Finances, Technology Pressure Ohio Reading Services For Blind

Mar 6, 2015

A combination of stagnant funding and changing technology is putting pressure on a decades old service for Central Ohio’s blind community. VOICEcorps is searching for ways to maintain services for the visually impaired.

At Mike and Julie Russell’s Clintonville home, the sound of VOICEcorps is nearly constant.

The Russell’s have been married 17 years. Both are blind. They depend on the radio reading service for entertainment, community and consumer news and emergency information.

“The radio reading service is a touchstone, it’s an outreach,” says Julie Russell, “Like if somebody comes across the T-V and there’s a weather bulletin. It’s all letters across the bottom of the screen. And you just turn it (VOICEcorps) to them and it’s all spoken. They tell you what’s going on.”

VOICEcorps broadcasts programming exclusively for the blind or visually impaired year-round on special FM Radio receivers. Its budget last year totaled $300-thousand. Executive Director Mark Jividen says the service is supported by city and state grants, foundation, and individual contributions.

“But, we are operating at a deficit. We are fortunate enough to have some reserves. But those reserves are not going to last us forever, that’s for sure, if we don’t improve the revenue we have coming in,” says Jividen.

VOICEcorps is one of six reading services still operating in Ohio. It broadcasts a signal to 2,500 specially designed FM radio receivers that are provided free to the blind. WOSU provides a transmitter signal to VOICEcorps. Similar services in Toledo, Portsmouth, Athens, and Cambridge have all gone silent. Money is a problem, but Jividen says a change in radio signals means some potential listeners are lost.

“We estimate that within our listening area there could be up to 16,000 people…that are visually impaired, and its really tough to figure out how we can reach those,” says Jividen.

Jividen adds that VOICEcorps can be heard on cable television, web streams, and podcasts. Because of copyright laws the website is password protected, only available to those who qualify. Mike Russell says digital technology puts pressure on VOICEcorps to make more changes.

“I see it changing VOICEcorps. If VOICEcorps is willing to change and able to change I think they’ll just do a different kind of thing,” says Mike Russell.

For now, the Russells say the broadcasts are a big part of their lives.

“I like to read the Enquirer on Saturdays, My mom used to read the Enquirer to me when I was a kid and I guess it brings back memories,” says Mike Russell.

“Its our morning, we come down and we do the sports talk, And I don’t even like sports. But these guys make it so fun and interesting that we have our coffee and our sportstalk and it’s our morning,” adds Julie Russell.

VOICEcorps employs four fulltime and two parttime staff. It has 250 volunteers who read current newspapers, magazines, grocery store and department store ads, fiction, non-fiction, and public service announcements. It was founded in 1975.