Introducing Newsline: Access Technology to Newspapers for the Blind and Visually Impaired

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Every morning many people throughout the United States start the day with a cup of coffee and the morning newspaper. They do, that is, unless they are blind or severely visually impaired. The National Federation of the Blind has initiated a project which gives promise of making newspapers available on a regular basis to the blind of the nation.


The latest figures from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that there are approximately nine million Americans with severe visual impairments. This includes blind and visually impaired children and adults of various ages. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress, the primary source of recorded and Braille materials for those in the United States who cannot read regular print because of a visual or physical disability, has almost 800,000 subscribers. Most of these individuals do not have the opportunity to read the full text of a newspaper on a regular basis, and even when they do, their ability to skip and scan throughout its pages is severely limited.

If blind persons can have timely access to newspapers, they will greatly benefit. This will be one more area in which they will be on a more equal footing with friends, family members, associates, and competitors. Blind professionals, for instance, will be able to converse with sighted colleagues about relevant data in the newspaper. They will no longer be under-informed about facts critical to their professions, or embarrassed at social functions when the latest editorial is discussed. Blind mothers will have ready access to useful information such as community events, recipes, and household issues, as well as current events they can discuss with their children. Blind high school students will be able to work with their sighted peers on daily news projects for social studies. Blind members of the debate team will learn of the latest developments in the nation and the world, having information comparable to that available to their sighted classmates. In short, blind people will, for the first time in history, be able to get quick access to everything from business trends and syndicated columns to human interest stories, sports information, and hard news.

Less tangible, but possibly even more important, is the participation in community affairs by blind persons that access to the newspaper will afford. They will have the same chance that sighted people have to know what public officials are doing and not doing. Access to the newspaper means empowerment.

The problem of making newspapers available to the blind is not new. There have been repeated attempts to solve it, and those attempts have had only partial success because of inadequate technology. For example, the time and expense involved in Braille production, along with the cost and bulk of paper, have combined to rule out any practical possibility of a daily Braille newspaper. The relatively limited number of Braille readers has been another consideration weighing against a commercial venture in this area. A nonprofit public service organization would have to face serious questions about the wisdom of investing its limited resources in such an effort. Where attempts have been made to publish a daily newspaper in Braille, the results have been both costly and unsuccessful, and very few blind people have benefited. Usually, only highlights of the paper have been produced, and the project has been short-lived.

In recent years, two distinct methods of attempting to provide the blind of the United States with access to newspapers have emerged. The first of these involves radio reading services. This requires a staff (either volunteer or professional) to read a newspaper for daily live broadcast. It is the principal way (approximately a hundred such radio reading services are now in operation) that the blind of the United States currently have of reading newspapers. But the system has serious limitations. For one thing, it requires a major financial outlay.

As a beginning, there is the start-up cost; for although a few of the radio reading services use regular open channels for broadcast, the overwhelming majority do not. They use the subcarrier waves of FM channels. This means that each blind user must be provided with a special receiver at a considerable cost. Additionally, broadcast facilities, with all that that implies, must be obtained; and staff must be recruited and coordinated.

But the cost is not all. The blind cannot read the newspaper in a timely manner, for the sighted reader must first get the printed copy and then read it on the air. Moreover, if an article is not broadcast at a time that is convenient for the blind listener, it is not heard and is lost forever. This first generation of newspapers for the blind is better than nothing, but not much. It has certainly distributed many of its expensive receivers.

Recently a second generation (a newer technology) has come into being. Using this system, sighted staff (either paid or volunteer) get the print newspaper and read it onto a computer. The computer is attached to telephone lines, and blind persons may call and read what articles they want whenever they like.

This second generation of technology represents real progress. The blind reader is not limited to a given time for a particular article, and skipping and scanning can be done. An article can be read more than once. Still, there are problems. Mostly they revolve around quality and expense. It is not economically practical to employ a large staff of professional readers for the daily newspaper, so volunteers are necessarily used. Usually some of them are excellent readers; some are extremely poor; and most are somewhere between. The quality is uneven and not uniform. Also, if a volunteer becomes sick or fails to appear for some other reason, a crisis occurs.

As to expense, studios must be obtained and paid for; equipment must be secured; and there is necessarily a considerable amount of personnel cost. For even if most of the staff are volunteer, supervisors and recruiters must be hired. There is no way to have this type of operation without a considerable expenditure of money and human resources on an ongoing basis. It is not simply a matter of initial start-up cost with a subsequent decrease of expense. The heavy expense is ongoing.

Even so, this second generation of newspapers for the blind is a tremendous advance over the first generation. Why, then, are there more than a hundred of the first-generation type and fewer than ten of the second? Some of the answer can be found in momentum. Once a thing is started, it tends to have a life of its own. Additionally, there is the matter of vested interest. People have jobs, which they naturally want to keep. Volunteers get satisfaction from reading and from raising money, as well as a feeling of prestige and self-worth. Funding sources have been developed, and they tend to continue. Nevertheless, the second generation is now taking hold. Fewer than ten of the second-generation type are now in operation, but the tide of acceptance is clearly rising.

In 1994, a third generation emerged. It gives promise of revolutionary advancement. Established by the National Federation of the Blind, it is called Newsline for the BlindT, and it has features about it that have never before been possible.

