Vision-impaired can now read the daily paper via the phone Newsline service adding papers

Sun is the latest

March 29, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Until two days ago, Eileen Rivera was among hundreds of people in the Baltimore region who felt left out and cut off, often unaware of events others took for granted.

Rivera, a magazine advertising sales manager who is blind, had only limited access to in-depth news of her city and state from a newspaper. As a businessperson and parent, she wanted to know what the mayor is doing, which companies are moving to town, where to send her daughter to school. She relied on a paid reader visiting her home each week, but she said the visits were limited by time and the news often was stale. Listening to newspapers read over shortwave radio proved too frustrating.

"Like most readers, I want the information I need," said Rivera. "Since I have a job and a child and a house to manage, I can't just sit there and listen to the radio and hope the article I'm waiting for gets read."

Hoping to improve access to information for the blind, the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind is expanding a telephone newspaper service it started as a pilot two years ago with USA Today.

Since adding the Chicago Tribune and New York Times, the service -- now available in 22 metropolitan areas -- has begun adding local papers. On Thursday, The Sun became the latest newspaper in the service.

The ability to read a newspaper can make a difference in getting a job or advancing in one, as well as in networking and social situations, said Marc Mauer, the federation's president, who is blind. "If you're a teacher, you have to know about public events. If you're interested in politics, you need to know about political events.

"But if you're a blind person, you don't have the newspaper," he said, adding, "When you read the paper, you have hundreds of choices; you can decide when and how much of it to read. We [the sight-impaired] have not known about the depth and variety of information that's available to our colleagues, and have not had as much capacity to deal with things."

For the price of a local phone call, anyone who registers for Newsline can hear a computer-generated voice read from the caller's choice of newspapers, sections, stories, even paragraphs and sentences. A caller can jump from story to story, change the speed or pitch of the telephone voice or "pause" the call without losing his place. Callers can read the current or previous day's issues, and from the previous Sunday's.

"It's the very first time those of us who've not been able to read conventional print can read the local newspaper," said Betsy Zaborowski, national director of special programs for the federation. "I'd go to professional meetings, and other boards and people would be talking about the local things they read in the newspaper. I had no idea what they were talking about."

Technology is helping to change that.

At the federation's headquarters on Johnson Street in South Baltimore, newspaper text is downloaded from the Internet and reformatted for Newsline. The reformatted text is sent via the Internet to 22 service centers, converted into voice recordings .. and made available over local phone lines, Zaborowski said.

About 5,000 sight-impaired people in the United States now read the paper by phone, in such places as Baton Rouge, Houston, Chicago and Denver.

In metropolitan Baltimore, home to an estimated 2,000 people with visual impairments, about 700 have registered since the service became available here in January 1996, Zaborowski said.

"With Newsline, you're in control of the information you're getting," Rivera said. "That's the best thing about being able to read like everyone else."

The federation, which started Newsline in October 1995, plans to add more newspapers and expand its local service areas, to 35 this year and to 100 in the next few years.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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