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.

I thought he must have built up an incredible store of miscellaneous knowledge over the years, but he insists that "most of it goes in one ear and out the mouth."

Gebhardt, a native of Queens, got his B.S. degree from Hobart College during World War II while serving in the Naval Reserve. Soon he shipped out to the Pacific, to places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Later he did graduate studies at Carnegie Tech. His work has taken him all over the country, notably to Nevada, where he worked with a chemical company on a high-energy fuel project. His specialty at GE was carbon and graphite, which means he has always been more or less at the frontiers of science, in this age of heat-proof nose tips and shields. He is 75, or so he claims. It was hard for me to believe.

Half a day a week Gebhardt spends repairing the playback equipment that is issued free to the blind listeners. This is a vital part of the job, for blind people are apt to drop things into their machines. Also, these machines get a lot of use and tend to wear out.

Readers like Joe Gebhardt are not easy to find. For one thing, he speaks rather slowly, and with great clarity. I was reminded of some movies I've seen lately, where I could barely decipher the slurred talk of the young stars but could get every word when a classically trained Briton like Pete Postlethwaite came on the screen.

John Corrigan, the manager of the recorded periodicals department of ASB, auditions volunteers, giving them word lists to test their pronunciation and trying their skill with articles that feature several voices. "Some people," Corrigan says, "can read the phone book and you're hooked."

Taking me on a quick tour of his crowded domain, Corrigan showed me the sound booths where many of his 100-plus readers record magazines and books on tape. Some, like Gebhardt, typically work at home and send in the reels. Postage is free, by the way, for all materials used by the blind. It's one of the great unsung services of the federal government.

"We get the reel, and then we transfer it to specially formatted cassettes," explains Corrigan. "Your regular cassette runs 90 minutes and has two tracks for stereo. We record at half speed and use each track separately, which gives us six hours per cassette. We send out about 25,000 copies a year to individuals and libraries, but we're probably serving quite a bit more."

In case you wondered, the reader inserts a beep at the beginning of the tape and after each article or section read. So a listener who wants to hear, say, the third item on the first side of the tape simply fast-forwards to the third beep. A subscription fee is charged to offset the cost of the tapes.

Since the 1960s, ASB has been recording with the good old Sony 105 reel-to-reel machines, which are no longer being made. The cassette copies are then produced from the open reel masters. One of these days, if the technology produces the right digital recorder and ASB comes up with the necessary funds, it might get new recorders.

Currently ASB is providing audio versions of 26 magazines, from Popular Mechanics to Skeptical Inquirer to Forbes. The majority are science magazines, serving the area's scientifically oriented population.

When Gebhardt began recording periodicals in the 1960s, it was for an organization called Science for the Blind, founded by a Haverford College physics professor named Tom Benham. "People were reading articles for me and I thought other blind people would like to hear things read too," says Benham, who enlisted volunteer readers from around the country. Unable to purchase the expensive duplicating machines he needed, the determined Benham got some students to help him build the necessary equipment.

In the 1970s, when he began creating products to help blind people in career and recreational pursuits, Benham donated the reading service, including the equipment, to one of ASB's parent companies, Volunteer Services for the Blind. In 1984, Volunteer Services merged with the Radio Information Center and the Nevil Institute to become the largest private nonprofit organization helping the blind in the Delaware Valley. Though much of its work is done in this area, its outreach extends across the nation and to other parts of the world.

There is the radio information center's 24-hour broadcasts of newspapers and other material — including the grocery ads — transmitted through special receivers. There is the Latino Support Group, teaching English, and Gateway Technology, teaching computer skills to the blind. There is a Braille printing department, rehabilitation and training services for the newly blind, even an urban gardening group. Some 260 volunteers run these projects. There is also the Philadelphia Lighthouse of the Blind, which gives small grants to local residents for specific needs.

"It's about independence and opportunity," says John Corrigan, who has been with ASB for 15 years and, like many of the other employees, has undergone blind sensitivity training, which means wearing an eye bandage for a while to get some idea of what blind people experience. "If we can teach them mobility skills and computer skills and provide them with Braille and recorded materials, they can resume their independent lifestyle."

Gebhardt agrees. And he gets a kick out of reading Smithsonian. He has come to feel he knows some of the regular contributors personally, if not to actually shake their hands as he shook mine. I must say, I thought I was in a bit of a time warp when I heard my column being read aloud, as this one will be. Hi, Joe!

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