Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reading is Good for You

I’m alone in an enclosed cubicle not much bigger than an old-fashioned phone booth, trying to simulate the sound of a giant hamster farting. This, after impersonating an eight-year old boy, a Midwestern phone operator, a military general, and an eccentric scientist responsible for said flatulating giant hamster. 

Volunteering doesn’t get much better than this. 

I’m at the Hollywood offices of Learning Ally, a national not-for-profit organization devoted to providing support and recorded texts for those with reading challenges. It was founded in 1948 under the name Recording for the Blind, where it originally made audio recordings of college textbooks for GI’s who had been blinded in the war. Years later it broadened its scope and became known as Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, and then, as its clientele grew to include all those with reading challenges, RB&D ditched the ampersands and rechristened itself Learning Ally. If you have difficulties processing the printed word, you can sign up for membership and download books with accompanying audio. 

Does your text look like this when you read, even when you're not drunk? Then you might have a print disability. 

Jesse at Command Central
I’ve been volunteering there about once a week for the last few months. The space is not by any stretch glamorous, unless you consider Soviet-era office spaces glamorous. The narrow hallways, worn carpeting and gray walls have been made even more forlorn by recent cutbacks and the advent of home recording, which have decimated the staff and left behind clusters of abandoned conference rooms and offices. Of the two remaining staff members, the one I see most is Jesse: stalwart, vigilant, mellow Jesse, caretaker of all those empty rooms and recording booths. He reminds me of a park ranger posted at some remote wilderness way station, scanning for forest fires. It is Jesse who manages the different projects,  instructs the volunteers, and tinkers with the aging recording equipment.

I love this place. 

I don’t know what it is, but I can’t wait to come. Maybe it’s my inner librarian who loves to read aloud. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to stretch out my voiceover skills without any pressure. Or maybe it’s the chance to help out my fellow man without having to, you know, actually talk to anyone. Whatever the reason, for an introverted reader like myself this is the best possible volunteering situation possible. 

No they are not tanning beds. They are recording booths. 
When I arrive for my two-hour shift it’s usually me, Jesse, and the usual contingent of old-timers: graying, husky-voiced, exacting veterans, many of them with more than twenty years under their belts. I give a wave to Jesse, pass the plate of cookies  by the coffee machine, and make my solitary way downstairs to the booths, where I run my own sound equipment and direct myself. There are plenty of textbooks they need read, but because of my younger-sounding voice and experience I have so far been assigned fiction for kids. Believe me, I don’t mind missing out  on intermediate algebra or real estate law. And for a voiceover actor, it is a wonderful way to hone your studio work. 

There is a constant deadline— some of these books are meted out chapter by chapter, as soon as they are done, for students who need them in class. We need to be swift, but accurate. For those who aren’t into reading aloud, there are still plenty of volunteering opportunities: marking textbooks into“scripts,” checking files already recorded and editing any mistakes. Tasks perfect for you anal-attentive completists out there. It’s all really low key but very satisfying.

There are offices of Learning Ally across the country, if you’ve a mind to volunteer. And if there’s not one near you? Judging from the decor and cutbacks, I’m guessing the organization could use some bucks this holiday season. Why not drop them a few bones

And if you have a kid who could use this kind of service? Go to Learning Ally and sign up for their services. They have a huge catalogue of books with audio synchronized to the text. And if you're browsing their library, be sure to check out “Monstrous Stories #2: Attack of the Giant Hamster” by Paul Harrison. My little paw prints are all over that sucker. 

Have a happy holiday! See you in the New Year!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this terrific account of your service, and thank you for volunteering! Without a doubt, your voice narration will reach thousands of kids and students over time, helping them enjoy content and educational materials they would otherwise not be able to access. In addition to continuing work at Learning Ally's 11 studios, we are steadily building up an army of "virtual" volunteers around the U.S. who can help produce audiobooks for people with disabilities -- from home or anywhere, and anytime. Your service and talents are most appreciated!