Reading can be a significant component for many jobs, and in training to prepare people for employment. Reviewing policies, going through training materials, consulting manuals and references – such activities are a routine part of lots of jobs across many sectors.
When an employer is considering a new hire who has a disability that prevents them from reading standard print, that employer might reasonably wonder whether such a candidate is right for the job. Millions of Americans have a print disability. A print disability can be sensory, physical, or neurological - anything that makes the task of reading difficult.
The mission of the Communication Center at State Services for the Blind (SSB) is to provide access to the printed word to Minnesotans with a print disability. “Our goal,” says Director Natasha Jerde, “is to connect folks to the material they need in the format that works for them.”
The staff and volunteers at the Communication Center transcribe materials into audio, braille, and e-text formats. Typical customers might include a senior looking for an audio recording of an older novel for a book club, a worker needing materials for their job, or a student needing books for their classes. While many books and news articles are available as audio files now, many other print materials are not.
Judy is in the Master of Social Work program at St. Scholastica College. As a person with low vision, Judy employs several strategies to read. “I use a combination of reading visually and listening,” she says.
Earlier this year, Judy contacted the Communication Center with a book recording request. For her course work she needed the most up-to-date edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5 Text Revised (TR).
“I almost didn’t make the request,” Judy recalls, “It was such a big project, I remember saying, ‘I can’t expect you to do this.’”
“When I got that email saying they were recording the book for me, I read that email through tears,” Judy remembers.
A team of 15 SSB volunteers got to work recording the nearly 1,000 page book. Each of the volunteers had passed a rigorous selection process, and were assigned to the project because they could competently read medical and technical material.
Judy commented on the importance for her of having materials in human-voiced narration rather than through synthetic speech. “I am not able to follow electronically generated speech,” she said, “I just can’t process material that way…When a person records the material, then there is nuance, abbreviations aren’t garbled, and the technical language is clear.”
The accessible audio version of the DSM-5 TR produced by the Communication Center includes digital markers that make it possible to quickly navigate by page, section, or chapter. This is critical in a reference text and makes the 87-hour recording usable in much the same way as the printed format – as a resource to go back to again and again for specific information.
The DSM-5 TR is a reference volume that is extensively relied on by professionals in a variety of fields.
“Very quickly we received requests from other customers for a copy of this book ,” says Jeff Behl, who manages Audio Services at SSB. “.We’re very pleased that it will also be available through the National Library Service. It’s good to know that the work of our volunteers has made this important reference work available to consumers across the country who need it for work and school.”
Judy is one of the many customers of SSB whose skills and talents are not only strengthening our economy, but building better communities. Before returning to school for her master’s, Judy hosted a successful wellness podcast and facilitated support groups in a domestic violence intervention program.
For Judy, like many others, having access to the books she needs in a format that works for her is critical to both her personal and professional success. SSB is proud to serve Minnesotans with print disabilities as they pursue their goals. National Disability Employment Awareness Month provides an opportunity to reflect on the importance of access to written information in formats that work for everyone.