FAYETTEVILLE — “Iranian embassy seized.”
“Court acquittal in McDuffie case spurs riots.”
“Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito Dies.”
All of these headlines ran in May of 1980, which was the last time Lumberton resident Ethel Bullard was able to read a newspaper, before a sudden and unexplained vision loss.
Despite this, Bullard, who is now 65, has not let her impairment keep her from staying current on the latest headlines, thanks to a unique service which she believes can help countless other blind people in Robeson County and across the state — The Southeastern North Carolina Radio Reading Service.
The service began in 1986, when Ira Ray Rickman, who, like Bullard, was a retired school teacher with impaired vision, saw something that the rest of her community hadn’t — a need.
Rickman felt that in order to maintain a normal existence, those who were visually impaired would need a way to keep up with their local news, obituary listings and sales in the same way as everyone else. Rickman founded the Southeastern Radio Reading Service in Cumberland County as a radio station that would broadcast on a sub-frequency of 91.9 WFSS-FM, and air a live daily reading of the day’s top stories by volunteers. Since its founding, the station has expanded its reach to 13 counties, including Robeson, Cumberland, Hoke, Duplin, Scotland, Harnett, Johnson, Lee, Richmond, Sampson, Bladen, Moore and Wayne.
“It is important for those of us who do not see print anymore,” Bullard said. “It is a way to keep up with what is going on. I can listen to grocery store ads, the obituaries, columns, local news, and news for Robeson County, and the surrounding areas. I loved to read, I taught English, but after losing my sight, reading was no longer available to me but this is.”
Every morning listeners are treated to live readings of the top stories from The Fayetteville Observer, and later in the afternoon, the station broadcasts readings from smaller papers from around the region, such as the Southern Pines Pilot, the Sanford Herald, the Paraglide, the Hope Mills Sandspur and The Robesonian, among others. At 5 p.m. each day the station airs an hour of a pre-recorded book, which is revisited each day throughout the month.
“Most people are not born blind, and there are hardly any places that teach Braille and that is why this is so vital,” said Valerie Woodard, executive director for the station. “Many of these people, especially in the counties like Robeson, where unemployment is very high, have become isolated from friends and relatives and they just need to hear a voice every day to let them know what is going on … There is so much that they can’t learn from television, because it is such a visual medium. For example, WRAL will say ‘these are the suspects,’ and put up a photo, but that doesn’t help those who are visually impaired. Just try one day watching the television, then close your eyes and see how well you can keep up.”
Woodard and volunteer and technical support manager James Brown are the station’s only full-time staff, yet they have managed to sign up more than 30 volunteer readers ages 10 to 90.
“Sometimes it is nice to hear a young voice,” Woodard said. “It is sometimes nice to hear the night before Christmas. Many of our listeners are older and they sometimes miss their grandchildren and they have that loving voice they long to hear.”
Woodard credits the compassion of volunteers like Julius McNair for the station’s continued success. McNair, though considered legally blind, is at the station nearly every day, preparing clips to be read and helping out in any way he can.
“Julius has been our rock,” Woodard said. “Monday through Friday, he gets everything in order. Without him, I don’t know how we would do things here.”
Though the program has been around for decades, a lack of money has made it harder to make potential listeners aware of the resource that is available to them. Woodard says that while the state has more than 200,000 people who qualify as visually impaired, the station only has 915 registered listeners.
“We are trying to set it up so that the station can be reached using a phone app, which we believe will greatly increase our listener reach,” Woodard said.
As the organization was founded by a blind person, Bullard believes it is within the blind community’s ability to help grow resources like The Southeastern North Carolina Radio Reading Service by taking ownership of the responsibility.
Bullard is currently chairperson for the Robeson County Blind and Visually Impaired Support Group, a 14-member organization that serves as a way of encouraging other blind or visually impaired individuals in the county to remain active and fight for resources that can better accommodate their community.
“We know better than anyone else what we need. It is important that we reach out and find each other, so we can get local government to provide us with the resources we need, like it does in more progressive areas,” Bullard said. “That is what I am doing now. You have no idea how many people you’ll keep off the suicide watch and therapist’s chair just by providing these resources, by allowing them to be active and involved. For me, I feel a closeness with those who are blind or visually impaired. We are going through the same thing.”
While losing her sight was a major blow for Bullard, she believes losing one’s drive and positive outlook is a far greater loss, and refuses to focus on what she can’t change.
“I still live as if I can see,” Bullard said. “That is why it hasn’t destroyed me over the years. I don’t dwell on the darkness. I just go ahead and live every day. You got to go on, you can’t dwell on what you don’t have. Dwell on what you do have.”