Talking Pages: Vermont's Struggle to Provide Universal Access to Information

Article excerpt

Too many times I've heard print challenged individuals explain how they've joined conversations about an article in the day's local newspaper without the advantage of being able to have read it for themselves. Because of technology, this is a frustration of the past.

The purpose of this article is to share Vermont's experiences with the development of a valuable service to print challenged individuals with the hope that others will benefit from our findings.

Our journey began in October 1996 when a diverse group of interested Vermonters began to investigate the options for making local newspapers accessible to print challenged persons. As a result of our extensive search, which led us down many different roads, the final destination was even better than we had hoped for. Not only would we have access to local newspapers, but Vermont would become the first state to provide universal access to the Internet via text to speech with the end user needing only a touch tone telephone.

It took us a year to make this decision, but we feel comfortable with the fact that we explored all of the options. In the end it boiled down to the following three options:

1. Contract with an existing newspaper text-to-speech phone service.

2. Create our own Interactive Voice Response (IVR) System using telephony development software to create telephone access to newspapers via text-to-speech.

3. Chose a product named Web-On-Call which would allow telephone users to access the Internet and listen to the content of newspaper s.

The pros and cons for each alternative required us to take a hard look at each option.

The first option was "Newsline," a service provided by the National Federation for the Blind. We found that it did offer a variety o f national news sources and the ability to add local newspapers; however, we felt that the annual service fees were cost prohibitive . This was a critical issue for us because in Vermont we would need to establish at least seven service sites to provide local call access for our users. We did explore the possibility of 800 numbers and were strongly advised to stay away from such unpredictable costs. We also learned that this service would be limited to blind and visually impaired users and we clearly wanted to establish a system open to all print challenged persons. For these and other reasons we decided to keep looking.

At this point we considered bringing in a consultant to help us set up our own (IVR) system; however, once again, the fee ($20,000) was too high. We also considered designing a simple demo system using Macintosh applications, but we found we would be limited to a one line system which would be potentially frustrating to users.

We then returned to the drawing board to think about how the Internet could be used to our advantage. Our local newspaper did not have a web page, but they were interested in discussing its use for this population. We began testing immediately to see how the files from the newspaper would work when converted to HTML and were thrilled to find out that it was an easy conversion. At this point, o ur plan was to create a text only web page so computer users could access and read the information with screen readers and products like WebSpeak. Our excitement soon turned to disappointment when we realized that very few print challenged individuals actually had or used computers.

The above realization gave us more energy to continue pursuit of the appropriate telephone text-to-speech option for us. With that in mind, we decided to create a two-tiered system that would share one database of newspaper files to support two applications. One application would be used to create web pages and the other for a telephone Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system. We investigated this option and found several companies sold development software that would allow us to create our own telephone text-to-speech. …