VoicePrint: A lifeline for the unsighted

You may zip right past it while channel surfing. Or you may catch a glimpse of the "Voice Print" logo on the TV screen, even hear an audio mention before clicking onward in your relentless search for a cultural fix. Like an I Love Lucy rerun.

A suggestion: Next time you spot the logo or hear the promotion for VoicePrint… stop. You will be listening to one of about 500 volunteer readers working with a unique non profit Canadian organization established to allow the vision impaired to enjoy the printed word. Why unique? First, more than half of VoicePrint’s 25 permanent staff either have disabilities, are single parents, members of visible minorities or were receiving social assistance when hired. VoicePrint is aptly described as a "free information gateway" for blind, low vision, print restricted persons and those with other handicaps that prevent or impair reading. The service is also ideal for seniors or, in fact, those of all ages who are new to the country and want to learn about what is happening all across Canada while at the same time learning the language by listening.

A growing number of others use VoicePrint as a source of news and infoation, travel, lifestyle, finance, fashion, sports… you name it, it’s all here, culled by professional editors from a wide variety of publications, mostly Canadian.

Volunteer readers, who record the material on tape, are from all walks of life and even include the occasional ancient and retired radio or television type who can’t resist the pull of a microphone. The common denominator is enthusiasm.

Recording takes place in professional style studios in eight and 12 hour blocks which are repeated to fill a 24 hour broadcast day.

The National Broadcast Reading Service Inc. (NBRS) was incorporated in 1989 after a Standing Committee on the Status of Disabled Persons urged the government to address the need to access print information. A 15 member board of directors, all volunteers, sets policy and monitors day to day operations.

The VoicePrint division is one of three operated by NBRS, overseen from the Toronto base by Executive Director Bob Trimbee, a veteran radio executive and newsman. VoicePrint has bureaus in Vancouver and Ottawa and has opened a local news service in Kingston. The target, over the next few months, is to deliver the national signal at local times across the country and to open bureaus in Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

VoicePrint is the world’s largest (and Canada’s only) national reading service. It reaches 5.2 million homes in all provinces and territories and is growing rapidly in popularity.

If this seems like just another lane on the Information Highway, consider this: Almost 80 per cent of the information we absorb, day by day, is "processed" through our eyes. Sadly, we all lose vision gradually as we age — our eyes are not like television sets that you can replace when the picture tube goes.

Glasses, surgery and laser treatments all delay the fading vision process, but there are almost 15 million North Americans with low or no vision, and many more experience great difficulty reading print.

By the fast approaching millennium, five million Canadians will be affected directly or indirectly by living with partners with low or no vision, or who may have a close relative unable to read due to disease, accident or learning disabilities.

The free, round the clock VoicePrint audio news network began broadcasting at 6 a.m. Dec. 1, 1990. It has not been off the air since, even though it has no secure funding base and in its short life has had to withstand a severe economic recession.

Many other activities designed to improve media access are happening at NBRS. The December issue of CARPNews carried a story about AudioVision Canada, another division which provides "described programming" — a concise, unobtrusive description of the key visual elements of films and video products. And coming down the road is TelcoJournal, a program whereby blind and print restricted persons can access the daily newspapers from their home computers.

If you are retired, — or, like this writer, semi retired — and your mate keeps telling you to get involved in something useful, perhaps VoicePrint is the answer. Find out by dialling 1 800 567 6755. It could be a very rewarding phone call for all concerned.

The Way I See It Anyway.