Cathy Murtha offers an inspiring vision of how harnessing computer technology and accessible Internet services, could give print impaired people access to newspapers, magazines and library resources generally. This article describes what is already being done to help make this dream a reality.
The Talking Newspaper Association of the UK was founded in 1974 to unite local Talking Newspaper groups, the first of which was started by Ronald Sturt in 1969 at the College of Librarianship Wales, Aberystwyth. There are now around 530 Talking Newspapers, helping to keep an estimated 250,000 people in touch with local affairs. TNAUK itself runs a National Service with an individual membership of over 17,000 and distributes 6,000 audio cassettes a day, involving over 180 publications.
Towards the end of 1995 TNAUK began the distribution of electronic publications, under the direction of the Vice President, Ted Davis. Growth has been rapid, with over 50 newspapers and magazines available as e-texts, these being distributed on IBM compatible computer disks, by e-mail, or retrieved from a bulletin board service(BBS). On average, over 900 disks a week are dispatched to around 500 users; more than 100 people receive publications by e-mail, and 130 access the BBS. For publications available in both tape and electronic form, the circulation ratio is currently running at about ten to one.
This article will describe these e-texts, who uses them and how they are used, their source, how they are prepared and distributed, with a final discussion of the challenges facing TNAUK in this area, under the headings:
Use of the E-Texts,
E-Text Preparation and Structure,
Lists of e-journals available, and joining TNAUK.
- The e-texts
The wide range of material available can be gauged from the list of publications shown in the Appendix. Distribution started late in 1995 with the Gramophone and HiFi News, three of the latest publications being the Times Education, Higher Education and Literary Supplements.
The first publications from TNAUK – HiFi News and the Gramophone – were initially privately distributed by Angus McKenzie MBE, through his good contacts with the Publishers. Shortly afterwards New Scientist was also taken up by TNAUK, this had also been previously privately distributed, this time as a version scanned from the print copy and distributed with the Publisher’s permission. It was the success of these two separate private distributions, together with some campaigning, which persuaded TNAUK to undertake the service.
Among the most popular publications are the Broadcasting Guides, produced with the kind permission of BBC Broadcasting Data Services, with a circulation of over 200 by the three modes. These Guides cover all the national and regional radio, and terrestrial satellite and cable television broadcasts, and include a simple text navigation system, which enables the user to make easy listening or viewing choices. Two utility programs have been written by members which further facilitate the use of these Guides, to tailor the Guide to their own region, and to quickly find out what is on at a particular day and time.
The Which? magazines, produced with the kind permission of the Consumer Association, are almost as popular, and give the visually impaired reader the opportunity to make the same sort of informed choice that a sighted person will have. Given the disadvantage visually impaired people are often at when purchasing goods, this sort of information is even more important than it is for the sighted purchaser.
Because of the logistics of disk distribution, dailies have had to be made available only by e-mail and from the TNAUK BBS – one paper, the Financial Times, is actually available on the same day as the print edition, usually by about 10am. The Saturday issue of this paper is also available on disk.
Through the Project Gutenberg  Monthly Update, members are given access to a growing literary store. Project Gutenberg is a repository, freely accessible by all, comprising nearly 1000 books at various sites on the Internet; it is being added to at the rate of 32 books per month, all contributed by volunteers. The PG Monthly Update gives a listing of the previous month’s additions, together with a complete author and book index. Those readers who have Internet access are encouraged to download these for themselves, others can ask TNAUK to do this on their behalf. For those interested in literature generally, with the kind permission of News International, the Times Literary Supplement is available. Those who enjoy a good pint of beer while they are reading, can take What’s Brewing, the magazine of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, to help in their choice of beer.
- Use of the e-texts
Although the TNAUK Charter permits it to supply newspapers and magazines to those with a print impairment generally, most readers are visually impaired computer users, rather than those with dyslexia, or simply a literacy problem. A trial with some students from New Leaf, a family literacy group which meets at Maindee Public Library in Newport South Wales, was undertaken and reported on at the Conference of the International Reading Association in Prague (July 1996), and again in Literacy Today . However, in spite of the encouraging results, this aspect has not yet been developed, because it is felt that it would be best to begin the service with visually impaired users: most publishers accept that to give this group free access to their material, will not damage their sales; also, while there is an appreciation that this is the only way visually impaired people can get access to information, much work remains to be done to extend this perception to print disability generally. It is quite possible that permission could be extended to those whose dyslexia causes them to be ‘statemented’ by their Local Authority, although the situation regarding the free postal delivery to registered blind people would need to be explored.
