Vince Morrison was one of the first in line to get a digital book player for the blind. As a veteran of World War II in Europe, he earned it.
At 89, Morrison is legally blind. The Mesa resident now listens to books on tape, and soon he’ll have access to the digital equivalent. He gets his recordings free from the Arizona State Braille and Talking Books Division. It administers the federally funded talking-books program on behalf of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
Every part of the program is free, including the special cassette players. The Talking Book cassettes, including best-sellers, won’t play on regular cassette players.
But as the country goes digital, so will talking books. Instead fumbling with a cassette, digital users will insert in their new machines what amounts a large memory stick – about half the size of a Pop-Tart.
In Arizona, the first new players were distributed to blind veterans in a Sept. 11 ceremony at the Old Capitol Senate chambers. It makes sense to honor those who served their country with the first machines. It’s also mandated.
“It’s actually by federal law that veterans get first preference,” said Linda Montgomery, director of the Arizona Braille and Talking Books Division.
In the ceremony, Secretary of State Ken Bennett and several lawmakers handed out nearly two dozen of the first 150 digital machines made available. The veterans raised their hands as they heard their names called out.
Morrison was high on the list. He said he listens to books on tapes continually. His preferred reading, he said, includes “just about everything – detective stories, Westerns.”
Retired from the electronic-manufacturing business, he called the digital player a big advance.
Bernard Diamond, 90, is a retired physician living in Scottsdale. He served on the surgical staff of a general hospital in Europe during World War II.
Hearing his name, he did not wait for the digital player to come to him. He stood and began to maneuver his way through the rows of folding chairs set up for the occasion. He didn’t have to go too far before Rep. Sam Crump, an Anthem Republican, handed him a box, one digital player enclosed.
Diamond made his way back to his seat, with a broad smile.
Another veteran offered his appreciation of the program. Tom Hicks is the visually impaired coordinator at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Medical Center in Phoenix. In June, he was one of eight blind hikers to make it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. As for the new digital players, Hicks simply said: “Welcome to the 21st century.”
The remaining 127 available players will be mailed, free of charge, to the veterans who could not attend the ceremony. That’s just the beginning, however. All of the state’s 10,000 talking-book patrons will receive digital players, though it will take some time, Montgomery says.
The federal government will make available some 500 machines a month, beginning late October or November. They will go to the nearly 1,000 blind veterans first.
Once the digital players are all distributed, users should still hang onto their old cassette players, Montgomery said. Most books are still on cassette.
“It will take two to three years to get enough digital books to supply everyone who wants one,” she said.
The digital books will have better sound quality and be more convenient, she added.
An entire book will fit on one digital flash cartridge. It takes several cassettes to hold one book, and each cassette has to be flipped over from side 1 to side 2 to continue.
The digital players represent the third generation of players in talking books for the blind, a program that began in 1934. Early books were recorded on 33-1/3 record albums. The cassettes came into use in the 1970s.
Bennett, on hand for the ceremony, will soon play a more direct role in the administration of the agency that presides over the Braille and Talking Books Division – that is, the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records. The state Library becomes part of the Secretary of State’s Office on Sept. 30.
The Library is currently a branch of the Legislature, but lawmakers opted to divest themselves of it in a budget bill during the regular session.