June 10, 2005, 11:55PM
Blind Texans lose help in 'reading' newspapers Service stopped because affiliate lacks funding By MELANIE MARKLEY Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Larry Lawson's usual routine in the morning has been to wake up and peruse the newspaper by making a simple phone call.
Lawson, who is blind, has relied on the National Federation of the Blind's Newsline to let him "read" the Houston Chronicle and other newspapers every morning by accessing headlines and news stories converted from digital text to automated speech.
But on Friday, the service was discontinued in Texas because of a lack of funds. And Lawson, for one, is lamenting the loss.
"It's a sad situation," said Lawson, a switchboard operator and receptionist for the city of Houston. "It's really a valuable service. It is a window on the world for all blind people."
John Paré, the organization's director of sponsored technology outreach, said 37 states and the District of Columbia offer the service to the blind. But Newsline is no longer available in Texas because the state affiliate has not been able to come up with the necessary $40,000 to pay for it.
"The big thing is that this system allows you to get today's paper today, just like a sighted person, and to read the paper in the same way a sighted person does," Paré said.
Some 1,500 blind Texans have been using a touch-tone telephone to get the latest news from nearly 200 newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Callers could choose which stories they wanted to hear over an automated voice system.
Historically, the program has been funded both publicly and privately in Texas. An amendment to use part of a telephone service fee to fund the program was added to a telecommunications bill in this year's Legislature. But the amendment was stripped from the bill later.
Tommy Craig, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas, said fundraising efforts to continue the service have not been successful. But if the money is raised, he said the service could be restored.
"It seems like everybody's sources for money have dried up," he said.
I had been told by an acquaintance that this funding legislation was killed because various representatives had heard that it was an 'easy bill,' one that was sure to pass, so they piled a lot of riders on it in hopes of using this issue to fund unrelated things. According to the person who spoke with me, the riders killed the bill. The newspaper article quoted above gives a somewhat different explanation, one that I'm betting is more accurate.
But that is not really what concern me. My issue is this: I cannot believe, that among all of the blind, visually-impaired, or philanthropic people in Texas, we cannot scrape together $40,000 privately to fund this! That's absurd. Granted, many blind people live solely on disability income, so they might not be able to contribute. But plenty of us do hold down jobs, and I'd think we could find 400 people to donate $100 each, at least. I'm willing to be one of them. The article states that 1,500 people use this service. I'd think 1500 people x $30 each would more than suffice to fund this thing. Why can't this be run as a subscription service, as is the case for any sighted person who wants to read the paper?
Being blind does not entitle us to freebies. It only means that people are more willing to assist us. If we can possibly pay for things ourselves, we should.
I don't understand why we're even bothering the legislature about this.
Thought: It was noted in the email in which I received the text of the Chronicle article that this cancellation would pose a problem primarily only for people who cannot access the Internet. This leads me to wonder if perhaps Newsline is actually part of a dying breed and whether the program will be phased out across the country in a decade or so as more and more blind people gain Internet access and read their newspapers that way. Maybe what has just happened in Texas is simply a sign of things to come?