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Help our schools by volunteering for the blind

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Sight is a gift so many of us take for granted. But to those of us fortunate enough to be sighted, when we think of those who are not, we often find ourselves trying to picture life without color, image or visual texture.

But there are simple, more basic needs that people who are blind have that may not seem as obscure a concept as the difference between black and white—like getting an education.

One of the things that holds the blind back from obtaining a quality education is the access to textbooks. Many are written in Braille, but not all blind people can read the language that is based on a series of bumps impressed into a page.

For many others, they rely on readers to sit with them and read their books to them. That can be costly and prohibitive, leaving visually impaired students with very few options.

But there is a group which, for the last 60 years, has been working to help overcome that obstacle. Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, formed in 1942 as Recording for the Blind by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Yorkville branch of the New York Public Library, has been doing just what its name suggests.

When wounded soldiers returned home from World War II without eyesight, the Women’s Auxiliary started recording textbooks to tape so that the visually impaired GIs could go to college on the GI Bill that they had literally fought and sacrificed to earn.

As time passed, the organization grew, the headquarters moved to Princeton, N.J., 21 units have popped up across the country and more than 30 recording studios nationwide have been established for the sole purpose of providing those who cannot see or those with a reading disorder the ability to get a quality education.

“This is really a wonderful service,” said Diane Crupain, executive director of the New York unit of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. “When we hear from teachers and from parents that students who had low self-esteem and couldn’t keep up in class, who by the end of the semester, are back on track—that makes it all worth while.”

The New York unit, staffed by 280 volunteers, is the largest in the country, Crupain said.

Many of the volunteers come from Queens. Ruth Borovicka of Bay Terrace is one of them. A steadfast volunteer from 1992-1998, and a recent return, she feels she has been enriched by helping the group. As a monitor, she logged more than 500 hours of volunteer time.

“I found it very fascinating,” she said. “I have learned a lot from the people reading the textbooks.”

Most of the textbook readers are experts in their field — almost a necessity for the group. “I have developed a new respect for statistics,” she said of her work in recording a statistics textbook. She has helped record textbooks for architecture, music, math and physics, as well as literature.

Borovicka is just one of nearly a dozen people she kows in Queens who volunteer — there are likely dozens more.

At the high-tech Manhattan offices of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, books are pre-read, marked for recording, recorded, copied to special four-track audio tape, and distributed to the 2,731 members in New York City and Nassau County served by the group. Just last year, the group distributed 7,590 textbooks on tape to 85 schools in New York and Nassau.

“Our outreach in New York schools is just in its third year, but we’re really taking off,” Crupain said. “Sometimes we pitch ourselves to an individual school, other times to an entire school district.”

According to Crupain, approximately 10 percent of the 1.1 million New York City schoolchildren have some kind of leaning disability. “Not every student with a learning disability needs our service, but many do,” she said.

When books are recorded, they are set onto four-track tapes, which require a special player that the member must purchase. With a one-time set-up fee for members of $50 and an annual fee of just $25 for relatively unlimited borrowing of any of the group’s titles, the service is an incredible bargain compared to other sources.

And the service is on the cusp of a major change.

“As of Sept. 3 we will launch as the first unit to go 100 percent digital,” Crupain said. “All of our new books will be available on CD format. We have slowly been putting all of our older audio tapes onto CD, as well.”

Though the audio tapes will still be available, the switch to digital — which does not use a standard-format compact disc — will increase the group’s ability to distribute books to its members. Downloading off the Internet is the next step, Crupain said.

There are two key components to the success of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, the first of which is fund-raising. According to the group’s 2000 annual report, nearly $11 million of its $40 million operating revenue was from direct contributions of money. A whopping $16 million was in donated services — the No. 1 component to the group’s success.

In 2000, there were 5,751 volunteers who contributed 426,511 hours of their time to assist the group — an average of less than 1 1/2 hours a week per volunteer.

And for such a small amount of time donated per volunteer, the impact is incredible. In that same year, 238,543 books were distributed to some 91,306 members, 29,113 of whom were elementary school students. There were 4,287 new books recorded that year, which is an incredible feat when all that goes into recording a book is considered.

Not all volunteers record and, frankly, not all are qualified to. The group does not settle on quality. In addition to readers, volunteers are needed as directors, bookmarkers, duplicators, checkers, office assistants, orientation leaders, speaker’s bureau presenters and educational outreach volunteers.

Volunteering, even for some of the most technical, computer-based digital recording positions, is not that hard. “If you’re even the least bit computer-friendly it won’t be a problem,” Crupain said.

In addition to the Manhattan address, if a life over 50 takes you out to Lenox or Williamstown, Mass., New Haven, Conn., or Princeton, N.J., centers for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic can be found there as well.

To learn more about Reading for the Blind & Dyslexic, or to volunteer, call 212-557-5720 or go to www.rfbd.org

Posted 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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