All the news that’s fit to read aloud
When she was a child, said Kerry MacDonald of Quincy, her parents would sit and read the newspaper every morning. MacDonald wished she could do so herself, but blind since birth, she could not.
When she reached her teens, she said, her mother gave her a radio that opened up her world. It picked up the Talking Information Center, a Marshfield-based nonprofit reading service that broadcasts newspapers, magazines, books, and special consumer information to listeners with visual or other impairments.
Finally, MacDonald felt she could join her parents in discussing the day’s news, she said.
Having a human voice filling her in on the latest developments, she said, was one of her earliest inspirations to help others with vision problems receive the resources — and the human interaction — they need. Now 45, she works as a co-facilitator of a support group in Quincy that serves visually impaired adults.
“When I first found the station, it was a thrill for me,” she said. “We didn’t have the apps and phones that read to people. But even now that we do, they don’t always have a human voice. Hearing a human voice is something people take for granted.”
When the center recently teamed up with four organizations — the Marshfield Council on Aging, Duxbury Senior Center, Kingston Council on Aging, and Plymouth Center for Active Living — to host the first collaborative low-vision support group on the South Shore, MacDonald worked as a volunteer to facilitate its inaugural meeting.
“The group,’’ she said, “will broaden the horizons of people with low vision and give them access to knowledge and resources they need.”
Since 1978, when it started broadcasting over WATD-FM in Marshfield, the service has been on air 24/7, tailoring its broadcasts primarily to the visually impaired but including in recent years those who are print-impaired because of physical, cognitive, or developmental issues, including seniors, veterans, and those with mobility problems. Every day, it airs readings of news articles from The Boston Globe, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and community newspapers. It also features readings of supermarket specials, storybook hour for children, and cooking shows aimed at its estimated 30,000 listeners.
The service relies on just over 200 volunteers to do all that reading. After retiring three years ago, Steven Virta, of Marshfield, joined their number, and he has no regrets. “I’ve met some of the people who listen to the station, and they are always so appreciative of hearing our voices,” Virta said. “It’s very fulfilling to hear from people that have a specific need and know that you’re able to help with that need.’’
The broadcasts are carried on a WATD subcarrier — a sideband to the station’s regular frequency that can carry additional data — but they now also air on five radio stations statewide, including WRRS-FM (88.5) and WVBF-AM (1530) in Middleborough. And in an effort to be as easily accessible as possible, the center gives people the option of listening to its broadcasts online, through a free smartphone app, and on Amazon Echo, the hands-free speaker controlled by the human voice. (“Alexa, play radio station TIC.”)
“We start with our listeners and work backward,” said Jim Bunnell, the center’s executive director. “Our programming is tailored to what our listeners have told us they need.”
The enterprise was funded by the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind until June 2016. Since then, it has been partially funded by a grant from the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
After realizing that many of the communities the station serves did not have low-vision support groups, Bunnell contacted senior centers and councils on aging to try to fill the void.
The newly formed group intends to tackle issues affecting the low-vision community, with a focus on finding solutions to problems that may limit its members. The first such meeting, which drew 25 people to the center’s Marshfield headquarters in early April, focused on transportation and the resources available to those who may need help traveling, getting to appointments, or simply running errands. Or getting to meetings, for that matter: Organizers estimated that 50 people from the area who were unable to attend the inaugural session in person — and a few thousand interested statewide — listened in.
Future meetings, which the center plans to hold every four months or more often if needed, will be broadcast live over the radio and streamed on the center’s website. Organizers said the next one, scheduled for June 18 and moderated by Kerry MacDonald, will focus on how to navigate new technology.
Marilee Comerford, activities coordinator at the Marshfield Council of Aging, said the partnership made sense, particularly since many in her town were already familiar with the center’s programming. The Marshfield council, she said, once had a low-vision support group, but over the years its membership sank and it became less active. Much the same happened in Duxbury and Kingston, according to local organizers.
“Problems with vision can be very isolating,’’ Comerford said, “because being low-vision dramatically affects a person’s life. I’m very excited about the expanded reach that this will bring to the community. We are creating something that will best serve their needs.”
Plymouth Center for Active Living has had a low-vision group for the past three years. The group has nearly 20 members. Beth Hadfield, the Plymouth center’s activity coordinator, said the collaborative will give low-vision people in Plymouth and beyond more control over their lives.
“They are their best advocates,” Hadfield said of those with visual impairments. “Many are new to low vision and are relearning how to navigate the world, but they won’t let their disability prevent them from doing anything, and this group will be an excellent resource in that.”
“There’s a sense of loneliness and isolation that you sometimes have when you’re blind,” said Susan Romboldi, a member of the Plymouth group for more than two years. “That changed very quickly for me when I started joining support groups.”
Romboldi has been blind since birth and has been using the Talking Information Center’s resources since the 1980s when she was in her early 20s. She follows the daily news readings and said the “Cooking in the Dark’’ show has helped her prepare her own meals. Now 59, she said the station’s broadcasts have been an “invaluable help.”
“Combining their services with this support group is going to help so many people,’’ she said. “People will not only get the information they need but [also] a reminder that they aren’t alone in their experience.”
Much of the accessibility technology available to the low-vision community uses automated voices that can feel impersonal and create a feeling of loneliness, advocates say, especially when people don’t have access to support groups to provide consistent human interaction.
Anna Dunbar, the Talking Information Center’s assistant executive director, said the nonprofit prides itself on providing its listeners a human voice.
“These communities want to hear each other, want to become friends, and to support each other,” said Dunbar. “We’re not the cause or the cure of the healing they need, but we can help them build connections.”