Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Future of SATV's Audible Bulletin Board

I want to address a matter that came up at the end of February's Salem Commission on Disabilities meeting yesterday, concerning SATV and its audible bulletin board service.

SATV, like most other public access facilities, runs text announcements of upcoming community events. There's been a problem: These text announcements do not serve those who are blind or visually impaired.

For the past several years, SATV has had volunteers read announcements from a videotaped copy of the bulletin board as run. Their audio is then laid onto the tape, and this tape is run over the air just as a regular program.

Andy LaPointe, of our Commission, has been getting our volunteers. He has no trouble with this, and it's not uncommon for 10 people to show up at SATV after he goes on his radio show, looking to help. I and SATV like and appreciate this. Many volunteers have enjoyed reading announcements.

Unfortunately, while it's easy to have volunteers read announcements, our program coordinator, Dave Gauthier, had to do a lot of up-front manual work to get the audible bulletin board on the air. He has to record the existing bulletin board off the air on all three channels, import it into one of our Macs, cut it, and then run it to a third machine to do the voice overs.

Over the long term, this kind of manual effort is not doable. It didn't help that last December, the machine that runs Channel 3's announcements died and had to be replaced.

Dave, and SATV, cannot continue the service as it is right now.

I realize Andy and many other visually impaired people depend on our bulletin board. I appreciate all the support I and SATV have gotten over the years for this.

Unfortunately, with only three full time employees, SATV often has to make difficult decisions about what we can and cannot do for our community.

Oftentimes, the Commission on Disabilities has on the one hand been accused of wanting things from the community that are not realistic, but on the other hand is accused of being insensitive to the needs of the disabled. This is the nature of our board, and I would not have taken the oath if I didn't know the balance we have to take.

As a commissioner--and an experienced IT and video professional--I know well the challenges involved in making our programming accessible to people with disabilities. Ten years ago, I produced a promo for the Independent Living Center of the North Shore and Cape Ann and sent it off to a facility in Maine to be closed-captioned. Very few public-access programs are captioned for the hearing impaired; it's simply too much of a burden in time and money for the average producer or even the average access facility.

And I speak as one who wants to do this! SATV isn't required by the ADA to provide accommodations for the visually and hearing impaired. But we want to do this! SATV has hosted the Commission since 1994, and is very aware of the needs of the disabled community in Salem.

It is always frustrating as a technical professional to realize that the things we want to do and the things we can do are often not the same. I had hoped to develop an automated process to "read" announcements and assemble a voice track to go out over the air, but it is not possible with the equipment we have.

SATV is always hoping, though. We are upgrading our cablecast equipment this summer and it might yet have the features we need. It is a talking point I will use when I speak with our vendor.

In the meantime, we've been airing TIC Network audio for the visually impaired over Channel 3, and I'm glad to say that that will continue for the forseeable future.

UPDATE: We are talking with the vendor of our cablecast system to see what they can do for us. We'll either have a technological fix (most likely) or we'll look at our process again and see if we can't improve it.

No comments: