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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Talking newspapers and magazines for visually impaired and other people with print disabilities: an international perspective.

Peter Craddock
Share the Vision, (a UK project promoting mainstream library services for print disabled people.)


There can be few literate countries of the world at the present time where newspapers and magazines are not an important and integral part of day-to-day lives. Not only do they keep us informed, they help us to identify with the variety of social contexts in which we live - culturally, geographically, politically or whatever. They shape, reaffirm or challenge our beliefs and perceptions. They influence our social roles and how we react to people. They motivate what we put back into society. Through the medium of print and graphics they communicate their messages in ways which still remain uniquely effective in spite of other competitors in the mass media. When considering the needs of people with print disabilities it is important to remind ourselves of the social context of newspapers and magazines and the circumstances which relate to access and use.


Talking Newspapers

At the outset it is important to note the differences between national, state/regional and local/community or neighbourhood newspapers. Each can vary in terms of content, frequency of publication, distribution, availability and producer. The same applies to talking versions of these newspapers. Producers can be government sponsored, local or national libraries, commercial organisations, or volunteer groups. The content can be presented on audio tape, radio or computer or a mix of all these. It can be distributed by post, cable, satellite, radio or television transmissions.

Although it is difficult to generalise, distinctions can be made between newspapers reporting local news and those reporting more national news. Local newspapers are mainly commentaries on the local environment in which people live whether this be urban or rural. They are less concerned with national issues although these might be included as, for example, in a city newspaper. In some countries local newspapers might be described as weeklies as opposed to national dailies. From our own usage we will be aware of the differences. For print disabled people, local talking newspapers have proved to be an important feature of their lives and this is reflected in the demand for them.

In the UK for example, the number of visually impaired people regularly reading a weekly talking newspaper can be as many as 4 times the readership of talking books and is often cited as an important aspect of their daily lives. People do, of course, receive local news via community radio and television. But there are significant differences between the content of radio and television programmes and that of printed news and the way in which information is presented. The local newspaper keeps people in touch with their local communities and provides a social identity which social isolation, often imposed by disability, tends to erode. This applies particularly to older people who comprise a large and growing proportion of the print disabled population. Many visually impaired people report that they value local news not just for its own interest but as a vehicle for social contact.

There is also evidence that talking newspapers have therapeutic value for people in health care institutions and for use in reminiscence work. Again it is important to emphasise that the interest of recipients of talking newspapers will be the same as anyone else. What pages interest you in your local newspaper? Birth marriages and deaths, no doubt - people you know personally who happen to be in the news - reports on local golf or tennis competitions - readers’ letters - reports on local crime - religious events - local politics.(Because of the value of talking newspapers in representing community life, some local talking newspapers supplement audio taped transcripts of the printed paper with other content similar to community radio.

This is a particular feature of UK talking newspapers which often provide a supplementary programme of features such as: interviews with local people, live commentaries on local events, readings from local publications, cookery and gardening hints, quizzes and competitions, daily living information such as new government legislation and services).

Services Available

At the present time there are a variety of systems which print disabled people can use, depending on their availability in their country of residence.For the comparatively small proportion who have the ability, reading a Braille paper newspaper or magazine offers the advantage of being the nearest equivalent to reading print. It is of particular relevance to people who have both severe sight and hearing difficulties.

Research suggests that Braille is much more popular for reading magazines than it is for newspapers possibly due to the bulk of braille newspapers (4 to 5 volumes on average). It should not be overlooked that a large proportion of visually impaired people retain some ability to read newsprint. However, for the majority of people, audio reproduction remains the preferred medium of communication ei ther in ordinary speech or in digitised synthetic speech. Each of these media has its advantages and disadvantages but before considering these it is helpful to describe the systems which use them. Postal Cassette Services are a common method in many countries. Extracts from newspapers and magazines are recorded on to tape by people reading from the print originals. Copies are then produced on compact cassettes using fast copiers and posted out to recipients using the free postal service. The cassettes are returned by the recipients after listening to them.

While this system has the advantages of using the standard compact cassette and the quality of the human voice there are a number disadvantages. It is impractical to record the whole of the publication. A newspaper would require 15 hours of recording. A 90 minute recording is common. Also, when selecting news items it can be difficult to represent everyone’s interests (assuming these are known).

