Read for Life: Library for the Blind

Read for Life: Library for the Blind program on Tuesday, March 18 from 2-3 pm with Aimee Thrasher-Hanson, Outreach Coordinator, Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Free Library of Philadelphia.

The Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Free Library of Philadelphia, is part of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress (NLS), a free library program of braille and audio materials circulated to eligible borrowers in the United States by postage free mail.

In Pennsylvania, the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Philadelphia serves the eastern half of the state and the Carnegie Library for the Blind of Pittsburgh serves the western half of the state.

In addition, the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Philadelphia serves the entire Commonwealth, Delaware, and West Virginia with braille materials.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped started in the 1930s with records for the fully-blind and later opened to people with low vision and other disabilities that impede their ability hold or read a print book, and recently opened to people with autism and/or dyslexia.

Digital reader

To be eligible, the application must be signed off on by a nurse, social worker, librarian or other approved expert.  For individuals with autism or dyslexia, a doctor or pediatrician must sign the form.  After signing up, processing takes about two weeks, additional explanations and information is sent and staff beging working with the user to customize reading lists.  Books can be self-selected or computer-selected broadly by genre/subject.

Cassettes have been replaced with a Digital Player that sports braille and big, colorful buttons with high-contrast.  The machine is durable and the USB cartridges (with an embedded flash drive) are “nearly indestructible.”  They are also easy to handle and can be put into the machine with one finger and hold a tremendous amount of text – you can fit the entire Bible on one.

Audiobooks and magazines can both be received and returned for FREE by mail in color-coded cases. All audiobooks are sent from and returned to Pittsburgh.  Braille books are managed by the Philadelphia office. Magazine cartridges are returned for re-loading.  One cartridge will be custom-loaded with the current issues of ALL of a patron’s magazine titles.  Newspapers are also available, but by Telephone through a separate service.  Where the newspaper is computerized text to voice, the audiobooks and magazines are narrated by professionals.  The Library for the Blind has recently started working with Recorded Books to provide access to audiobooks produced for the consumer market (the same ‘version’ as can be found at the library or bookstore).  This partnership is beginning to allow for simultaneous release of new releases.  Other new titles take 6 months before they are available through the service.

Veterans are given priority, Americans living overseas qualify for the service and programs are being provided for children, including braille picture books (we saw The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein).  Aimee shared that most children using their services have been blind from birth and prefer braille, while older adults who are losing or have lost their vision prefer audiobooks.  Her library will be offering Summer Reading for the first time this summer for her younger patrons.

Selection of books starts when a person completes the application form and indicates their reading preferences.  What genres, subjects or reading-level of books are you interested in?  Individuals can also have selections limited by (which is proving to be a slight problem with some of the books provided through an outside source):

  • Strong language
  • Violence
  • Explicit descriptions of sex

The newest development is BARD – Braille and Audio Reading Download.   The cartridge readers have an external USB port that accepts audiobooks downloaded from the BARD database onto an external flash drive.  There is also a BARD App for iOS devices, with an App for Android under development.  While the cartridges are limited by the number of physical copies available, a patron has unlimited access to BARD.  Because of issues and concerns about copyright, this program is closely monitored.

The BARD App is free to download and can navigated with gestures and swipes, linked with sound cues.  Aimee shared that user testing revealed a preference for the iPad app over traditional players.  Some people even add on a braille keyboard (only $2,500) so they can read what it displayed on the screen with dots that feel like braille type on paper.

The Library at 9th and Walnut in Center City has services available for walk-in patrons, such as magnifiers to help read mail, JAWS computer software, a Adaptive Technology computer lab, and Zoomtext software.  The Free Library of Philadelphia has also recently changed its policy so that ANYONE in the State of Pennsylvania can receive the card and access to their databases, including eBooks!  Aimee left applications with us.


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