Phoning In a Scoop: Blind Get Their Newspaper — Via the Telephone

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The mechanical voice on the other end of the telephone races through the newspaper story, the words coming out much faster than in normal conversation.

Franklin Shiner likens it to speed-reading. “Speed-listening,” he calls it. “You’re not hanging on every word, you’re listening for content,” he says.

Shiner, a 61-year-old blind man, gets his news via telephone these days, thanks to a new agreement between three Vermont newspapers, the state Department of Libraries, the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the National Federation for the Blind.

NFB-Newsline has carried national newspapers for about a decade, allowing those unable to read newspapers — due to visual or other disabilities — a chance to dial a toll-free number and get the papers read to them.

It’s been adding regional and local papers over time, and recently began offering access to The Burlington Free Press, Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner.

Reformer Editor Sabina Haskell, president of the Vermont Press Association, said she was glad Media News Group, the parent company of her paper and the Banner, had joined the effort.

“I think it’s great that people who want to keep up with local news and who can’t read the newspaper for whatever reason have an opportunity to get that news,” Haskell said. “People care about their local news and this is just an opportunity for them to be able to get it.”

State Librarian Sybil Brigham McShane said the program, which started in Vermont in November, had attracted 98 subscribers by last week.

Fred Jones, director of the Division of Blind and Visually Impaired, said the service was empowering. “Staying informed about important issues helps all of us to fully participate at work and in our communities,” he said.

Users sign up through the state Department of Libraries and get an access code that allows them to dial a toll-free number and reach a computer at NFB headquarters, in Baltimore. The system prompts them to choose a paper or papers, sections and articles, skipping those they don’t wish to read.

The system, which uses computer software to create a synthetic voice out of text, allows users to change the speed of the voice and to search for a particular word or subject.

Those who are visually impaired or who have other disabilities that make it difficult to read newspapers are eligible to receive the service, McShane said. She invited those interested to call her department’s special services unit toll-free at (800) 479-1711.

The system has access to more than 230 newspapers, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. It also offers four Spanish-language papers, several magazines and the stories that have moved on the national and state wires of The Associated Press.

“I can be more informed than most people in very short order,” Shiner said.

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