The linear format of tape recordings also makes it difficult for the user to select or locate particular items of news or information. (Tone indexing or voice indexing can be employed but have limited value). There is also an additional delay in receiving the newspaper due to the time taken to record it and for it to be delivered by post. In Sweden, for some of the national daily newspapers, this delay in delivery does not apply since recordings are transmitted using radio waves direct to special tape recorders in the recipient’s own home. This is done overnight and as a result the talking version is available in the household even earlier than the printed version. Radio reading services are similar to the Swedish system except that publications are transmitted to special radio receivers which provide high quality reception and a closed system of transmission. Radio reading services are used extensively in the USA for a wide range of newspapers and magazines.

A particularly interesting development has been the use of satellite transmission as a means of relaying newspapers to other broadcasting stations. This has opened up national access to newspapers irrespective of where people live. Live transmissions have the disadvantage of not necessarily coinciding with people’s personal timetables for listening to them. The use of radio/cassette recorders can help to overcome this problem but is an additional requirement for the user.

Services using Audiotex Systems differ from those already described. With these services the visually impaired person uses a telephone to dial in to a central location where natural voice recordings are stored in a computer. These are accessed by the reader by using the keypad of the touch phone or by phoning different phone numbers for different sections of the newspaper or magazine. With thi s method, it is possible for the whole of the recorded newspaper to be made available. People can also select particular sections of each newspaper either by using different phone numbers or with their phone keypad using numerical codes. Such systems are, of course, a common and often exasperating feature of many phone-in helplines. Telephone access systems are available in a number of countr ies including Canada, USA and Australia. While such systems can have the advantage of a full edition of the newspaper they are not conducive to comfortable listening. They can also incur on-line telephone costs.

Access via digitised text using braille or synthesised voice systems has, of course, revolutionised access to information for visually impaired people generally and to newspapers and magazines particularly. Sweden has been at the forefront of developments in this field since the introduction of RATS (Radiodistributed Speech Synthesis Papers for the Blind) in the early 1980’s. Access to digital s ystems is dependent on computerised terminals supported by a voice system and the necessary operational and retrieval software. In addition to radio transmission systems such as RATS, newspapers are also supplied using television teletext channels such as the Talking Guardian developed by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. This system is proving attractive because the use of mai nstream transmission systems and computer software avoids expensive development costs.

Talking Newspapers and magazines are also being supplied on floppy disk to blind computer users. The Talking Newspaper Association UK is currently researching the possibilities of developing a compact portable “floppy disk” player. In terms of computer access the current focus is the Internet which offers an increasing number of newspapers to an unseen global audience. This includes a growing p rint disabled population. Sweden is one country which is now providing access to newspaper and magazine by this means. Internet has considerable potential in opening up access to information generally.

But for print disabled people and visually impaired people in particular there are major obstacles to be addressed before the full potential can be realised. These would include the level of computer literacy required, specific skills in the use of front-end systems, the propensity of icons and graphics and slow transmission speeds. In the longer term it is possible that fibre optic delivery wi ll be the preferred option for delivering talking newspapers currently produced specifically for print disabled people on audio tape or by radio transmission.Computer related systems clearly have major strengths which are easily recognisable: the element of choice of output (speech, braille or enlarged print), economy of storage, direct access and whole text representation. Of particular valu e is the availability of sophisticated search and retrieval facilities. This encourages the provision and use of entire publications instead of abstracts and helps users access texts more systematically and purposefully. Archiving of both newspapers and periodicals also becomes an appealing proposition. In spite of the advantages that computer based systems can offer there are also disadvantage s. There would still seem to be mixed reactions to synthesised voice although it is difficult to assess the acceptability of this medium. It is possible that people who do not like it are more vocal than those who find it acceptable while advocates are trapped into wishful thinking.

Voice technology has improved considerably in recent years but it still cannot compare to the human voice either in quality or intonation. The frog has yet to be transformed into the prince - at least for leisure and recreational reading.Reference must also be made to the social ergonomics of technology. How acceptable is much of the present technology in the lifestyle of the average user?