The systems that people use to read electronic texts will depend on the nature of their visual impairment, their financial situation and their technical competence.
Some will be able to read the text on the screen without any other aids, though they would not easily be able to read the printed copy. Others will need to enlarge the image, either using the natural font size enlargement within Windows, or a program specially designed to enlarge the image on a screen. Those using the natural enlargement facility of Windows can obtain further help if their computer is equipped with a sound card, when selected passages can be voiced.
Those whose knowledge of braille is good enough, will be able to attach a braille output device to their computer, and read in braille. Those whose knowledge of braille is inadequate, or who cannot afford the high cost of the braille equipment, will have a voice synthesiser attached to their computer. Both the braille and voice synthesiser users will need a piece of software called a screen reader to interface between them, the computer and their chosen means of output; newer versions of these screen readers have the ability to use sound cards rather than the more expensive voice synthesisers.
Finally, all will need to choose to use either a word-processor or a dedicated text reader. In general word-processors are not to be recommended, they tend to be slower than the text readers, but Windows-based users will still prefer them. Two good text readers, both Shareware products, are LIST+  and READIT , the latter the most popular, both of these products being DOS-based, the latter being particularly well-suited to the TNAUK e-texts.
The main factors affecting the rate and efficiency of acquisition of information are not dissimilar from those for any reader: natural ability, the skill and experience with which that ability is applied, the complexity of the text, will all have a bearing; an additional factor will be the technical competence of the e-reader in using the reading system. The experienced e-reader will learn to skim and scan as well as any sighted reader, making full use of the text-search ability of the preferred reading program. Someone using voice synthesis will increase the speech rate to the maximum comprehensible rate. All will make the usual predictions from contextual clues to further speed up reading rates.
With the good contacts it had established in publishing and editorial offices over the years, TNAUK was in an ideal position to obtain the agreement of various publishers to distribute electronic copies of publications. Generally the attitude has been one of interest and cooperation, with some organisations prepared to undertake serious development, sometimes tied into their own objectives with regard to the Internet, to make their publications accessible to visually impaired people.
Advertising is a valuable source of information, particularly employment advertising, but also equipment advertising in computer magazines. Unfortunately this has so far proved to be the most difficult to acquire – in part, possibly, because this is the major source of revenue for the publication, but also because of technical difficulties. At least one publisher refused, citing the former ground; several others have indicated that this would not be a problem, but that because the material is prepared by outside advertising agencies, and is received in film format ready for printing, it cannot be supplied in an accessible form.
A vital factor in the rapid initial growth was the whole-hearted co-operation of FT PROFILE, which gave permission to use their extensive database of over 100 publications freely, provided only that the owners of the original material also gave their permission. The great value of this source lay in the fact that the publications required no conversion to a readable format and that because of the similarity in the way the publications were structured, a single program could be written to produce a uniform output, for all of the publications taken from it. This gave the necessary experience to deal with the more complex texts that came later. About 18 of the titles – for example, New Scientist, The Economist, the Daily Telegraph – are obtained from the FT PROFILE database.
The remaining titles are sent from the editorial offices by various means, by pc or mac disk, by SyQuest disk, by dialling into the publications own bulletin board, by e-mail and through ISDN.
- E-text preparation and structure
Texts which are coded as ASCII files, (a standard code, which stands for American Standard computer Code for Information Interchange), can readily be imported into any word-processor or text reader – all of the FT PROFILE publications, as already mentioned, are held in this format.
Most of the non-ASCII texts are produced by QUARK, a desktop publisher for Mac computers. Text must be manually extracted from these files, using QUARK on a Mac, to ASCII PC files, a laborious and time-consuming process – a day can easily be spent extracting the textual content of a moderately-sized magazine.
Some publications will already have been converted to ASCII text files, from various word-processors and publishing packages before they arrive. They may well contain the debris of their previous existence, sections involving word-processing control codes, or even editorial comments, all of which need to be removed. Further, the order in which the separate articles are stored on the disk or transmitted down the telephone line will quite often be due to chance rather than editorial choice.
So to clean up the articles and impose a logical structure, which should reflect that of the print copy, a series of programs was created to produce the final output. These programs were developed to make as much of the work as possible automatic; where intervention is necessary, it is made within the context of the automatic editing program, thus ensuring that the integrity and structure of the final text is maintained.
