November 04, 2005.
I C Newcastle (UK).
The RNIB's Talking Book service for blind and partially-sighted people celebrates its 70th anniversary on Monday. Simon Armstrong speaks to two users for whom it is a lifeline
Maria Storey was just 21 when an unexpected accident robbed her of her sight. Sitting on the lower floor of a double-decker bus, another passenger banged into her after falling down the steps, detaching both her retinas.
Doctors told her they could do nothing to save the vision in her right eye, although an operation on her left meant she temporarily retained partial sight. Slowly deteriorating over the years that followed, the 59-year-old is now registered blind.
A former nurse, the mother-of-two found it hard to adjust to the daunting changes in her life.
"Somebody missed a step, came tumbling down and knocked into me. It was a massive shock to lose my sight like that," she says.
"After the operation, the doctors said I'd eventually become blind in my left eye as well, but I always imagined it wouldn't happen until I was much older, maybe in my 80s. It was another shock when it began deteriorating when I was just half that age.
"It was difficult to come to terms with. I used to like going out with my friends, but being blind makes everything much tougher. Things like finding people in a pub or a club is problematic."
Always a keen reader, Maria quickly discovered one of the biggest blows was not being able to pick up a book or a newspaper.
Denied the enjoyment of her favourite hobby, she became disheartened until a chance conversation alerted her to the RNIB's Talking Book service.
"I was talking to someone in the street and they'd noticed I was using a white cane. They asked me if I knew about the scheme, which I didn't. That was around 10 years ago and it's made the world of difference to me."
The Royal National Institute for the Blind charity introduced Talking Books on November 7, 1935, to help soldiers who had lost their sight in the First World War. Many men wanted to continue reading on returning from action but found Braille too difficult to learn.
Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was one of the first titles issued on LP records. Over the seven decades that have followed, more than 75 million audio books have been issued.
Today's most popular novels are made available in audio format and posted out to people who use special machines to play the extended CDs which hold more material than standard compact discs.
The RNIB has amassed a collection of more than 10,000 titles covering thrillers, romances, sci-fi and comedy. Joanna Lumley, Christopher Eccleston and John Mills are among the huge number of stars who have lent their voices to recordings.
Maria, of South Pelaw, Chester-le-Street, is cared for by husband Matt and frequently listens to as many as three titles a day. She says the service has given her a massive part of her life back.
"It's very hard losing contact with people you've known all your life as friends have said they don't quite know how to deal with the situation. I never realised how isolated a blind person can be," she admits.
"You still have the same picture of your family in your mind, even though they are of course getting older and they tell you how much their appearance has hanged. It can be very frustrating.
"My son lives in New Zealand but comes over to visit as often as he can. I can tell he looks so different, but I'll never be able to see what he looks like.
"Then there are other problems such as some people's attitudes to blind people. I've had my white cane taken off me and thrown away, and also youngsters telling me there's a step in front of me when there actually isn't. I'm amazed people can find such tricks funny.
"The Talking Book service has been a lifesaver," she says without hesitation. "There isn't a single day goes by when I don't listen to at least one. I take them everywhere with me.
"I couldn't put a price on how valuable they've been."
It costs £70 per year to subscribe to the scheme and anyone who has problems reading 12-point print or less could be eligible. The price is often covered by local councils and includes the loan of a Talking Book player.
The charity relies on donations to help fund the scheme and RNIB campaigns officer David Mann says the organisation is eternally grateful for the help it has received - but warns there is much more work to be done.
He added: "We're incredibly proud of the Talking Book service and hope to produce books for years to come. However, as a charity that relies on the generosity of the public to provide services, we can only do so much.
"A shocking 96% of books published in the UK are not made available in formats such as audio, large print or Braille that a blind or partially-sighted person can read.
"This means such people are getting a raw deal when it comes to reading, with only a tiny selection of books to choose from."
The group is calling on the Government to make more titles available and is appealing for money to allow the RNIB to expand their work.
David adds: "Only together will we be able to substantially increase the number of books available and make real progress in ending the book famine currently faced by blind and partially-sighted people.
"We're not asking for something extraordinary; just the right to read the same book, at the same time, at the same price as sighted people."
The 70th anniversary will be marked on Tuesday with a birthday party in London hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Big-name authors Ruth Rendell and Jacqueline Wilson will be among those attending.
Lisa Charlton, from Jesmond, Newcastle, has also been invited. The 38-year-old lost her sight eight years ago and has been signed up for Talking Books for the last five.
She worked for an export manager and spent much of her time abroad until she lost her sight. A diabetic, the condition can affect a person's vision - an effect known as diabetic retinopathy.
She explains: "Doctors were able to treat it several times but they always told me a point would come when there was nothing more they could do to help.
"Even though they had warned me, I never really thought it would happen to me. I imagined it was one of those things that only ever happens to other people.
"I was on an overseas trip and suddenly lost my sight. At first I guess it was something less serious like conjunctivitis, but when I got home I visited the eye specialists at the Royal Victoria Infirmary who gave me the news."
Lisa still retains partial sight, which allows her to read large print and see the outline of people's faces, although she is registered as being blind.
She was able to return to her job, using a guide if she needed help travelling to places she had not been to before. However, two years ago Lisa suffered a stroke which affected her mobility.
She now spends her time fundraising for the Gateshead branch of the Citizens' Advice Bureau as well as running the Different Strokes charity which she launched herself to help other young stroke victims.
Like Maria, she has found RNIB's Talking Books to be of great benefit: "It's great the way you can listen to the latest novels by people like John Grisham and Ruth Rendell, although only a small percentage of the total number of titles printed normally have audio versions.
"It provides so much enjoyment and has made such a welcome difference to my life. I can't imagine being without them."
For more details about the Talking Books service call the RNIB on 0845 762 6843 or log on to
There are more than 750 registered users of the Talking Book scheme in Tyne and Wear and 2,000 in the whole of the North East.
Over 8,000 Talking Books are issued nationally every day, with a total of two million annually. The most popular author is Catherine Cookson and her book Fenwick Houses is currently the most borrowed title.
The RNIB's library holds books written by 5,700 authors. It costs around £2,500 to produce a new Talking Book and five days to record.
The scheme's youngest member is six years old while there are several subscribers who are over 100.
On average, people read three talking books per month although some enjoy one a day.
All titles are posted free to the member's home as part of the Articles for the Blind scheme.
Source URL: http://icnewcastle.icnetwork.co.uk/eveningchronicle/features/tm_objectid=16332813%26method=full%26siteid=50081%26headline=talking%2dbooks-name_page.html.
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