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The Listener Connection

Is being able to read out loud a useless skill? Not at all.

Trish Speight is the director of Recording Library of West Texas and a member director on the IAAIS Board of Directors.

Fifteen years ago I began my career with the Recording Library of West Texas. In 1999, while pregnant with my second child I read an article in the paper about local volunteers reading for the visually impaired. I thought back to a political philosophy class I took in college. The professor required all 14students to take turns reading, out loud, works by ancient philosophers and playwrights like Socrates, Aristotle and Euripides. You know, all that easy stuff. I was shocked to realize that I was good at this reading out loud thing, something I hadn’t done much of since grade school. A useless skill, I thought, until I read that article about the Recording Library. I filed it away for something I might try after my new baby was born and I could take on a new endeavor.

After a year of staying home with a toddler and a baby I was ready. I became a volunteer reader for the next five years and I read all kinds of materials including food lists for a special diet, TV programming guides, Bible study lessons, textbooks, job manuals, magazine articles and books for the Texas Talking Book Program. I enjoyed it immensely and grew to believe in the mission so strongly I became the director.

One question I still hear quite a lot is, “Are there really any blind people in our community?” I can assure everyone the answer to that question is a resounding yes. There are more than you think and the number grows every day. Aside from untreated glaucoma and cataracts and congenital conditions there are two diseases that account for the majority of vision impairments: macular degeneration and diabetes.

One in four people over the age of 60 has macular degeneration, a progressive condition for which there is no cure. In the U.S. there are 29.1 million people with diabetes. Of that number, 8.1 million cases are undiagnosed and people are unaware they have the disease. In fact many learn they have diabetes after a trip to the eye doctor because of failing vision.

One other group that has emerged in the last decade is those with vision loss due to injury. Sixteen percent of wounded veterans evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan have sustained an eye injury. We recently recorded a book on PTSD for a local veteran.

Audio materials are also vital to those who have learning challenges such as dyslexia. Those numbers are growing too.

Our volunteers read things they would never pick up to read on their own. Sometimes that is emotionally tough, sometimes it is boring, sometimes it results in finding a new favorite author or useful information for their next game of trivia. It is always worthwhile and valuable for the listener.

Another question I hear is “Don’t computers and technology like Siri read all that stuff?” Great things are happening in the digital age but it hasn’t eliminated the need for people to read to people.

There are times when a human voice can convey the material being read more effectively and pleasurably. The human connection is still vital. The Recording Library uses technology as a conduit for human connection, not a replacement.

Over the last 15 years I have learned much about the power of the human voice. We strive to provide friendly, professional recordings that are error-free and flow easily to the ear. During a recent survey I asked a listener which of our volunteers he enjoyed hearing. He replied that he loved them all but in particular he had recently enjoyed a younger male voice that had read the sports section. I identified this as one of our student volunteers. Obviously, a young person’s voice with its enthusiasm and brightness conveyed a unique point of view, and it evoked a special connection for this listener. He said it reminded him of when his son was a young man.

Our listeners are varied. Some of our listeners download our books, receive emailed recordings or listen to the RLWT radio station on a smartphone app, but we still mail recordings to a few on cassette tapes. We have distributed over 300 old-school analog radio receivers, but we also provide Internet radios.

Many of our listeners are new to experiencing limitations. They are recently homebound or in a care facility. Many times our challenge with a new potential listener is overcoming their own resistance to being helped. The Baby Boomer generation feels great pride in independence and a successful career. Asking for help is an uncomfortable transition. They become isolated quickly if they can no longer drive, read the daily news or participate in activities they used to enjoy.

By using all available technology, old and new, we can magnify the connectedness our listeners feel. Connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being. Those who feel connected have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Through our programs we can give some of that independence and community connection back by providing information, education and entertainment.

On the Recording Library of West Texas Radio station they can hear about community issues they would not hear about on the TV news and find out about services in the community that they might use. The local newspaper’s obituaries and community calendar are examples of important hyper local information that isn’t covered on traditional radio or TV. Every election season we read and broadcast the Voters Guide by our local League of Women Voters group.

Recorded books give back the pleasure of reading. Listening to grocery store ads helps some folks stretch their dollars every week. We also recently recorded an accessibility guide to iOS devices, like iPhones. Technology that started out with a completely visual interface now has some of the best features for those with low or no vision, and they don’t have to buy special equipment!

Another question I am asked is, “What do you read? Isn’t it all already recorded?” No, it’s not all recorded and we read everything. We do not censor or refuse to read any subject. We are here for anyone who needs us in the community. The volunteer readers are their good friends who understand that everyone has different needs and tastes. One of our volunteers recently completed two very different projects: one, a book on how to fix heat pumps; the other was a salacious true crime story.

In a recent quote Matt Kind, a blind engineer at Facebook said, “Access to information is like a human right. It is the gateway to employment; a gateway to opportunity of all different kinds, participating in government, etc. We want to work on flattening the on ramp to engagement for our blind users.”

After 15 years I can say with confidence that at the Recording Library of West Texas we are flattening the on ramp for those with impairments to feel connected to this community.

Listen to our work at our website. Call us to find out more about volunteering or to sign up for our services (432) 682-2731. The Recording Library of West Texas is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, your donations are fully tax deductible.