Cleaning up the text not only involves removing debris within it: certain characters are incorrectly translated, for example the pound sterling symbol, becomes L; line lengths must be adjusted to be about 75 characters and an occasional blank line inserted between paragraphs. This ‘tidying-up’ process can sometimes be quite extensive: Which? magazine, for example, contains many tables comparing different products; during the extraction process these tables are broken up into their horizontal and vertical components, which have to be reassembled in a way that tries to help the visually impaired reader navigate them.
Structure is imposed on the text by re-ordering the articles, with reference to the print copy, numbering them, adding a contents page and navigational hooks to help in moving from the contents page to the articles and between the articles. The contents page has both a section index and an article index, the former referring the reader to the first article of each section, the latter giving the article headline and often a summary. Two simple navigational hooks are added, a special character (the ‘hash’ symbol) is placed in front of the article number, as a search-aid, and the so-called form-feed, or page-break character is placed at the start of each article: this is recognised by a text reader popular with visually impaired readers, enabling them to move between articles by simply pressing the letters “n” and “p” for the next and previous articles.
Finally a prefatory section is added, containing acknowledgements, general information and help. An escape is provided to enable a regular reader to skip over this section.
Clearly it is important that people have access to their paper or magazine as close to the print publication date as possible. Of the dailies, which can only be obtained through the BBS and by e-mail, only the Financial Times can be delivered on the same day as the print copy appears, generally the others are a day late. Weeklies and monthlies are usually produced on or before the print publication date – the Broadcasting Guides, for example, are available on the Tuesday before the broadcasting week begins on Saturday. Some of the monthlies, such as HiFi News and the Gramophone, are received at the National Recording Centre at least a month before the print publication date, so these are held back until the print copy appears in the shops.
The basic means of distribution is the IBM compatible 3.5in floppy disk. These are dispatched in plastic wallets, with reversible laminated labels. Under an agreement with the Post Office, these are carried without charge to registered blind members. The member is encouraged to scan all disks received for viruses, having done so, the file is copied onto the member’s computer and the wallet and disk returned. Including audio cassette wallets, TNAUK deals with 50 sacks of wallets per day, approximately 6,000 cassettes and disks.
If the member’s computer has been equipped with a modem – and older models can still be found for less than 50 pounds, with later 33,600bps modems less than 100 pounds – e-texts can be downloaded from the BBS. This has been set up as a 0345 local number, with a sending modem of 28,800 bps, so that with the modern modem’s error-checking and data compression capabilities (even for those below 50 pounds), high data transmission rates are achievable. The Sunday Times, which can be about 2MB – about the electronic size of Dicken’s “Dombey and Son” – can be downloaded using a 28,800 bps modem in less than six minutes; allowing another few minutes to organise the transmission and log off, at local week-end rates this represents less than a 10p telephone charge.
Members with access to the Internet, or at least an e-mail address, can opt to receive their issues by e-mail delivery. Those who have this facility will probably choose to have regular deliveries by e-mail, fetching the occasional item from the BBS, treating it as an electronic news-stand.
Many challenges face TNAUK if it is to fulfil the early promise of the last eighteen months:
the range and content of the material must be expanded, to try again to include advertising material, to provide more ‘life-style choice’ material – magazines on cooking, gardening, sport, etc.;
there are still many visually impaired computer users who are unaware of the service, consideration should also be given to drawing in those with dyslexia;
the presentation and structure of some e-texts needs to be improved, new formats should be explored – for example, HTML, though this must not be at the expense of the more generally accessible ASCII format;
to cater for overseas members, the electronic news-stand that is the BBS needs to be made available through an accessible web site;
finally, but certainly not least, means must be explored whereby local Talking Newspapers can be involved.
- Lists of e-texts available, and joining TNAUK
The following lists of available e-texts were current as of June, 1997: Quarterlies:
National Trust Magazine
British Astronomical Association Journal
BBC Homes & Antiques
New Christian Herald
HiFi News & Record Review
London Underground Railway Society News
BBC On Air
Connectivity (PC User Group Magazine)
Project Gutenberg Update
What’s Brewing (CAMRA Magazine)
Financial Times on Saturday
Independent on Sunday
Local History Magazine
Mail on Sunday
Times Educational Supplement
Times Higher Educational Supplement
Times Literary Supplement
Scotland on Sunday
Take a Break
Satellite & Cable programme information
BBC and ITV programme information
Membership of TNAUK costs 20 pounds per annum, and entitles the member to any number of titles, either as e-texts, or on audio cassette. For further information, contact TNAUK on:
National Recording Centre, Heathfield, TN21 8DB.
Tel: 01435 866 102
Fax: 01435 865 422
Email: [email protected]