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
    on.”

    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

    LESSONS LEARNED

    • 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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