The national Record-a-Thon, hosted by Recording for the Blind &Dyslexic, marries a timeworn, labor-intensive practice - reading aloud for those who can't read for themselves - with 21st-century technology. Once the books are recorded - a hefty volume such as College Physics can take five months - users can either order CDs from RFB&D's library of 59,000 titles or download them and listen to Clinical Behavior Therapy or When Slavery Was Called Freedom on an iPod.
The 62-year-old RFB&D was founded to record college texts for World War II veterans, blinded or visually impaired from war injuries, to enable them to take advantage of the GI Bill, said Michael Kurdziel, the organization's chief of programs and services.
Now the target audience has changed. More than three-quarters of RFB&D's users are children and adults with dyslexia or other reading disabilities. While just 0.4 percent of the U.S. population is legally blind, dyslexia and other reading disabilities affect as much as 15 percent of the population, according to the National Institutes for Health.
For people whose dyslexia causes them to mix up letters or words, miss suffixes and prefixes, or read slowly and haltingly, "the audio text makes a big difference," says Jo Anne Simon, president of the International Dyslexia Association's New York branch. "It's quicker. And the reader isn't making mistakes. The recorded text is a more accurate representation. So [the listener] is getting the message, which is ultimately the point."
For 9-year-old RJ Taschek of Marlton, the printed word was usually cause for tears. Irene Taschek, who homeschools her son, noticed that he routinely skipped words or lines when he read. Sometimes he reversed letters. She tried borrowing audio versions of children's books from the library, so he could listen while he read, but the narrators spoke too fast, and RJ couldn't keep up.
"We were constantly rewinding the tapes. He became frustrated. I was so concerned about him hating reading. To see him struggling with it broke my heart."
Then another mother told Taschek about RFB&D's audio library, which includes children's classics such as The Boxcar Children and the Harry Potter series along with textbooks. A special playback device allows users to slow down the narration, skip backward or forward easily, or bookmark their place in the text.
"It became a key tool for his reading to improve," says Taschek of her son. "When he was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 7, he was graded at a 1.2 reading level. Twelve months later, he was at 3.5. Now he's almost done his third-grade year and he's reading at a fifth-grade level.
"It's still a struggle for him to read. He struggles with phonics. But there are no longer tears; there's no longer frustration."
Demand for audio books far outstrips the supply; only about 5 percent of existing titles are available as audio recordings, says Simon of the International Dyslexia Association. That's why she's an enthusiast of new technologies such as text-to-speech: software that can convert written text to a digitized voice.
But Kurdziel and some users of audio books fear something may be lost in that translation. Computer-generated voices, he points out, can't yet capture the nuances of poetry or the inflections of various characters in a Shakespeare play. "There's something very intimate about that human voice being recorded and listened to by thousands of users."
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic is always seeking volunteers; after a training session and reading audition, volunteers make a two-hour-a-week commitment for one year. Contact Mary McDermott, 610-265-8090, Ext. 24, or email@example.com.