Right to read: why the book world must ensure no reader is disenfranchised
As a "literary wonderland" opens its doors on the South Bank to give blind and partially sighted children a sense of the thrill of reading, Stacey Kerr of the RNIB reviews the progress made - but argues that much remains to be done if everyone, sighted and otherwise, is to enjoy books.Tomorrow (19 October), the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is set to mark its second Read for RNIB Day - a celebration of reading in all formats in which people are asked to help raise money to support services for blind and partially sighted people.
Readers with sight problems have their choice of books limited to those that are available in large print, audiobook or braille, depending on their individual needs. Digital publishing is opening up new opportunities: ebooks can potentially offer three formats in one. Indeed, of the top 1,000 books of 2011, three-quarters were potentially accessible to blind and partially sighted people. But beyond the top 1,000 titles, only 7% of books is available in ebook or alternative formats. Things are changing at a tremendous rate - but why shouldn't blind and partially sighted people enjoy all of the same books that that everyone else can read?
A Joint Statement on Accessibility and ebooks was launched earlier this year by the Publishers Association and a range of other organisations from the book world and charity sector. It says that if everyone in the supply chain works together we can make an accessible customer experience for everyone. There is huge potential, but in the meantime RNIB's work is as vital as ever.
To highlight the lack of books available to blind and partially sighted people, and mark its annual fundraising campaign, RNIB will host a first three-day literary wonderland event on the banks of the River Thames from today (18 October). Authors and TV personalities, including Jason Bradbury, Sally Gardner and A B Saddlewick, and CBBC presenter Ben Hanlin, will host reading workshops designed to help children discover the thrill of reading and encouraging them to read aloud.
Actor Michael Sheen has recorded passages from well-known children's books which will be played at the event. He said: "Reading and stories are such an important part of childhood; they're what inspired me to write. It's terrible to think that some people are denied this because they can't see. I heard about RNIB's work and wanted to get involved in Read for RNIB Day. We hope to inspire and encourage people to read and get involved in the campaign which raises funds for services such as RNIB's National Library Service which offers books in alternative formats to blind and partially sighted people."
Earlier in the year, the charity set up a partnership with Walker Books and Lidl in order that readers of the Daily Express could collect a free special Read for RNIB Day edition of the book Mole's Sunrise. This is a beautifully illustrated and movingly written story that reminds us how important sight is, and how we can support those for whom reading is never as straightforward as just picking up a book from the local bookshop. It tells the tale of a blind mole who wonders what a sunrise looks like. When his friends Vole, Rabbit, Squirrel and Sparrow take him to the lake to show him, their vivid descriptions help him to see the sunrise in his mind, and he is able to imagine and experience its beauty for himself.
The Daily Express and Channel 5 have been strong supporters this year, running a number of features asking readers to support the campaign and promoting the book giveaway in an advertisement shown on Channel 5. RNIB also filmed children talking about the Mole's Sunrise story. The campaign has attracted an army of online followers, with almost 4,000 Facebook fans and lots of people commenting and posting pictures. It's also proving to be popular with high-profile supporters such as Stephen Fry, who tweeted about the campaign and was almost instantly retweeted by some 1,000 followers. Joanna Trollope spoke about Read for RNIB Day at the Chipping Norton Festival, and personalities such as Julie Williams, Tony Robinson, Darcey Bussell, Terry Pratchett, Harry Hill, Henry Winkler, David Walliams and Stephen Merchant have supplied signed books for RNIB to auction at the literary wonderland.
Imogen Armstrong, Read for RNIB Day Campaign Manager, said: "We are delighted with how well the campaign is going this year; it really has gone from strength to strength. Read for RNIB Day is about more than fundraising - it's also about getting people to think about the importance of words, and imagining a world where you could no longer see those words. Many of the people we work with describe services such as our National Library or our telephone book groups as a lifeline through difficult times. The people who get involved in the campaign feel connected to the services that they are helping to raise money for, and every penny donated will make a real and lasting difference.
"We hope that Read for RNIB Day will not only inspire a nation of book-lovers, but also draw attention to the importance of accessible reading formats and strengthen RNIB's work in the book world to ensure that all books are available to blind and partially sighted people."
Six-year-old Louie was diagnosed blind at just five months old. "Some people who are blind can see a tiny bit while others, like me, cannot see anything. I go to a school near my house with lots of other children, and I am the only blind person in the school which often makes my school day a bit different to my friends. I have separate lessons to learn braille and listen to talking books. “I love reading books but I get annoyed when my twin brother Aiden, who is fully sighted, and my friends can read the books that I can't just because they aren't available in braille or audio yet. Last year I joined RNIB's National Library Service which sends blind and partially sighted people like me giant print, braille and Talking Books. I really like listening to Talking Books which is a recording of someone reading a story. I listen to them every day. They really make me laugh. The RNIB says that only 7% of books are available in formats that blind and partially sighted people can read. That's why RNIB wants to make books available at the same time and same price as printed books, so that other children like me can read and enjoy them at the same time as everyone else. Last year my mum and I raised £2,500 for RNIB and my school raised another £1,000 which was donated towards children's Talking Books."
RNIB's literary wonderland - illustration above - is free and runs from 18-20 October at Cathedral Square, Hibernia Wharf, London Bridge.