Ultimately, print disabled people will decide for themselves how they want to receive their news from the choices available. It is they who will decide if it is acceptable to have a cassette player, radio, flexible disc player, telephone, CDROM or computer terminal sitting on the breakfast table.An overwhelming consideration is the cost of technology which for most print disabled people continue s to be outside their reach. It is the irony of opportunity that it merely heightens disadvantage unless the potential is realised. It is becoming increasingly evident that it is not the lack of information which is impoverishing the information poor but the lack of technology to access it.In this respect it is reassuring to note that the Commission of the European Communities is supporting an extensive programme of research into enabling technology. Two major initiatives are TIDE - a research body focusing on “Technology for the Socio-Economic Integration of Disabled People” and COST 219 a project conducting research in “Future Telecommunications and Teleinformatics Facilities for Disabled People”. Providers of Newspapers So far we have considered the variety of talking newspaper systems but who are providing them?

With some exceptions what is most evident in many countries is the strong link between talking newspapers and the voluntary sector. One example is the Royal Blind Society (RBS) which co-ordinates a network of 24 talking newspapers to blind and partially sighted people in New South Wales, Australia with the support of some 500 volunteers. In the UK where there are more than 500 local talking newspapers most are produced by individual voluntary groups with a probable total voluntary population well in excess of 10,000. The same applies to the USA where Radio reading services could not exist without the support of volunteer readers. move this to quality control. Whereas the RBS provides regional co-ordination and can exercise control of production standards, UK talking newspapers are usually autonomous. As a result quality and standards of production can vary as can perceptions of service requirements.

In contrast to the voluntary approach Sweden offers a good example of how governments can recognise in positive and practical ways the needs of disabled people. Here the government views access to the national press as a democratic right for everyone. Both talking newspaper and talking magazine production is funded by Government, the newspapers either producing their own versions or contracting to private firms who often employ professional actors to do the reading. A significant feature of this arrangement is that talking newspapers remain within the mainstream and are not directly associated with charity or charity groups as is common in the voluntary sector. It also means that the same standards of professionalism for print production are available for the audio version.

Library involvement in the provision of talking newspapers and magazine varies considerably between countries. In the USA, the National Library Service of the Library of Congress spearheads the provision of services to the blind and physically handicapped and is backed by legislation. The same applies to Sweden where public library authorities are themselves providing local talking newspapers. Stockholm Public Library also provides a consumer information service which on demand provides full text versions of extracts featured on the talking newspaper. In Denmark government grants have encouraged public library authorities to establish talking newspapers and these have been provided by many public libraries since the 1970’s. In the UK there is no set pattern. Public libraries in Northern Ireland provide tape copying and distribution services for voluntary newspaper groups. Gateshead public library in the north of England is unique in publishing a daily talking newspaper compiled and written by library staff. But overall there is little direct involvement in talking newspaper productio n.


The purpose of this paper was to suggest an international perspective. But the simple truth is that it is difficult if not impossible to do so. Arguably it is questionable if attempts should be made to define a universal paradigm for the provision of talking newspapers. Newspapers and their reading publics are integral to the cultures of the countries which publish them. This is reflected in the varying ways in which talking newspaper provision has evolved and which has been demonstrated in this paper.Libraries can have definable roles as current practice already indicates. Some are directly involved in providing talking newspapers. But the future suggests that the primary role of the librarian as an intermediary could be more prominent. Print disabled people need help in using search and retrieval mechanisms and reading and information sources require customising in ways which are easier for print disabled people to locate and use.

Libraries can have a strong role in extending global access through networking, in co-ordinating provision for multi-cultural communities and in addressing major issues such as copyright. Irrespective of what pattern of provision evolves, government direction and support is required to provide the necessary impetus for the development of services and standards. In reality the current trend is f or governments faced with pressurised social welfare budgets and a growing elderly population to off-load their responsibilities. In this respect the role of the voluntary sector cannot be igonored. A swelling retirement population is providing an increasing pool of skilled and experienced people seeking alternatives to the work ethic. Without the support of volunteers it is difficult to see ho w services could continue at the present time unless a greater priority is given to disability budgets. It is vital that the needs of print disabled people are not overlooked in the general momentum of economic and technological change.

Newspapers and magazines provide a major contribution to the independence and social well-being of all people. We who are providers are accountable to our clients. We need to ensure that the rights of disabled people to commensurate standards of service are upheld and vigorously pursued.


