Dial-in news operation for vision-impaired asks state to help fund service MCI discontinues gift of toll-free 800 number

March 26, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

A free dial-in news service for people who can't see well enough to read wants the state to spend $20,000 to replace service canceled by MCI.

The Metropolitan Washington Ear Inc. provides 1,200 listeners in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and nearby areas with a voice recording of material from selected newspapers and magazines.

Until Jan. 1, about 400 vision-impaired people outside that area were dialing the service from Maryland and Virginia without charge because MCI had donated the toll-free number.

People who called were able to listen to volunteers reading the Washington Post; Time, People and Washingtonian magazines; and parts of the Wall Street Journal.

MCI had contributed the service since October 1995.

President Margaret Pfanstiehl, who is vision-impaired and founded the Ear in 1973, said, "I am grateful for what MCI did, but now that it's no longer doing that, we can't afford to pay that cost, and it's too expensive for individuals who may pay $100 to $150 a month."

Tracy B. Smith, MCI media relations manager, said, "MCI is proud to have provided toll-free 800 service to the Metropolitan Washington Ear as an in-kind donation through MCI's community relations foundation. As with all in-kind donations, MCI policy limits the term of the donations."

The Ear request comes the same month that the National Federation of the Blind and the Montgomery County public library officially began a Newsline newspaper reading service using synthetic computer speech via telephone in the Washington metropolitan area. Listeners hear news portions of the Post and five other newspapers.

The federation, based in Baltimore, offers its Newsline service in 37 cities including Baltimore, where people who register with the federation can hear readings from The Sun, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Pfanstiehl, in a letter March 20 to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, requested $20,000 for the service and a meeting. She wrote, "Low-vision and blind Marylanders throughout the state have been asking us how soon access to their service can be restored."

A spokesman for the governor said yesterday that Glendening had not read the letter but that it was referred to the scheduling office and a meeting will be held.

Bea Rodgers, director of the Governor's Office for Individuals with Disabilities, said her office and the Governor's Office of Budget and Management had been talking with Ear officials in recent months. She said the budget office was able to arrange for the Ear a reduced phone rate used by the state, and contacts were made with private groups that might help.

Pfanstiehl said an unusual feature of the dial-in Metropolitan Washington Ear is that listeners hear the voices of real people. They can hear the newspapers' news and display and classified advertisements as well as articles in the three magazines. Many of the group's 350 volunteers read and record the publications daily, she said.

Washington Ear, with two full-time and seven part-time staffers, serves about 4,000 vision-impaired people in the Washington metro area. Public and private funds are roughly equal sources of its $263,000 budget.

An estimated 2,200 to 2,500 people listen to a seven-day, 24-hour radio reading service of selected programs using a free radio receiver.

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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