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Media Access:more Than Just a Slogan

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Cindy McGlynn is a free-lance writer based in Toronto.

There never was a question about the need for a national reading service. It was identified in 1988 by a parliamentary committee and restated since by the media, industry and most importantly, Canadian consumers. Now VoicePrint -the world's largest reading service-is an essential element of Canadian media. Just ask its listeners.

"In February while driving to an appointment, I saw bright flashing lights," says Don Thonger of Calgary. "Then the vision in my right eye disappeared. I learned that I had a detached retina. (During my) recovery ... I was not to, among other things, read or watch TV. I was aware of your programming ... and now have a better appreciation for the service you provide. You made two very difficult weeks much more tolerable and I can only imagine the impact you have on the lives of those whose vision is permanently impaired."

Bob Nelson of Vernon, BC, sees it that way, too. "Three years ago I became legally blind. Now, thanks to VoicePrint, I'm probably as well-read as before I lost my sight."

The free VoicePrint service has a value far beyond its operational costs. Consider that 80 percent of the information we use is taken in through our eyes and that more than 15 million North Americans live with low or no vision. As many more are print-restricted for reasons of disease, accident or learning disabilities. Given that vision is a technical ability gradually lost as we age, the implications for seniors is enormous.

Set Up In 1989

NBRS ("The National Broadcast Reading Service Inc.") is a boutique media charity set up in 1989. It is home to VoicePrint, which round the clock from its Toronto headquarters and bureaus at Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg, delivers its news-and-information service to 5.5 million Canadian homes.

Its philosophy is to work in partnership with organisations of and for the blind. Its mission is to nurture essential activities and services that provide access to media for millions of blind and print-restricted Canadians. In pursuit of that mission, NBRS in 1995 opened two sister divisions to its flagship reading service.

AVC ("AudioVision Canada") is home to Canada's only audio-description production centre. It adds descriptive narratives to films and videos so viewers with low or no vision understand the visual story line. AMC ("Alternate Media Canada") is responsible for evaluating technical solutions to NBRS needs and finding secondary markets for VoicePrint and AVC products and services.

In a world where alternate media versions are increasingly necessary, NBRS is answering a societal clarion call to craft new ways of getting information to the mind's eye. NBRS practices what it preaches. At Toronto, a small multi-cultural staff-including employees with physical and vision disabilities-reflects the NBRS tenet to hire individuals facing employment disadvantages. They co-ordinate the work of volunteers who are the voice in VoicePrint.

VoicePrint has been and remains the central NBRS focus. It was licensed by the CRTC ("Canadian Radio-television and Telecom- munications Commission") in October 1990. VoicePrint has been 'on the air' non-stop since 6 a.m. Dec. 1, 1990.

Available Across Canada

VoicePrint delivers information that is essential to the decision-making and quality of life of almost two million blind, low-vision, print-restricted and senior Canadians. It is accessed through cable television and the ExpressVu direct-to-home satellite service in all Canadian provinces and territories. Almost 500,000 Canadians consider VoicePrint their primary source of information. They are among four million Canadians 18+ who make use of the service each week.

NBRS director Geoff Eden says for someone with vision-loss, VoicePrint is the difference between a life of isolation and one that is active and involved. One of the greatest disabling features of vision loss, Eden says, is an information deficit. "Blind people can be locked out of daily conversations-of being in the know -even with their own families."

A former CNIB manager and now an accessibility planner with the City of Toronto, Eden is a technical specialist with a broad knowledge of accessibility issues. He was part of an NBRS team which outlined to the CRTC ways in which broadcasting can become more accessible, including audio voice-overs of visual information such as phone numbers, weather information and TV listings that often are broadcast only as a graphic.

VoicePrint helps listeners overcome the information deficit Eden describes, by broadcasting information published by hundreds of Canadian newspapers and periodicals. With almost 500 volunteers involved country-wide, VoicePrint also provides volunteer readers a spirited social network. The chance to make new friends while serving the community is what eight-year volunteer Tom Pettingill calls "a win-win situation."

Pettingill, a retired engineer, rises before dawn each Tuesday and makes an hour's drive to VoicePrint Toronto, ensuring the National Report is aired by 8:00 a.m. "It's so important. You just try closing your eyes for a second and think you're never going to open them again. You'll get a sense of what a service like this means."

An Essential Service

Pettingill's dedication is not unusual. Many volunteers have participated for years and some, including Pettingill, have received government awards lauding their participation. Perhaps the biggest thank you comes from listeners like Edmonton's Ross Haines who calls VoicePrint a "godsend" and says it's "absolutely essential for some of us who are blind."

AVC receives similar kudos for its video description work. By adding a narration describing key visual elements of films and videos, the technology assists blind and vision-restricted viewers in their quest for equal and independent access to television, film and other visual media.

This form of access was recommended 12 years ago by a parliamentary standing committee -based on the premise that programming without access is no programming at all. In its appearances before the CRTC, NBRS urged the Commission to identify audio description as an essential broadcasting element in the way closed-captioning is defined for deaf viewers.

As one listener explained, "For people with vision problems, this is a major step toward equal and independent access. It's a ticket to participation."

The narrated description is synchronised with the visuals so artfully by AMC staff that the description does not diminish the experience for sighted viewers and generally enhances it. The idea is catching hold. Some 250 public library branches across Canada now stock dozens of AVC titles.

Described CBC Mini Series

In 1997, CBC's English-language flagship station, CBLT-TV Toronto, premiered the mini-series The Arrow in both conventional and described formats. In January 1999, CBLT-TV followed the same format with its much-anticipated mini-series, Big Bear.

The unique AVC approach to description allows it and AMC to offer skilled jobs to disadvantaged Canadian workers. This effort has been supported by HRDC ("Human Resources Development Canada").

As a consequence, NBRS has in place a growing network of skilled describers to produce the narration that seamlessly allows users with diminished vision to see the program in their mind's eye, transforming voices into a meaningful entertainment experience.

During the development process, NBRS created an entertainment first-an audio cassette version of a described film. Called AudioCinema, the concept is similar to books on tape except that listening to the soundtrack of a described movie recorded on an audiocassette is far more engaging for all consumers, blind and sighted.

AudioCinema is the brainchild of AMC, the technical innovator within the NBRS family. AMC earlier developed the computer program used to marry a description track to an original video or film. And it is supervising the development of a low-cost Second Audio Program receiver to simplify the reception of described television programming whether it is received via cable TV or off air from a local broadcaster.

Sustaining VoicePrint Key

Together with AVC, AMC actively pursues projects and services that help to sustain VoicePrint. In doing so, they respond to basic societal needs in a way that is appealing to a broad audience.

A VoicePrint audience survey conducted by Oakes Research and based upon 5,500 random phone calls and 500 follow-up interviews revealed that VoicePrint is also enjoyed by thousands of sighted Canadians. AudioCinema in the same way has an appeal to sighted consumers who now enjoy audio books to the degree that it now is a $1.5 billion North American market.

NBRS is striving to become self-sustaining. This is an ambitious vision and many hurdles remain. Chief among them is the necessity to convince regulatory policy- makers to respond to the needs of Canadians with diminished vision as they have to those of Canadians with diminished hearing. (Applicants for television licences must address the captioning needs of deaf viewers. Nothing remotely comparable is done to render broadcasting accessible to viewers with diminished vision.)

Progress often encounters adversity. But NBRS activities embody the spirit of George Bernard Shaw's words: "Some people see things as they are and ask, 'Why?' I see things as they might be and ask, Why not?"

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