A Newspaper for Blind People; Britain's Guardian Newspaper Began Offering a Daily Home Service in March

By O'Connor, Robert | Editor & Publisher, May 22, 1993 | Go to article overview

A Newspaper for Blind People; Britain's Guardian Newspaper Began Offering a Daily Home Service in March


O'Connor, Robert, Editor & Publisher


BLIND PEOPLE HAVE always been dependent on others for their news.

While books are widely available in Braille and very large type, newspapers have remained outside this process: Their frequency and sheer mass make such conversions uneconomic.

The blind usually have to content themselves with broadcast news, Braille magazines and the cassette digests of events that are expressly prepared for them.

That is beginning to change. In March, Britain's Guardian newspaper began a daily service for the blind, based on electronic transmission of the entire paper -- minus the advertising into specially equipped personal computers.

"This is the first time a newspaper has gone into the home in total, not through the letterbox," said Guardian managing editor lan Wright. The newspaper launched the research that led to the service after being approached by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. The Guardian now hopes that other British newspapers will join.

Paola Fabrizi, technical research manager at Royal National Institute for the Blind, said the project grew out of a pilot study that the institute had carried out a few years ago. The study, she said, demonstrated "how popular such a service would be and what demand there was for a daily electronic newspaper."

"For deaf-blind people," she said, "there is no other way of getting the news, and for people who can use radio or TV news but can't read a newspaper, having it in this form has the advantage that they can choose what to read when they want to read it."

For Mark Prouse, blind since the age of two, the service has opened up a new world. Prouse, who is high-tech officer for the Royal National Institute for the Blind in London, had no real conception of what a newspaper is.

"I was amazed when I first started using it," he said, "just how much information is in the newspaper. I was really very excited about it."

He can now read the less prominent stories that do not make it to radio or television, and he enjoys reviews of concerts as well as articles on his specialty, technology.

"It's a bit frustrating," he admits. "You never feel as if you have enough time. I guess everyone feels like that about the newspaper."

The Electronic Newspaper project took three years to put together at a cost of about $750,000. It involves transmitting the newspaper via a television signal. The principle, known as vertical blanking interval, has long been used in Europe to broadcast news and other information in the form of teletext to television screens. The Guardian system is also connected to Britain's four main television stations as well as broadcast teletext services.

The Guardian is sent out in two separate 20-minute broadcasts: one at 12:30 a.m. and another at 5:30 a.m. The second transmission repeats the first, correcting errors that may have been caused by atmospheric conditions.

The signals are received by a normal television aerial before going to a special decoder card, which is fitted inside the user's personal computer. The data is then converted into text and stored on the computer's hard disk. Material can be automatically deleted periodically to make room for more issues of the paper.

Subscribers can use the service in three ways: by listening to a voice synthesizer reading from the paper, by using a Braille adapter attached to the computer or by reading letters on the screen that can be expanded to as much as an inch high.

Prouse believes that many of Britain's one million registered blind people would be able to read this lettering. Prouse, who is totally blind, prefers the voice synthesizer because it is faster than the Braille attachment.

Prouse is now "more aware of the kind of comment that is appearing in the papers, and it means that socially, at tea breaks, or on the tube -- whenever people are discussing things -- I'm a little more part of that. …

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