Dear Readers: My History with Aural Texts, Part 2

Georgina Kleege, UC-Berkeley

My desk used to be cluttered with cassettes and players, both the large and small sizes, plus a scanner to produce electronic versions of texts on my computer, plus a range of other devices, earphones, microphones, and the requisite cords and cables to connect and run them. The talking book devices all had special features which made them significantly more expensive than the commercial models from which they were adapted.   For many years, many of them were only available from government agencies that serve the blind.

One also obtained the audio books from government agencies. From my teens through my thirties, I relied on two American library services: the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), a division of the Library of Congress in Washington DC; and Recordings for the Blind (RFB), in Princeton, NJ. In the 1990s, RFB became Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, reflecting the fact that increasing numbers of their clients did not have visual impairments. More recently, it has renamed itself Learning Ally, projecting the attitude that subscribers do not or even should not want their disability named. Both services provide playback equipment and the recorded material free of charge. The NLS tapes were recorded by professional voice actors and had very high production values, while RFB used volunteer readers and somewhat lower tech recording quality. While I was still a student, books were ordered for me by social workers who had insider’s status with the library services.

After I left school, I was on my own. The NLS had multiple branches in different states and different cities, depending on the size of the blind population in each area. When I lived in New York City, where there were many blind subscribers, it was fruitless to order a specific book, because usually someone else was reading it and there might be a waiting list. The librarians were overworked and underpaid so it was rarely possible to reach one on the phone. The standard practice was for subscribers to fill out a questionnaire, indicating one’s reading preferences—classics, mysteries, history, science—and then rely on the librarians to choose the books. If I didn’t want to read the book they’d selected for me, all I had to do was mail it back and they’d send me something else. Although this could be frustrating, I learned to appreciate the serendipity of others’ seemingly random choices and I encountered many books and authors I would not have known to seek out. For the five years that I lived in Oklahoma, where there was a smaller blind population, I was able to order the titles I wanted directly. When I first contacted the librarian there, she told me that as long as I didn’t want Westerns, I could expect to receive whatever I ordered without waiting. While NLS is set up primarily to provide leisure reading material, RFB had been founded to aid veterans of WWII to continue their education and so had many more school textbooks and scholarly titles. They would even record books on request, but this required subscribers to send them not one but two copies of the book. One copy was used by the volunteer reader while the other copy was used by a second volunteer who read along silently to monitor the first. The whole process usually took a minimum of several months to complete.

In listing these technologies and the various ways I have acquired talking books over the years, I am leaving out an important detail. When I first became visually impaired at the age of eleven, aural reading was not the first option I was offered. At the time, the mid-1960s, the special education orthodoxy was that for children who had any residual vision at all, that vision should be used to read print. This was sometimes expressed with a certain use-it-or-lose-it urgency. I was offered large print textbooks and all manner of large and small magnification devices to read. When I complained that reading in this way was slow, inefficient and painful, I was exhorted just to try harder. Talking books were only offered as a last resort, and only grudgingly, with a certain amount of unvoiced disapproval. The implicit message was that education was supposed to be hard, and there was something shameful in asking for something that made it easier. So my earliest memories of talking books was of something illicit—pleasurable, even necessary, but best kept a secret.

I should also mention that Braille instruction was not offered at all.  The orthodoxy at the time was that Braille was a technology of the past made obsolete by modern recordings and high powered magnification devices. Also there was a belief that someone with any degree of residual vision would be inclined to use it to read the pattern of dots visually rather than tactually. Note the contradiction: they acknowledged that I could not read standard print unless it was substantially magnified, but worried that I would somehow manage to visually decipher patterns of tiny white dots on a white page. As a result, I am among the first generation of American Braille illiterates. Eventually I taught myself Braille in my thirties, and can attest that reading Braille visually did not even tempt me. Since I only learned Braille as an adult, I only use it sporadically, and I resent the attitude that deprived me of learning it as a child when it might have become more central to my education and life. Fortunately, since then, there have been studies showing the benefits of early Braille instruction, so perhaps the prejudice against it has diminished. Now, the advent of refreshable Braille displays, which are electro-mechanical devices that convert text into Braille characters by means of rounded plastic pins that move up and down as the user scrolls through the document, make Braille a viable option for blind children now and in the future.

However, even if I had learned Braille as a child, it is likely that I still would have needed to acquire texts in other formats. By the time I was a university student, the state department of rehabilitation from whom I received services, had altered its attitude slightly and stopped admonishing me to try to read with my eyes alone. This was before universities had services for disabled students. My rehabilitation specialists were willing to expedite the ordering of talking books from the library services. And when the library services did not have the titles I wanted or needed to read, they provided me with funds to hire readers to gain access to texts that were not otherwise available. Unfortunately, my need for readers was usually way over budget. My rehabilitation specialists were frequently incredulous at the amount of reading I was assigned, and my argument that massive amounts of reading was standard for English majors such as myself, only roused their scorn. How was a degree in English going to get me a job? While they were grudging about paying for readers, they continued to be happy to supply me with all manner of magnification devices, including the prohibitively expensive closed circuit television or video magnification systems that had just come onto the market. These devices feature a large television screen mounted on a stand with a video camera aimed at a moving platform below. One places the text on the platform and a magnified image of the page appears on the screen, where one can manipulate its size, contrast and other features to one’s personal reading preferences. I also received reading glasses with a powerful magnifying lens mounted over my better eye which allowed me to perceive print if I held the book an inch away from my face. There were also glasses fitted with mini telescopes that were supposed to allow me to read the blackboard, but I never got the hang of them. While some of these devices had some limited utility, they did not allow me to do anything approaching real reading …