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NFB-NEWSLINE® Hits the Big Time
From the Editor: Since March 1 NFB-NEWSLINE® has been available to every blind resident of the U.S. who wants the service. A number of newspapers have called attention to this expanded service during the past few weeks. One of the best stories appeared on April 19, 2002, in the Quad‑City Times in Iowa. Here it is:
Newspaper Readers Now Can Listen
by Ed Tibbetts
To many people the day begins with reading the morning newspaper. To many blind people, even those with Internet technology and radio reading services, doing that is a challenge. If they miss the radio program or do not have the online technology, they miss out.
That has changed for the better.
The National Federation of the Blind has vastly expanded its NFB-NEWSLINE® service, making it possible for the estimated 1.1 million blind people across the United States to listen to fifty-two daily newspapers from across the country being read in much the same way a reader scans sections and stories in their daily printed paper.
For several years the NFB-NEWSLINE® service has been available in the Quad‑Cities, but with access most recently to only four newspapers. With the expansion the selection of papers has grown substantially. And instead of only 40 percent of Iowa having the free service, the entire state is now covered.
"Hog heaven," is the way Peggy Elliott, of Grinnell, Iowa, describes the new service.
Elliott is a Grinnell City Council member who is blind and has often found herself being asked about city issues covered in the local newspaper that she could not read. The NFB-NEWSLINE® service has been available in Des Moines, but she could only access it by calling long distance and paying the extra charge.
The same was true in the Quad‑Cities. Now the Federation has premiered a toll‑free number. Blind people can sign up for it at no charge.
The National Federation debuted the service last month, and there have been a slew of requests for the service in Iowa since then, said Elliott, who is also the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.
"We are just absolutely being flooded with applications right now," she said Thursday.
The federal government approved a $4 million grant that made the expansion possible.
Participating newspapers provide digital text of articles to NFB-NEWSLINE®'s headquarters in Baltimore. Using high‑speed computers, the text is converted to synthesized speech.
"For blind people or even seniors who can no longer read small newsprint, this means more than being able to enjoy a morning ritual observed by Americans," U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, R‑Iowa, said. "It also means being connected to the social and political life of the community in which you live and work."
"This is a very fundamental citizenship issue," Elliott said. She said the entire Iowa Congressional delegation was supportive of the expansion, but Elliott cited in particular the efforts of U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, and U.S. Representatives Tom Latham and Jim Nussle, both Republicans.
"Some basic, simple things we take for granted are pretty challenging for people who don't have sight," Nussle said.
It is possible, with a certain piece of technology, for a blind person to use the Internet and read newspapers, just as sighted people do, but relatively few blind people have the equipment, according to the National Federation. And the elderly, who make up a large part of the blind population, have even less access to it.
Among the features of the NFB-NEWSLINE® toll‑free service is the ability to choose sections and stories, listen to portions of stories more than once, and choose the rate of speed, even the type of voice, that is used to read the stories.
Debra Smith of Davenport said being able to get the paper at any time of day is valuable to her because she works.
"It's available whenever I want it," said Smith, who is the vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa.
Because the previous system was based on calling a local number, the new service, with its toll‑free number, adds the advantage of portability. People who use cellular phones can dial up the number and read the paper while commuting, for example.
The expansion in the number of newspapers helps people who want to read a local perspective on an event.
For example, when Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan was killed during his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2000, scores of people were interested in the coverage of the event within his home state.
"We had blind people calling from all over the country, wanting to read the Missouri papers," said Peggy Chong, the program manager for NFB-NEWSLINE®. "We know there is interest all over the country in reading a local perspective." Many retired people who have moved away simply want to catch up on the news back home.
Among the newspapers in Iowa that are included in the service are the Quad‑City Times and the Des Moines Register. Until last month Quad‑Citians could hear only the Times, Register, Chicago Tribune, and Wall Street Journal on the service, Chong said. "If you want to read the Tampa Tribune or Honolulu Advertiser right now, you could," she added.
The Federation's goal is to have at least two newspapers from every state on the service by the end of the year.
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