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Reading for the Blind

Visually impaired subscribers to recorded periodicals peruse everything from Forbes to Skeptical Inquirer

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No one in the world knows Smithsonian Magazine better than Joseph J. Gebhardt. He reads practically every word of every issue, from the table of contents to the last gasp of the final essay. Aloud.

Gebhardt is a volunteer reader for Associated Services for the Blind (ASB), based in Philadelphia. It takes him from seven to ten hours to get through an issue, leaving out the ads and additional reading citations but including everything else, even the captions on the pictures, which he describes.

"I begin cold," he tells me. "It's more spontaneous if I don't rehearse."

This is not easy, as anyone who has listened to a TV newscaster lurching through the sentences on a TelePrompTer will tell you. "It's an eye-mouth connection, the eye goes ahead to see where the sentence is going. I make a few spoonerisms, but sometimes I can read a whole page without a mistake."

He omits nothing, but he adds nothing, either, unless it is to explain some technical point in a "reader's note." A dictionary lies on his desk to help with pronunciation.

"We have sources for foreign words, at colleges and so on," he says, "but even those sources don't always know. One article had a bunch of Gaelic words, all those consonants, and the sources couldn't help me, so finally I found an Irish newspaper and I got the editor and had this really delightful conversation with her. Nowadays we're more apt to get into Chinese or Thai, though."

He likes remaining a more or less anonymous conduit. It's not his show, he says. Once in a while he will laugh out loud, though. There was a piece on the Old West where a cowboy goes into a saloon and orders beer and cheese. He tells the bartender the cheese is no good, he can't smell a thing. The bartender says, "Well, take yer feet off the table and give the cheese a chance."

Gebhardt left that laugh in. More often than not he edits out his involuntary additions. "I try not to comment in any way," he tells me. He has been known to break into a New York Jewish accent, however, when appropriate for a humorous piece.

As a former research chemist who worked for years for General Electric, he loves anything scientific, and he's at home describing diagrams of complex molecules, for instance, but he's not so happy with articles on modern art, "Kandinsky and all that stuff — how do you describe the illustrations?" he asks. Not all the listeners are totally blind, of course. Many are dyslexic or partly sighted. But they appreciate his work, one and all. Occasionally he will get a little help, like the letter from the man in Quincy, Massachusetts, who pointed out that the town is pronounced "Quinzy," a point of some importance to those who live there.

Gebhardt started reading for the blind around 1967. For years he had been playing guitar with a local band, the Moonlighters, and had bought a reel-to-reel recorder with the idea of immortalizing them. One night he heard an ad seeking readers for the blind and decided he'd had enough of being drowned out by Glenn Miller-type trombones. For a while he read Science magazine, but later he concentrated on Smithsonian, which he's been reading ever since.

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