Future Reflections                                                                                                 Fall, 2003

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Equal Access to a Black and White World

by Ryan Osentowski

Reprinted from the NFB monthly publication, the Braille Monitor, January 2003.

Ryan Osentwoski
Ryan Osentwoski

Editor’s Note: Ryan Osentowski is an energetic young leader in the NFB of Nebraska. In this article he explains why he works hard to strengthen National Federation of the Blind NEWSLINE® in his state. So, what’s NFB-NEWSLINE®, and how is it relevant to blind youth? If you are guessing it has something to do with access to newspapers, bingo! And here is Ryan to tell you all about it:

Dad, what does ‘arson’ mean?” I asked as I sat next to him on the couch, interrupting him midway through an article he was reading aloud to me from the Kearney Daily Hub.

“It’s when people set fires on purpose,” he answered.

“Like in a fireplace?” I asked.

“No, like in a building,” he patiently answered. “Sometimes people burn buildings because—” but I had already lost interest in what my dad was saying. Mention of the fireplace had caused me to reach up and feel the newspaper he was holding in front of his face. Until then I had assumed that newspaper was just something you stuffed into a fireplace to help the fire burn brighter. But here was my father reading to me from one.

“Dad, why are you reading that?” I asked.

“I like to know what’s going on around town,” he answered, putting down the paper. Evidently he had decided that he would never make it to the sports page with a curious four-year-old pestering him with questions. I immediately grabbed another page, putting it to my nose and smelling the ink. I ran my hands over the smooth surface of the paper, listening to the rustle as it gave way between my fingers. Then, after a few seconds of this exploration, I crushed it into a ball, fired the papery projectile across the room, and laughed. My dad sighed and commented that he hadn’t really wanted to read the sports page anyway.

Ten years later I began to realize how much more important a newspaper was than mere fire fuel. In my eighth-grade social studies class, our teacher, Mr. Henderson, began a weekly ritual of Friday morning current events trivia contests. He told our class that we were to read the Thursday evening paper, and he was going to test us on Friday morning to see how much we had absorbed. The person who answered the most questions correctly would win a free soft drink and candy bar from the teachers’ lounge. Soft drinks and candy bars might as well have been contraband at the time, since no vending machines were available to students at our school.

This prize was enough to jar the students out of the world of comic books and television for one night in order to acquaint themselves with the real world reflected in the Kearney Daily Hub. I realized that I would have to enlist my parents’ aid to help me win, so I began urging them to read the paper to me on Thursday nights. Unfortunately, raising three boys and working full time didn’t always afford them the necessary time to read the complete Kearney paper aloud. I soon discovered that I could bribe my friends to read the paper to me. This worked for about two weeks until my mother found out what I was doing and informed me in no uncertain terms that lunch money was to be used for lunch and nothing else. Somehow I couldn’t convince my mother that a soft drink and candy bar were as nourishing for lunch as the daily mystery meat and potatoes that faced us in the cafeteria.

I cursed motherly intuition and began searching for another option. Then I learned about our state radio reading service, but was disappointed to learn that they did not read the Kearney paper regularly. When they did read the Hub, they excerpted it. Eventually I resigned myself to the fact that I would never win a free soft drink and candy bar.

Six years after that Dr. Kenneth Jernigan and the National Federation of the Blind brought one of my fondest dreams to reality with the creation of NEWSLINE for the Blind. During high school and early college I began paying more attention to current events. I watched the evening news and listened to AM talk radio and political commentary. Many times I heard a journalist on TV or radio quote from an article in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, or the Los Angeles Times. I found myself frustrated that they would never read the entire article. My curiosity was aroused, but I could never find out more about the subject being discussed. Mixed with my frustration, however, was a growing fascination that the media pundits on radio and television always quoted from the newspaper. This told me that, despite the thriving world of electronic media, the printed word in newspapers still had its place.

I always felt frustrated, convinced that I was shut out from a part of the world of current events into which my sighted classmates could freely dip. I had a computer but hadn’t yet logged onto the Internet. When I heard that the NFB had invented a service by which blind people could read the entire text of a newspaper by telephone, I became excited. My excitement was short-lived when I learned that it wasn’t available in Nebraska where I was attending college. I experienced that same old feeling of disappointment—no soft drink and candy bar for me. But this time it was worse. Instead of sugary treats, I was being denied equal access to a big part of the ever-changing face of our world. Newspaper articles were often discussed in political science, journalism, and philosophy classes that I took. I had better luck convincing classmates to read an occasional article to me if it grabbed my interest, but I still could not browse an entire newspaper at will.

Three years later I had the opportunity to see NEWSLINE in action. I was attending the Federation’s annual Washington Seminar, and Dr. Maurer demonstrated NEWSLINE by speaker phone during the great gathering in. I was impressed and excited when Dr. Maurer informed us that we could all use NEWSLINE while we visited Washington, thanks to a test number set up by the national office in Baltimore. I stayed up much too late those few nights, browsing the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, soaking up the latest headlines. I couldn’t get enough, much to the annoyance of my roommates, who were more interested in getting sleep than the news. We all left Washington full of determination. I was determined to help fight to get NEWSLINE in Nebraska, while my two roommates were determined to find a different roommate the following year.

In June of 1999 my hopes were finally realized as the NFB of Nebraska officially launched NEWSLINE in Lincoln with a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony. I was like a kid in a candy store, getting my Coke and Snickers bar ten years late. I was always on the phone checking out national headlines as well as the Omaha World-Herald. By that time I enjoyed Internet access, but the idea of walking around my apartment with my cordless phone in hand, browsing the Washington Post, was very liberating.

It was a big step up from the days of readers and radio reading services, but I still felt limited. I had only four papers to choose from. Yet I loved the service and felt I had come full circle when I became the Nebraska NEWSLINE outreach coordinator in the fall of 2000. The work itself is easy and rewarding, demonstrating NEWSLINE for blind persons who are interested and helping them to sign up for the service. I take a great deal of pride in sharing the joy of equal access with others who can benefit from NEWSLINE.

Since I have been a part of NEWSLINE, I have seen it grow and touch the lives of more people. With the new national service that came to us courtesy of Congress in March of 2002, the limits have become even less constricting. Whereas before I was able to read only four newspapers, I am now able to choose among some fifty-five state and national papers. The benefits of this became starkly clear last semester when my criminal justice professor took up an issue of USA Today one morning and began reading an article about the Enron scandal. I realized that I had read that very article just a few hours before. I could finally recognize an article that my professor was quoting. I made it a point to approach him after class and discuss the article in depth. Later that semester I had the opportunity to debate my philosophy professor in his office regarding an article from the New York Times on cloning. He was impressed that I was so well read and asked, “Who reads your newspapers for you? Do you have to pay someone?”

“Not at all,” I said and pointed to the telephone on his desk. “I get everything from this.” Needless to say, my professor was impressed.

While the events I have described have all been beneficial to my education, I never fully realized how vital NEWSLINE could be as a part of my life until just last week. Nebraska is right in the middle of tornado season, and my hometown of Kearney was pummeled by a band of intense thunderstorms on June 12, 2002. No actual tornados were sighted in the city, but much of the area was pelted by hail the size of softballs. Lincoln is located about two hours east of Kearney, which meant that my hometown was outside the news coverage of local television and radio stations. Beyond a quick mentioning of “bad hail and thunderstorms near Kearney,” the people on the ten o’clock news said relatively little about the impact the storms had had on the city.

I had received a quick phone call from my parents, telling me of the damage done to our home, but I knew nothing about the destruction that the rest of the city had endured. It was disconcerting to be unaware of the damage that many of my friends who still live there had suffered in the wake of the storm. It was heartbreaking, yet comforting, to call NEWSLINE the following day and read more extensive coverage of the storm in the Omaha World-Herald. It also made me realize just how far we still have to go in our effort to make more newspapers accessible to the blind. The Kearney Daily Hub is not yet a part of NEWSLINE, and we have many other newspapers in the western portion of the state that haven’t signed on with our service. The incident with the storm has only strengthened my resolve to continue working to promote the benefits of NEWSLINE, not only to the blind, but to potential newspaper participants as well.

NFB-NEWSLINE® has made a strong impact on my life, and the results are nothing but positive. Along with my daily news headlines, I can read movie and book reviews, editorials, and human interest. I can keep up with the Nebraska Cornhuskers on the sports page or find out if it’s raining in Baltimore. The world of black and white denied me for so long is now at my fingertips, and it serves me well.

In reflecting upon the benefits that NFB-NEWSLINE® has offered to me, I find it difficult to understand how anyone could oppose NEWSLINE. We, the blind of this country, have taken a great leap forward in gaining access to a world that was largely denied to us for many years. NEWSLINE truly embodies Dr. Jernigan’s vision of independence, and any blind person can be a part of it. I hope those who have not yet signed up for this revolutionary service will do so and enjoy the world of black and white that I have come to love.

For more information about the service, or to request an application, contact the NFB office and ask for NFB-NEWSLINE® at (410) 659-9314, fax: (410) 685-5653, or email <nfb@nfb.org>.

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