Peter Barnes 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Nadine Saffell’s morning routine hasn’t changed in years: she sips a cup of coffee or tidies up her home while listening to the Houston Chronicle. The newspaper is read live on the radio for two hours by volunteers. “So many other things for us [such as Braille books] are delayed. We get the newspaper the day it’s published,” says Saffell, 84, who lost her vision from spinal meningitis when she was 4. For the last 42 years, Taping for the Blind in Houston has broadcast the written word for those who can’t see. The readings of newspapers and magazines are transmitted on a special radio frequency, along with things like grocery ads that the sighted take for granted. “I think information is such a valuable commodity,” says Bob Bartlett, a longtime board member and past president of the non-profit. “Even with the ways computers are changing these days–I have a fairly up-to-date computer with a screen reader and everything. But still I prefer listening to the human voice if I have the choice.” Like more than 3,500 others in the Houston area with limited or no vision, Bartlett has a free radio that picks up the organization’s low-frequency signal, broadcast on side bands of the local NPR and public television stations. “I like to have my coffee in the morning and the newspaper just like everybody else,” Bartlett says. “I can do that. I just have to turn the radio on.” Turning Sight into Sound Radio, as the programming is called, stays on the air 365 days a year thanks to more than 200 volunteers and donations from organizations that include many Houston-area Lions clubs. Founded as a custom recording service in 1967, Taping for the Blind started broadcasting local publications in 1978. Today, it’s among more than 140 similar organizations worldwide, according to the International Association of Audio Information Services. In the United States these groups offer a resource to nearly 1.5 million who are legally blind, 90 percent of whom don’t read Braille. In Houston, one-channel radios to receive the broadcast also are available to those with learning disabilities and individuals whose physical limitations prevent them from turning pages. “People trust that they can send things in to us, and we’ll read what they need read,” says Krista Moser, executive director of Taping for the Blind. Whether it’s an obscure textbook or an instruction manual, volunteers will read and record any material clients send in if it’s not already available in audio format. Every morning, including holidays, a reading of the Houston Chronicle is broadcast live, usually followed by a recording of the Wall Street Journal. An entire wall in the front office displays magazines as diverse as Rolling Stone and The New Yorker read on the air throughout the week. “When it comes to technology, blind people are always playing catch up,” says radio manager Jim Martinez. For example, he says that until its third generation, the iPhone could not be adapted for users with limited vision. While digital media competes with radio for listeners among the general public, specialty radio stations remain a sought-after resource for people with limited vision. That’s not to say the Martinez’s facility is behind the curve when it comes to new technology. Even the name Taping for the Blind had been outdated for awhile, as custom recordings are almost always sent on CD. In the studio, volunteers read in 15 state-of-the-art booths where the recordings are edited and stored digitally. Many broadcasts are archived and available 24/7 in MP3 format on the group’s Web site. In addition to readings, Taping for the Blind also produces original radio shows by and for blind people on topics like home repair and cooking with adaptive technology. “What you and I might take five minutes to do, they take an hour to do. But they still do it,” Martinez says. Beyond how-tos, programs also feature blind artists, musicians and a recent interview with best-selling author Charles Shields. Outside the studio, Taping for the Blind offers description of about 25 events each year including theater productions and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Through a wireless receiver, specially trained volunteers help blind audience members take in the action, background and nuance behind the dialogue. In Fiddler on the Roof, for instance, the dialogue doesn’t even begin until minutes into the performance. Other times, a theater fills with laughter from the actors’ action on stage rather than their words. “It is just rather amazing what a difference that makes when you don’t have to say ‘what happened? What happened?’ ” Bartlett says. Like professional performers on the radio, volunteers with Taping for the Blind go through a rigorous audition that requires them to pronounce some 40 words like faux pas and asphyxiated. “You have to know what you’re doing,” says board member Bill Tarver, the organization’s liaison with Houston Lions. Many don’t make the cut. Tarver can joke about his own failed audition: “I guess it was pronunciation, enunciation and clarity.” Those who have the skills, though, often are exceptionally devoted to the program. Many spend hundreds of hours reading alone with a computer for people they likely will never meet. Some have volunteered for more than 30 years. In his deep, rich voice, Allan Kohlwes reads the Wall Street Journal once a week and occasionally pitches in to do the Chronicle. “Reading aloud is different than reading to yourself. You have to break out the thought patterns. You read to make sense,” says Kohlwes, retired after working “behind the camera” in television production and doing some voiceover work. With a paid staff of five, the organization is able to keep its budget trim. Still, it is reliant on donations from foundations, fundraisers and smaller groups such as local Lions clubs to stay on the air. Tarver is the secretary and a longtime member of the Bellaire Lions in Houston, where his club has donated to Taping for the Blind for the last eight or nine years. Tarver also makes the rounds among 60 Lions clubs in the Houston area, explaining what the program does and how they can help. In turn, many clubs list Taping for the Blind among the charities they support, with additional donations going toward specific projects like technology upgrades and antenna repair following Hurricane Ike. After raising money with old standbys like pancake suppers and sales of the Entertainment Book, fruit and pecans, clubs often find that donating to Taping is squarely in line with Helen Keller’s charge for the Lions to be “knights for the blind.” Says Tarver, “The idea of changing sight into sound is just fantastic.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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