The Braille Monitor _______ December 1997
Now Blind Can Scan the Newspaper
by Cala Byram
From the Editor: As local service centers offering NEWSLINE for the Blind® proliferate around the country, stories like the following are written. This one appeared on October 15, 1997, in the Deseret News, one of the local newspapers available as part of the Utah NEWSLINE® service. Here it is:
Attorney Ron Gardner browsed a local newspaper on his own for the first time in his forty-six years last week. Gardner, blind since birth, picked up his telephone, made a local call, and instantly had access to things those in the sighted world may take for granted: flipping through a newspaper, scanning headlines, and reading stories at will.
The Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune are now available, in fully automated form, to the blind. The newspapers are shipped electronically to Baltimore and shipped back minutes later, translated into synthesized speech. The service is still in a testing period and won't be available on a larger scale for about a month. But, for people like Gardner who can access the service during the test run, the opportunity is literally the first in a lifetime.
By pushing the phone's numbers, the computer voice reading the paper can be sped up or slowed down. Gardner can pick a female or male voice. There are a high-pitched voice and a deep, rough voice he could choose but doesn't. And, if he doesn't choose one of the two Utah dailies, he can read the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and the New York Times. Before NEWSLINE®, local newspapers were accessible to those without sight only over the radio. There's no choice but to listen to whatever is being read, and there is no skipping straight to the latest article on the Jazz or bypassing Dear Abby for the obituaries.
It is a beneficial service. But Gardner, legal director for the Disability Law Center, didn't have the time to sit by a radio waiting for a certain story to be read. "It is indescribable . . to be able to pick up a newspaper," Gardner said. "There is a huge door opened to my world to be able to read a newspaper."
The National Federation of the Blind created NEWSLINE® in 1994. Since then a majority of states have adopted the service, which is available from thirty-five sites nationwide and serves more than 10,000 people, said spokeswoman Pat Maurer. The state's Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired paid to bring NEWSLINE® to Utah last year. The Utah State Library for the Blind put up $14,000 to get the local newspapers on NEWSLINE®. The service is free to those who apply through the state or the Utah Federation of the Blind and live within a local calling area. So far, local numbers are available for people living in Utah, Salt Lake, Davis, and Weber counties. Others will have to pay the long-distance charges to access NEWSLINE®.
Kristen Jocums, president of the Utah Federation of the Blind, is thrilled with the service and the ability to flip through local news daily. "I have been loving it," Jocums, an attorney, said. "It's much more like reading the paper is for a sighted person. You can slow it down, speed it up, and skip forward." NEWSLINE® is also beneficial because people who use the service can access it in any state or city that has the service. "You can pick up a newspaper anywhere," Jocums said. The Utah State Office of Rehabilitation estimates 15,000 to 20,000 Utahns are legally blind. The newspapers are just another way they can be independent, Gardner said.
That kind of independence will be celebrated during White Cane Day today. Governor Mike Leavitt will sign a proclamation Thursday heralding the independence of the blind and visually impaired. White canes are about ¼ inch in diameter and made of aluminum, graphite, or fiberglass. They generally extend to a person's shoulder, a length that allows a blind person to walk at a normal pace with time to react if the cane hits an obstacle. Robert A. Day, a state orientation and mobility specialist, said white canes may be simple and inexpensive, but they give mobility. "They mean a world of freedom," Day said. "They allow people to go to the grocery store, go to work, feed their family. They allow blind people to get along as well as anybody." Dr. Richard Hoover developed the modern white cane during World War II when soldiers came home blind and wanted independence. He began a training program in Hines, Illinois, in 1948.
Gardner has used a white cane for about twenty years. He says white canes and services like NEWSLINE® are all about accessibility and independence. "I've been practicing law for nineteen years and never had the opportunity to read local newspapers," he said. "This is just another large step toward independence."