on, carry on.

 

Walker

And then James played the last couple of bars of a piece specially commissioned for the day called You Canute be Serious.

 

Music

 

Round of applause.  [Clapping]

 

James Risden

Fame and fortune will follow.

 

Walker

And after he’d used the Canute I asked James and his sister Kate for their verdict.

 

James Risden

I think it’s absolutely brilliant.  It’s never been something that I’ve considered, having an electronic file showing more than one line at a time and that opens up all sorts of possibilities for me learning music, for me studying music, teaching music, rehearsing music.  Okay, so the software didn’t quite work today and the braille combinations that were shown on the display weren’t quite accurate enough to read braille music but I could see that it was music and I could see enough that I know it would be a very, very useful tool in my armoury as a musician.

 

Kate Risden

Well it certainly has formatting possibilities, which is great because you need sometimes to be able to read more than one bar of music at a time, you sometimes even need to have one hand on one bar and the other hand on a thing three bars back, to compare them in order to learn them.  So, it certainly has that possibility.  It also, as we’ve seen, has the possibility of reading words and voice and putting those two together for choral scores, which is utterly impossible on a braille display.  And as you’ve seen it also has the possibility of reading scores with more than one musical line going on at the same time for piano or two single line voices.

 

White

What about the other musicians, Tom, did they feel the Canute would have helped them actually to learn the music, if it had been available?

 

Walker

Charlotte and Kate certainly did.

 

Hardwick

Yes, because you don’t have to carry lots of caper around with you, which can be very bulky.  And although this machine is still fairly heavy at the moment, I think in the long run it would be a much better machine to use.

 

Kate Risden

What it might have given me access to was a lot more music a lot quicker and certainly electronic music files have revolutionised the speed at which you can get transcriptions done.  And for me, working as a professional musician and now with new ensembles who want you to learn stuff at the drop of a hat, getting your music in a form you can read on any device is utterly crucial.  So, certainly it would have made a huge difference to the career choices I would have made at the time when I was embarking on my musical career.

 

White

So, I suppose we’d better bite the bullet Tom, what was the problem with the Canute on the day?

 

Walker

The developers say that there was a problem with the way in which the software was driving the hardware and that they’d got it working though properly over the weekend.

 

White

That’s always the case isn’t it, it always works when people are not there actually watching.

 

Walker

Yeah, there was some minor disappointment but the musicians I spoke to, appreciated the opportunity to see the Canute in prototype.  I asked Ed Rogers, from Bristol Braille Technology, and Sally Zimmerman from the RNIB, whether in hindsight the event should have been postponed because the Canute clearly wasn’t ready to be exhibited.

 

Rogers

No, I was glad we came here on this day and I’m glad we did it and we learnt a lot from doing that.  You can’t just keep delaying things until you’ve got something perfect.  I’m happy to show people our prototypes, even when a glitch occurs at the last minute you can’t cancel things at the last minute.  This wasn’t something we were expecting to happen, it wouldn’t hardly have been fair to have cancelled it right at the last minute.

 

Zimmerman

I think today’s been a very valuable event for the Canute developers themselves because they have been able to see a large number, in our terms, of braille music readers and their different approaches to using the device, albeit in its incomplete format.

 

Walker

And James also felt the event had been useful and shouldn’t have been postponed.

 

James Risden

Events like this take a lot of planning, a lot of people have to have them in the diary don’t they and it’s very difficult to move an event once it’s sort of been pencilled in.  I think probably a lot of people here hadn’t realised what Canute is, what it can do and have the opportunity to have a sort of discussion about how we can use technology.  Braille music is very often seen as a sort of 19th century invention and a rather old-fashioned pursuit and I think seeing it here plugged in and seeing how technology can really enhance what we do and bring really practical solutions to us as musicians is great.  So, I really welcome the chance to have the conversation and I think the developers welcome the chance to see what the glitches and I think if we come back in a year’s time we could have another really useful conversation about how we’re starting to use them and integrate Canutes into our working lives.

 

White

James Risden ending Tom Walker’s report.

 

Finally, today, from a couple of potential disasters to something of a triumph, we can’t end today without mentioning the achievements of our visually impaired Paralympians who’ve skied their way in South Korea to a bunch of medals and a really good all-round performance.  The star of the show though was undoubtedly Menna Fitzpatrick, who topped off her two silvers and bronze with a gold in the slalom event on the last day of the championships.  Her interviews got bubblier and bubblier as the week went on.  Here she is on 5Live shortly after her win with her guide Jennifer Kehoe.

 

Fitzpatrick

We were trying to keep it together on the podium because it was hugely emotional obviously.  Unbelievable winning a gold medal, it’s beyond our wildest dreams.  So, I just said to her our now well-known phrase of butterflies, teacups and we were like yeah okay, this is actually hardest, easier than the race, but actually it’s more nerve wracking trying to keep – fight back the tears and stay professional for that – just for that medal moment.

 

White

And we’re really hoping to have a couple of the skiers in the studio as guests next week.

 

And that’s it for today.  You can call our actionline on 0800 044 044 for 24 hours after the programme.  You can email intouch@bbc.co.uk or go to our website if you can, where you can download tonight’s and other editions of In Touch.  From me, Peter White, producer Cheryl Gabriel and the team, goodbye.

 

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