"I have developed a great interest in sports so that I can have something to communicate to people. I can walk into any bar and in five minutes get into a conversation about hockey, basketball, football or baseball. I am also knowledgeable about horse racing. A person who is really interested in those things cannot help talking about them, and soon he forgets I cannot see." (Charle s Isbell)

"I would like a programmable library machine. If I wanted to, I could say "eliminate the prefaces and give me a look at the index"...I would like a machine that would tell me something about the organization of a book. I have a book on integrated circuits that I was reading with the talking Optacon. On every page I felt I was coming in on the middle somewhere. I did not know that in the back of the book there was technical briefs, short pieces, and once I foun d that out, it was a real shortcut to the book. I needed the layout information on this book; it took me two days to find out what it would have taken a sighted person five minutes to find out." (Bill Gerrey)

Eldridge, L editor. Speaking out: personal and professional views on library service for blind and physically handicapped individuals. Library of Congress, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Washington 1982.

"What is needed is a new kind of awareness of the social character of technology. Along with the fast development of technology, the related social requirements, the evaluations, and more than anything else, the knowledge bases are rapidly changing.Because the social structure as well as the society is rapidly changing, the developed systems should as far as possible, be accessible to all. A piece of equipment that is meant for everyone has additional advantages because it comprehends a much larger number of users and is therefore less expensive in the general context of society."

Vappu Taipale and Leanor Moniz Pereira The Social aspects of telematics, disabled and elderly people and the future challenges. in Roe, Patrick R.W. editor. Telecommunications for all, Cost 219. Commission of the European Communities, Directorate-General Telecommunications, Information Industries and Innovat. 1995.

"The evolution of the new generation of audio production and distribution systems should be fully integrated into the mainstream of library and information services to provide blind and visually impaired users with the same advantages of access to information as the sighted population or general public."
Standing Committee: IFLA: Section for Libraries Serving the Blind Ad vancing the next generation of talking book systems: draft statement.


  1. CHRISTOFFERSEN M. and HENTEN A., editors, (1989)New technology in audio newspapers for the visually impaired: International conference in Fredericia, Denmark. Institute of Social Sciences, Technical University of Denmark. 1989.Easily comprehensible news: a short summary of a report by the Swedish State Committee on Spoken Newspapers. [addresses the needs of people with learning difficulties] .Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, 1986.

  2. ENGELEN, J and BESSON, R Accessible formats and Interpersonal communication. in Roe, Patrick R.W. editor. Telecommunications for all, Cost 219. Commission of the European Communities, Directorate-General Telecommunications, Information Industries and Innovat. 1995.

  3. HJELMQVIST, E (1988)Daily newspapers for visually handicapped people. Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly, 21(1), 1988, p.20-24.

  4. JAHODA, G How do I do this when I can’t see what I’m doing? Information processing of the visually disabled. Library of Congress, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, 1993.JOHANSEN, ATalking newspapers in Danish Public Libraries. Scandinavian Library Quarterly, 17(2), 1984, pp. 37-40.

  5. MASSIS, B The present status and necessity of the radio reading service for the print disabled in the United States. In Touch Networks, 15W. 65th Street, New York 10023.

  6. MICHELS, H Talking newspapers and magazines in the Netherlands. in Inform’92: meeting the needs of disabled people in Europe. Department of Health, 1992.

  7. RNIB Electronic Newspaper Project: public library participation. British Library R&D Report 6051, British Library, 1991. ROYAL NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR THE BLIND (1991)Blind and partially sighted adults in Britain: the RNIB survey, Volume 1.

  8. HMSO.Sound advice: guidelines for the production of audio materials for people with print disabilities. Round Table on Reading Materials for People with Print Disabilities, Sydney, 1994.

  9. Speech technology applications for disabled and elderly people: proceedings of the COST 219 seminar, Oberlinhaus, Potsdam- Babelsberg, March 21, 1995.TETZCHNER, S Editor Issues in telecommunication and disability. Cost 219, Commission of the European Communities, 1991.


Peter Craddock is Director of Share the Vision, a UK project promoting mainstream library services for print disabled people. Previous posts include a lectureship in library and information studies at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland and Assistant Chief Librarian for the Northeastern Education and Library Board, Northern Ireland. Other posts include Chairman of the Association of Talking Newspapers, Northern Ireland, Vice Chairman Talking Newspaper Association UK, Secretary Coleraine and District Talking Newspaper. He has carried out research and consultancy in Ireland, UK and Malaysia. Publications include: The Public library and blind people, British Library, 1985 and Project Libra: the provision and use of reading aids for visually impaired and other print handicapped people in UK public libraries. British Library, forthcoming 1996.