25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BORDERS TALKING NEWSPAPER

This week in Parliament I spoke about the Borders Talking Newspaper and the great work they do to bring news to those with disabilities. You can watch and read my speech below:

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab): 

I echo the comments of Christine Grahame and congratulate Rachael Hamilton on lodging her motion and providing members with the opportunity to wish Borders Talking Newspapers a very happy 25th birthday. I add to the welcome to the Scottish Parliament that has been given to the volunteers from Borders Talking Newspapers who are in the gallery.

In a week in which we mark 20 years since the people of Scotland, including nearly 67 per cent of Borderers, voted in favour of devolution, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this Parliament did not even exist when, in 1992, Matilda Mitchell began Borders Talking Newspapers, recording local news stories on to cassette tapes—in an attic, I understand—for the benefit of visually impaired and blind people in the region.

Since then, although it now uses digital recordings on data sticks and the internet, the newspaper has no doubt covered much of our Parliament’s work and delivery of groundbreaking legislation, such as free personal care for the elderly, the ban on smoking in public places and, of course, the Waverley Railway (Scotland) Bill—the borders railway bill. It is my hope that soon it will be able to report on plans to extend that railway to Carlisle through Langholm, among other places—but that is maybe a debate for another day.

Today’s debate is an opportunity to celebrate the enormous contributions that Borders Talking Newspapers and the many other talking newspapers services make in our communities. They are often small local charities that provide talking newspapers to usually between 100 and 200 people free of charge, and rely heavily on the tireless commitment of their volunteers, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude.

As a member of the Scottish Parliament cross-party group on visual impairment, I know how important the work of those volunteers is to many people. I have often spoken to people who are blind or partially sighted, and they describe losing their sight as an incredibly isolating experience. Losing the ability to read as one’s sight deteriorates can contribute enormously to that feeling of isolation. As one’s vision worsens and it becomes more of a challenge to read, it is more difficult to keep up to date with local and national events. The sources that keep people informed of events—newspapers, posters and flyers—become more and more inaccessible until they are impossible to use.

Most of us in the chamber probably take it for granted that everything we want to read will be in a format that is accessible to us, but that is not the case for people with sight loss. Less than 5 per cent of books are produced in accessible formats, which has a particular impact on children with sight loss who are often excluded from reading the same books as their peer group. Every child should have the opportunity to develop a love of reading, but that is difficult when fewer than 1 in 20 of the books that is available to a child’s peers are available to that child.

That is why the work that is taking place across Scotland to tackle the isolation that is caused by sight loss that I have described is so important, whether it is the fantastic contribution of Borders Talking Newspapers and other talking books in bringing the news to local communities, or the RNIB talking book library, which provides 60,000 books in accessible formats and is free at the point of use. The importance of that work will grow, as the number of people with sight loss is set to double by 2030.

In many cases, sight loss is not inevitable. Next week is national eye health week. Sight-loss charities and ophthalmologists across the country will be encouraging everyone to book an eye-health check—a check that has been free for almost a decade in Scotland, thanks to the Government in 2006. Those checks can make a real difference, with sight loss being preventable in 50 per cent of cases if it is picked up quickly through them. I encourage everyone to make sure that they take advantage of the free eye checks.

Once again I congratulate Borders Talking Newspapers and all our talking newspapers, and thank them for the invaluable service that they provide to our constituents across Scotland.

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