Ipswich: Talking newspaper for the blind joins the digital age and celebrates 34th birthday

IPSWICH: For 34 years they have helped blind and partially-sighted people in and around the town hear all about it.

And now the volunteers at Sound On have caught up with the times and moved into the digital age.

Since 1977 the voluntary organisation has sent out free weekly Evening Star digests on cassette tape to help visually impaired people keep up to date with local news, scarcely missing a single edition since its inception.

Originally the brainchild of Ipswich librarian Marilyn Brooks, Sound On’s tapes were at first sent out to about 100 people in the town.

Coverage was quickly expanded to include the Hadleigh, Felixstowe and Woodbridge editions, and subscriptions swelled to more than 200.

But last month on October 13 – the 34th anniversary of their very first delivery – Sound On underwent a digital revolution and switched from tapes to reusable USB drives.

Sound On organisers say that as well as keeping up with social and technological changes the switchover has also given volunteers a rare chance to meet with the 280 blind and partially-sighted people on their mailing list.

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“It’s been lovely going out and meeting them.” said Eileen Damant, chairman of Sound On since 1993.

“In the old days they were just names on a list. When you talk to them they usually tell you how much they appreciate it.”

From collecting and unpacking the returned USB drives at 9am, to sending out the new editions at 9pm, a dozen volunteers from a pool of about 75 come to work in Sound On’s base at the Evening Star’s Lower Brook Street office each week.

To offer a variety of voices, two teams of two readers work with an engineer to record a selection of news and features from the Evening Stars.

The recordings are then edited, duplicated and packed in reusable pouches for posting.

Many of the volunteers have taken part in this process once every five or six weeks for years, or even decades.

Quietly maintaining a crucial link between blind people and their local community, Mrs Damant said Sound On valued faithful, long-term continuity and reliability over the short-term acclaim of much charity work.

Years of careful planning have been needed to raise funds for the digital switchover, which comes long after tape cassettes vanished from the high street.

Sound On has purchased 300 Sceptre USB memory stick players to distribute free to its members.

Typical of the simple but ingenious methods of Sound On, volunteers have stuck small felt dots to one side of each USB drive, to let listeners know by touch that they are inserting it into the Sceptre the right way round.