It envisions not just the availability of a local newspaper for the blind of a given community, but a nationwide network that will permit the blind of the entire country to have access to both local and national newspapers wherever they go and at any time of the day or night. Early each morning computers at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore make contact with computers at USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, and the New York Times. The texts of these newspapers are brought into the central computers at the National Center for the Blind, put into proper format, and sent by modem to every local service center in the country. This can be done in a few minutes.

If the sponsors of a local service center wish, and if they can make the necessary arrangements, the local newspaper or newspapers in their community can be added to the system. In that case the computers at the National Center for the Blind will make contact with the computers at the office of the local newspaper, and follow the same procedures that are used with the three national newspapers. The text is brought to the National Center by modem, put into proper format, and then flashed back to the local service center.

There is more. Each local service center has what is called a special channel. Any information of reasonable length that the sponsors of the local service center want on this channel can be put there - local bus or train schedules, announcements of meetings, information about new material in the library, data about job openings, or anything else. Material for the local channel is sent in prescribed appropriate electronic format to the National Center for the Blind. It is then modemed back to the local service center. The process is quick and efficient.

Human voices are not used anywhere in the process. The reading is done by synthesized speech, DECtalk. It does not have the uneven quality of the voices and reading skills of a group of volunteers, but is absolutely uniform and dependable. After a short period of strangeness and getting used to, it becomes completely unnoticeable. One is aware of reading the newspaper and not of the voice, which is essentially what happens to the sighted reader: the sighted reader is not constantly aware of the print and the sheet of paper, but only of the text.

The newspaper publishers are understandably concerned to protect the security of their intellectual property. Therefore, each blind person who signs up as a reader (regardless of where in the nation) is given both a security code number and an identity code number, both of which must be keyed into the telephone before the user can get access to the system. The security code and identity numbers for each individual are sent to every local service center in the network. Every reader has access to a list of the telephone numbers for every local service center. This means that once the network is fully operational, the blind person can travel anywhere in the nation and read the local and national newspapers from a hotel room, or the home of a friend or relative. In fact, with at least three national newspapers and the local newspaper universally available, the blind person will, for the first time in history, arguably have an advantage over the average sighted person in at least this area of information.

So how does it work, and what does it cost? There is an initial start-up cost for every local service center, currently $30,000 for a twenty-four-line system. In addition, there is a start-up cost of $5,000 to add a local newspaper. There is no start-up cost for the special channel. This start-up cost is not for the purchase of equipment. It is exactly what the term implies. It is a start-up cost. It is paid once, and never again. The ongoing costs to each local service center are only $12,000 a year plus $2,000 a year for the addition of a local newspaper. There is no extra cost for the special channel. This is the entire expense except for the monthly charges for local telephone lines.

If the local service center wishes to employ a staff member to recruit readers or for other purposes, this can be done, of course; but it is not necessary. Nor is any extensive office space required. All that is needed is a desk top to hold the black box which is sent from the National Center.

Some have suggested that further savings might be accomplished by having the local service center establish WATS lines. This is not practical for a number of reasons. In the first place, the cost of WATS-line service will greatly exceed the ongoing thousand dollars per month for another local service center plus the fact that, regardless of cost, no reliable budget can be made. At least as important, even a twenty-four-line local service center will be unable to accommodate more readers than it has in its own area. Thus, the installation of WATS lines will involve extra expense, an overload of the system, chaotic budgeting, dissatisfied blind persons, and a totally unworkable operation.

This deals with the cost, but what about the nuts and bolts? The National Federation of the Blind has spent several hundred thousand dollars in engineering and development costs. The effort to improve and upgrade will be ongoing. The local service center will be sent a black box - incidentally, it is just that, a black box. The box is sealed, and the local service center is not authorized to tamper with it. The black box can simply be set on a desk and plugged into a regular electric outlet. Nothing else is required except to plug in local telephone lines. Someone connected with the local service center is asked to be responsible for informing the National Center for the Blind if on a given day local blind persons are not receiving the newspaper. In such an event, either personnel at the National Center will be able to make immediate repairs by telephone or another black box (several are always kept on hand in readiness) will be sent overnight to the local service center without any charge. The local service center assumes responsibility for shipping the defective black box back to the National Center. That is all there is to it - no additional expense to the local service center, no extensive facilities, no costly personnel, just a regular flow of the local and national newspapers to the blind of the community plus the information on the special channel.

Of equal importance with the technology is the concept of the network. This is truly the third generation of newspapers for the blind. Even so, the first generation (the radio reading services) will not simply cease to exist and go away. We have seen that from the experience of what happened when the second generation was introduced. For that matter, the second generation will likely not behave any differently. The force of habit will react against the change. Even so, change is inevitable.

The third generation is certainly not perfect, but it is better than anything we have ever had before. And there is evidence that the blind will increasingly want and demand it. Moreover, this is not a dream for the future. It is now. The technology is functioning; the system is in place; and local service centers are now in operation. In many instances the third generation may well coexist with first- and second-generation facilities. In others, it will undoubtedly supersede them.

It is too early to know what the fourth generation will be, but it will certainly come. And when it does, one wonders whether the operators of the third generation will resist it with as much vigor as their predecessors resisted them. Nobody knows, but the answer is likely yes.


Ron Hampton, Newsline Division 
National Federation of the Blind of North Carolina 
Tel.: 704-554-7862