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News service is a lifeline to the blind

A friend and former neighbor of mine, Marjory Woolery, 88, always says she must have her cup of coffee and her newspaper to get her day started right.

Because I earn a living in the newspaper business, I love hearing that.

But what about those people who, like Woolery, love in-depth looks into the news, but who, unlike Woolery, aren't able to read them? How do they fill that void?

In Kentucky, anyone who is visually impaired or has other disabilities that block access to newspapers and magazines, can call Newsline, a service of the National Federation of the Blind that offers free access to newspapers and periodicals 24 hours a day.

Since 2004, the service has been available throughout Kentucky with no long distance charges. It's also available in 45 other states.

Pamela Roark-Glisson and her husband John Glisson, who are both visually impaired, heard about Newsline in 1994 and began working to bring it to Kentucky. They were so dedicated to the mission, they became the volunteer state staff for Newsline.

(Roark-Glisson is the executive director of Lexington's non-profit Independence Place, which offers resources for independent living to the disabled. Her husband is a counselor there.)

There are about 280 newspapers and magazines accessible, including 10 Kentucky newspapers as well as TV listings.

John Glisson said once enrolled in the service, the user calls a toll-free number, enters an identification number and security code, and then selects a newspaper, magazine or topic. A 'favorites' option can be set up, making selections faster.

Callers can get access to breaking news nearly as quickly as their sighted friends searching online. Rather than a human voice, Newsline uses synthetic speech.

While Newsline is free to the consumer, it's not free. The Kentucky Office for the Blind pays $40,000 annually for the statewide subscription, and the Glissons raise about $12,000 to pay the phone bill.

Glisson said the service is of particular value to impaired students who need access to current events for classes.

In 2003, he said, there were an estimated 20,000 students with disabilities in Kentucky schools. With Newsline, students can download news articles to their computers. "I'm not suggesting they plagiarize by any means," Glisson said, laughing.

The visually impaired can also download newspapers onto their Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) players and listen to the newspaper wherever they go.

Margaret Chase, executive director of Central Kentucky Radio Eye, doesn't think Newsline is competition for that 24-hour reading service even though both serve the same audience.

CKRE, which does not get state funding, operates through a special closed circuit, pre-tuned radio that is loaned to the listener and features local volunteers reading the Herald-Leader live from 8 to 10 a.m. daily with repeats at 5 to 7 p.m. weekdays. At other times, regional newspapers are read followed by health news and other features. "Their delivery method is quite different from what we do," Chase said. "It's all about choices."

Newsline, she said, is all about getting the news on the fly. "If you are on your way to work on a bus and have a cell phone, what a great way to travel on the bus," she said.

"If I want to sit down and have my breakfast, turn on the radio and listen, then that is fine, too," Chase said. "One shoe doesn't fit everybody."

Glisson estimates about 300,000 people in Kentucky are eligible for Newsline, but only 1,500 are using the service. Chase said CKRE serves about 3,000 consumers in Central Kentucky.

That means there are a lot more people who need to sign up for one of the two or for both.

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