Bringing Tech, Teens, and Talent Together: Recording Audiobooks for Children with Disabilities

Author photo: Mary-Kate SableskiLynn Vroblick has worked at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped for over thirteen years and is currently a Reader Advisor. In this role, she enjoys assisting patrons of all ages throughout Pennsylvania in book selection, so that they can access the topics and authors that interest them.

Sam and Isaac (top photo) monitor a recording and Piper (bottom photo) records an audiobook in the recording studio.Sam and Isaac (top photo) monitor a recording and Piper (bottom photo) records an audiobook in the recording studio.

Sam and Isaac (top photo) monitor a recording and Piper (bottom photo) records an audiobook in the recording studio.

It’s Friday afternoon and, rather than embarking on weekend recreational plans, a group of high school students have arrived at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (LBPH) to get down to work. They filter into the library’s recording studio and two students take their places at the microphones in soundproof recording booths, while others settle in front of the electronic monitoring equipment just outside and follow the text of the children’s book that is being recorded.

The teens are from the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. They are participating in an innovative project in which they apply their talents to create audiobooks in an accessible format for an underserved population, children with visual, physical, or reading disabilities who are unable to read standard sized print.

By producing recorded books for young children, LBPH is supplementing the collection of the National Library Service (NLS), a division of the Library of Congress. The books are made available statewide, nationally, and internationally through NLS.

One of the teens, Piper Walsh, says, “It’s nice because all week I’m involved with my own work, but then I can step back and do something that’s not for me personally, that helps other people. It’s a good way to end the week.”

The students narrate, monitor (follow narration electronically), and digitally edit the books, a complicated and exacting process that follows narration. Mark Sachon, LBPH’s volunteer coordinator and recording studio manager, compares the freshly recorded books to “uncut, unpolished diamonds” requiring small but important corrections, such as the removal of unwanted breaths and other extraneous sounds through editing. “There’s a lengthy editing process, then the students do retakes, and the books are reviewed by at least two reader-patrons for quality assurance before being circulated,” Sachon said.

He says the program enriches all the participants and especially “benefits young library patrons because it provides them with books that they wouldn’t otherwise have, in an accessible format. When they’re released, we’re confident they’ll have a wide circulation.”

Mark Lee, library service administrator of LBPH says, “By working to make books accessible to print disabled children, these Pittsburgh Public Schools teens increase their awareness of accessibility issues and, along the way, have a positive experience that they can put on their college applications.”

Melissa Dodge, a retired English and French teacher who supervises the students, says, “I enjoy seeing their reactions of surprise, joy, and pride in the outcome of their work, and I am touched by their respect for people who have disabilities.”

To set up the program, Russ Kuba, LBPH accessible technology specialist, reached out to his contacts at the Pittsburgh Public Schools. That culminated in a presentation to a large group of interested students, in which the challenges and rewards of narration were explained. The project took off from there.

The students take risks. With encouragement and critical feedback, two teens overcame initial difficulties enunciating through practice and focus. In the process, they gained confidence and produced flawless recordings.

Many of the books are in Spanish-English bilingual format, including a series by Mary Austen.

Many of the books are in Spanish-English bilingual format, including a series by Mary Austen.

Choosing the books to record is collaborative, with input from Briana Albright, LBPH children’s specialist, supervisor Dodge, and the students. It’s a democratic process, with two-way communication.

When several students observed that there were fewer books with female protagonists, more books celebrating women and girls were included. The recorded books, both fiction and nonfiction, often highlight notable figures like Rachel Carson (Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World by Laurie Lawler, 2012) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter, 2017). Winter’s book, for grades three through six, puts forward fact after fact describing Ginsburg’s experiences from girlhood through law school and later as a lawyer and judge, as if in a courtroom setting, with the reader as the jury rendering a verdict on her life.

Obama Academy junior Sam Bisno reflects about his experiences saying, “I believe reading is just about the best thing in the world, so the fact that I get to help others have that experience is rewarding to me. But reading out loud is hard! I often stop myself and force myself to do a retake because I didn’t like the way something sounded.”

He continues, “The most challenging book I’ve done is Iconoscope, an anthology of poems by Peter Oresick. The poems are extremely personal and that really required me to put myself in the author’s shoes to try to bring nuance to each poem.”

Daevan Mangalmurti, who narrated Amma, Tell Me about Holi!, says he recognizes “how much of a privilege it is to have literature written for people whose eyes can capture everything on a page and how important it is to make sure that the blind have equal access to literature.”

One of Sachon’s favorite recordings is the award-winning Looking Like Me by Walter Dean Myers. As narrated by sophomore Guillermo Harris, the book is lyrical and rhythmic. Its protagonist is a young African American boy growing up in an urban setting, but it has a universal appeal. It’s about the complexity of identity; the boy realizes his personality is faceted and he has many strengths, and Sachon says it “is read with enthusiasm and delight, like a parent would read to their child.”

The entire student recording program works on multiple levels and is reciprocal. It builds the library’s collection and benefits the disability community, and in the process, both the teens themselves, as well as the young library patrons, learn, have fun, and grow. Together the student team has produced more than seventy-five recorded titles that would otherwise not have been available to print-disabled users. In the process they learn real twenty-first-century skills including public speaking, use of computer hardware and the library’s Hindenburg recording software, basic reading skills, the creative process, commitment and perseverance, and—perhaps in today’s society the most important quality of all—empathy for others. &


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