Volume IV Number 3, September 1997

Talking Pages: Vermont's Struggle To Provide Universal Access To Information

Fred Jones
Vermont Department of Education

Too many times I've heard print challenged individuals explain how they've joined conversations about an article in the day's local newspaper without the advantage of being able to have read it for themselves. Because of technology, this is a frustration of the past.

The purpose of this article is to share Vermont's experiences with the development of a valuable service to print challenged individuals with the hope that others will benefit from our findings.

Our journey began in October 1996 when a diverse group of interested Vermonters began to investigate the options for making local newspapers accessible to print challenged persons. As a result of our extensive search, which led us down many different roads, the fi nal destination was even better than we had hoped for. Not only would we have access to local newspapers, but Vermont would become t he first state to provide universal access to the Internet via text to speech with the end user needing only a touch tone telephone.

It took us a year to make this decision, but we feel comfortable with the fact that we explored all of the options. In the end it boiled down to the following three options:

1. Contract with an existing newspaper text-to-speech phone service.

2. Create our own Interactive Voice Response (IVR) System using telephony development software to create telephone access to newspapers via text-to-speech.

3. Chose a product named Web-On-Call which would allow telephone users to access the Internet and listen to the content of newspaper s.

The pros and cons for each alternative required us to take a hard look at each option.

The first option was "Newsline," a service provided by the National Federation for the Blind. We found that it did offer a variety o f national news sources and the ability to add local newspapers; however, we felt that the annual service fees were cost prohibitive . This was a critical issue for us because in Vermont we would need to establish at least seven service sites to provide local call access for our users. We did explore the possibility of 800 numbers and were strongly advised to stay away from such unpredictable costs. We also learned that this service would be limited to blind and visually impaired users and we clearly wanted to establish a system open to all print challenged persons. For these and other reasons we decided to keep looking.

At this point we considered bringing in a consultant to help us set up our own (IVR) system; however, once again, the fee ($20,000) was too high. We also considered designing a simple demo system using Macintosh applications, but we found we would be limited to a one line system which would be potentially frustrating to users.

We then returned to the drawing board to think about how the Internet could be used to our advantage. Our local newspaper did not have a web page, but they were interested in discussing its use for this population. We began testing immediately to see how the files from the newspaper would work when converted to HTML and were thrilled to find out that it was an easy conversion. At this point, our plan was to create a text only web page so computer users could access and read the information with screen readers and products like WebSpeak. Our excitement soon turned to disappointment when we realized that very few print challenged individuals actually had or used computers.

The above realization gave us more energy to continue pursuit of the appropriate telephone text-to-speech option for us. With that i n mind, we decided to create a two-tiered system that would share one database of newspaper files to support two applications. One application would be used to create web pages and the other for a telephone Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system. We investigated this option and found several companies sold development software that would allow us to create our own telephone text-to-speech. We even found development software to create such an application that didn't require any programming experience. We were encouraged by this and, as a result, pursued this option by entering negotiations with a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) to create the data base of newspaper files, design and host a text-only web page of newspaper files, and create the telephone access application. Our excitement ended once again when the price quote was given. At this point, out of frustration, we kept looking and finally discovered Newspapers for the Blind, a Michigan-based company that offered a similar service as Newsline but at a substantially lower cost. I t also offered the ability to access national and add local newspapers by telephone users. There were, however, two downsides. One w as the service fee, which seemed high when compared to the ongoing costs of a system we would create ourselves. The second downside was that the system was not linked to the Internet, which meant that in order to support our two-tiered system the newspaper would need to send data to support both the web and telephone options. This would make double work for the newspaper, which would go agains t our promise to keep daily time investment to a minimum.

At this point we were weighing the options between creating our own system or going with Newspapers for the Blind, who had already worked out the kinks. We were certainly leaning toward the latter when the important question of ongoing service costs was asked. It boiled down to a year-to-year comparison, which played out by showing that there was a huge savings in service costs in a system we created ourselves. We decided to create our own system and after several meetings we were ready to contract services and purchase necessary hardware/software. During our final negotiations we discovered a company called NetPhonic, which led us in yet another direction.

We began by prospecting the NetPhonic program, known as Web On Call, and we were pleased to find out that it facilitated access to w eb pages via the phone using Text-to-Speech. The added bonus was that in addition to accessing our local newspaper's web page, virtu ally all of the Web would be potentially accessible via telephone. There is even an option for users to have information sent via fa x, E mail, postal mail, Internet or Intranet. Furthermore, the information is dynamic and, consequently, renewed as web pages are updated, which is in contrast with Newsline and Newspapers for the Blind, since they offer only static information that is often twenty four hours old.

In addition, the system can be enhanced by adding Email on Call which will allow users to read E mail messages over the phone and re ply to senders by recording voice mail and sending it as an attachment in WAVE file format. There is also an option to sort messages in main In-box by author, date or subject.

We decided to go with NetPhonic. The design is the perfect match for us because it is a telephony system that is tied to the World Wide Web and, therefore, allows for universal access to the wealth of information that is available on the Internet with the end user needing only a regular touch tone phone. We also found the start up and annual costs to be reasonable and much lower than any other alternative. The reason for the cost savings is primarily due to the fact that it is an automated system designed to support both web page and telephone access to information.

After all the time that we invested, we are finally happy with our choice. We will continue to strive for improvements, including:

1. Voice quality that gets closer and closer to the quality of human speech.

2. Better ways to establish local call access for statewide efforts. We are hoping to find a way to have one main hub for our server that can be accessed statewide with local call access using options like call forwarding or frame relay, etc. We don't have the answer but we will keep looking.

3. We will watch how the E-Rate legislation will affect our effort to provide local call access.

4. We will pursue cellular phone companies to see if they would be willing to help us provide a statewide system to access at a reasonable cost.

We will always be looking to the future to find answers to these and other questions as they arise.

Despite our long journey we are pleased to have arrived at this destination and we hope the above information will help others as they travel down these same roads. We believe this approach will significantly help print challenged persons in Vermont have access to information they long for. We will work with users to customize the information they desire and at this point we think it will include local newspapers, weather, employment options and stock quotes. The sky is the limit!

Our first server will be installed in Montpelier, Vermont at the Vermont Department of Education by October 1, 1997. We then hope to establish sites statewide with local call access for all Vermonters.

For more information contact Fred Jones, M.Ed., 802-828-3067, E-mail, fjones@doe.state.vt.us

Jones, F. (1997). Talking pages: Vermont's struggle to provide universal access to information. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 4(3).