A Breath of Fresh Air

Despite all the advances we make as a society striving for
equality, it’s remarkable how stuck we are on providing information
through visual means: leaflets, posters, newsletters, websites and
so on. Martin Clooney* is a blind Glasgow man who travels each day
to Edinburgh by train. Planned work on the line meant timetable
changes and the operator Scotrail informed its passengers of the
revised timetable by placing a leaflet on seats for the whole week
before. So, each day Clooney simply sat on the information
oblivious to it. The following week he arrived at the station but
his train didn’t.

Such experiences caused concern about the technology used to share
information. “Blind or partially sighted people only had the
talking newspaper,” says John Legg, head of performance, standards
and strategic management at Glasgow Council. “People would come in,
read the newspaper onto tape and three days or a week later, get
it. If you get Thursday’s Glasgow Herald on a Saturday it’s not
much use to you.”

However, people soon tuned into an answer – a radio station. And it
had a good reception. With the council putting in more than
£200,000 in capital investment and revenue, and linking up
with partners including RNIB Scotland, Playback, visibility, Guide
Dogs and BBC Radio Scotland, the first radio station for blind or
visually impaired people in Europe was on air.

VIP On Air is an internet radio station producing four hours of
original programming Monday to Friday with an aim to provide
information that its audience would struggle to access elsewhere.
“Our anchor programme, for example, creates a very visual outlook
of news and current affairs,” says station manager, Kerryn Krige.
“When you heard about the death of Yasser Arafat, for example, your
comprehension of that news was probably visual – you might have
pictured Arafat, the compound at Ramallah, how bombed it was and so

Legg agrees: “In Glasgow we had a factory bomb blast that killed a
number of people. The front page of the papers all carried
pictures, and everything they reported related to those pictures.
So the radio station contacted two local reporters and got them to
describe the scene of devastation and that helped build up a
picture. It’s hard to imagine how much we would miss out on life by
not seeing. But they have brass necks, this lot – they even got
through to a CNN reporter at the scene of the Madrid bomb blast to
give a visual description.”

Brass neck-in-chief would appear to be broadcast producer and
presenter Michael Hughes. “I lost my sight when I was about 23 and
went for retraining at the RNIB and worked for a while at the BBC.
I started here about nine days before the station launched. It’s
really good working here. It increases your confidence and broadens
your experience. I talk to about 300 people on the phone each week.
One of my ideas was to introduce a daily TV guide, because a lot of
websites are tricky to navigate.”

With all the station’s presenters and researchers having a visual
impairment, a prerequisite was a fully accessible, state-of-the-art
studio. Says Krige: “It is built to mainstream studio
specifications so a blind person who can operate this desk can go
to any professional radio station in the country and do the same.
These are the only fully accessible studios in the UK.”

About 600 listeners are tuned in at any one time, it is estimated.
“We’re aware of the limitations, not least that the internet is
mostly accessible to younger blind users,” says Legg. “But having
set up the production side of things we are looking for other
platforms such as digital broadcasting, and we’re submitting a
community radio licence application. We recently held an all-party
presentation in Westminster to 35 MPs lobbying for a national radio
station. There are two million blind or partially sighted people in
the UK, so it has tremendous potential.”

* Not his real name


  • The project has successfully involved people with high
    profiles. First minister Jack McConnell and other ministers and
    opposition leaders have appeared talking about their policies for
    visually impaired people.
  • The station also campaigns, asking, for example, why blind
    people have to pay VAT for talking books and why Scotrail doesn’t
    provide audio announcements on the underground.
  • The average radio studio is a very visual environment. For
    example, the level indicators and telephone rely on flashing
    lights. “So we have given audio commands to things; so if I
    activate something it will tell me that I’ve done it. The phone
    will say ‘incoming call’. It’s a very tactile desk and easy to find
    your way around,” says Krige.   

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