Iowa Public Television is using its digital network to broadcast a service for blind or hearing impaired Iowans. The Iowa Radio Reading Information Service or IRIS has been broadcast via FM channels. Mary Francis Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Radio Reading Information Service.

“Quite simply, we read newspapers and other publications aloud so that people with visual impairments can have access to the same printed information that we do,” Evans says. The service began in 1972, with employees reading two Des Moines newspapers over the air to residents in the Des Moines area. It ran out of funding in a few years, but was relaunched in 1989.

Volunteers now read seven different newspapers from various studios around the state. The volunteers even read the grocery ads. “Our FM receivers have been wonderful workhorses for years and we are repeated to towers through Iowa Public Radio throughout the state,” Evans says.

“But FM does have its limitations and there have been many areas of the state that we have not been able to serve simply because of their geographic location.” Blind or visually impaired Iowans have gotten a special receiver to get the FM signal.

Now, the Iowa Radio Reading Information Service will be distributed via IPTV’s digital television signal, too. “Putting all these pieces together we believe that Iowa is setting a standard for other states to follow,” Evans says. “I’ve already had phone calls from other states wanted to know how we did it and wanting to copy our model.”

According to Evans, the service wouldn’t work without the volunteers as there are only two other paid employees.

“It’s important to know that our little service only exists because every single day of the year — including Christmas, including the blizzard the other day when our volunteer readers made it to the office before I did because of their dedication in reading to people who cannot access the printed word,” Evans says. “And now that service will be available everywhere.”

About 50,000 Iowans who are blind or have impaired vision have the special receivers to get the FM signal of the Iowa Radio Reading Service. IRIS will now be available on digital televisions as well, on IPTV’s fourth digital channel.  

■Channel 11.4 – Des Moines
■Channel 12.4 – Iowa City
■Channel 21.4 – Fort Dodge
■Channel 24.4 – Mason City
■Channel 27.4 – Sioux City
■Channel 32.4 – Waterloo
■Channel 32.4 – Council Bluffs
■Channel 36.4 – Red Oak
■Channel 36.4 – Davenport

IRIS has been available on-line for several years, too.