American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2016       GROWING UP

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Using Readers--The Human Variety

by Carol Castellano

Serena Cucco takes notes while working with a reader.From the Editor: In this age of Bookshare, iPads, and the KNFB Reader, blind students may think that human readers are obsolete. As Carol Castellano points out, however, this is far from the case. It is still important for blind students to be skilled in the use of live readers in order to be as efficient as possible. Carol Castellano is a longtime Federationist and is past president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) as well as cofounder and past president of Parents of Blind Children-NJ. She is the author of four books on the education of blind children. Her most recent title is Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade.

A reader--of the human kind--is a person who reads text or other material to a blind person. Even with all the technology available for reading purposes today, there are many times when using a human reader is the best, or even the only, option. Sometimes electronic devices break down or cannot handle needed material such as handwritten documents or complicated charts, diagrams, or mathematical and scientific formulae. Some websites are not fully accessible; sometimes an exam or standardized test simply won't work with a screen reader. With good skills in using a human reader, a blind person can access all of the material needed at school or on the job.

How a Blind Person Works with a Reader

I once heard a human reader referred to as "an information acquisition tool." I like to think of a reader as a pair of eyes on loan to the blind person. The reader's job is to move through printed material at the direction of the blind person, providing the information he/she wants. The blind person gives the directions, such as "read," "stop," or "skip," and the reader follows them. A skilled blind person can move a reader through the material in the same way he/she would go through it if he/she had direct access.

To understand how this process works, think about how you would approach a certain reading task if you had full access to the information. For example, if you had to determine whether a particular book would be useful for a research paper, you might first check the table of contents or skim the introduction and opening chapter. Perhaps you would glance at the index, looking for names or key words. When using a reader, the blind person directs the reader to perform these tasks.

Most of the time the blind person wants the reader to read as quickly as possible and to read without dramatic inflection--in other words, to read like a machine. Blind people experienced with using readers say it's much easier to slow down a fast reader at points when the material is dense than it is to speed up a slow reader. In addition to telling the reader how fast to read, the blind person tells him or her when to skip a paragraph or section, when to skim, when to read every word, when to repeat a passage, and when to stop. The key factor is that the blind person is in control. The reader takes direction and moves through the material, giving the blind person the information he/she wants.

What a Reader Is Not

The reader and the blind person have a professional relationship. A reader's job is to read the material at the direction of the blind person. It is not a reader's job to be a companion, a caregiver, or a friend. Though warm feelings may grow through the reader relationship, the reader is there to do a job. Furthermore, a reader is not a teacher or tutor. The reader does not find the answers when reading an assignment, and the reader does not explain or teach the material. If the blind student needs assistance to understand course material, he/she should find a tutor.

Paid Readers and Volunteers

Readers may be volunteers or individuals who are paid, and as such they may have very different motivations for doing the work. A volunteer might want to do a good deed or fulfill a social service requirement. A paid reader may be motivated by the need to earn money. These differing motivations make it necessary to think about what kind of reader is appropriate for a particular task.

For personal material such as mail, bills, or handwritten notes, where reading speed is not a big issue, a volunteer reader is probably fine. For reading jobs at school or at work, when the blind person needs to be businesslike and time may be of the essence, it is often better to have a paid reader. With a paid reader, the blind person is the employer, and the reader has to do the job well or get fired. With a volunteer who is doing the job out of the goodness of his heart, it can be awkward to give businesslike instructions. Experienced blind people suggest trying out a reader with typical materials that need to be read and gauging the person's reactions to instructions such as "Read as fast as you can--I don't need inflection," or "skip," "skim," and "stop." Some people will be fine with this; others may find it difficult.

For school-age children, readers will probably be volunteers. In addition, readers will most likely be considerably older than the child--adults, in fact. This situation can be awkward. Children are not used to giving directions to adults, and adults are not used to taking direction from children! Even so, children need training in the use of readers. Eventually they must be in charge of the process, giving appropriate and effective directions. If an adult volunteer is reading for your child in school, it might be wise to explain the process so that the volunteer can help the student learn to take charge.

Training the Child

The blind child needs to learn a variety of skills in order to direct a reader through all sorts of materials and get the information he/she is seeking efficiently and effectively. Some of these skills are: the ability to listen to fast reading, to process and analyze information quickly, to figure out what material can be skipped, and to take notes quickly. (When using a reader for school purposes, in most instances the student will be taking notes.)

The blind student should be included fully in all library and research projects at school so she or he can gain knowledge of typical book formatting and database setup, including:

The child also needs to develop appropriate assertiveness in order to be able to interrupt an adult reader and direct him or her to stop, skip, skim, spell, or describe. Children usually need a good deal of practice in this skill, especially those who are passive, shy, or extremely polite.

Training Assignments

When you are training a child to use a reader, you will shift back and forth between the roles of teacher and reader. At times you will be following directions exactly; at other times you will step out of the reader role to teach the child how to give better directions. Here are some practice assignments you can try.

Assignment 1: Find a piece of information in a familiar story.

Assign the child to find a certain piece of information in a print book, using a human reader. Choose a familiar story so that the child will know where to find the information. The child's task is to direct someone else to get to that place. For example, you could ask, "What did the very hungry caterpillar eat on Thursday?" Have the child think about how he or she would go about the task if the book were fully accessible. Have the child practice giving directions based on how he or she would approach the task.

Assignment 2: Find a piece of factual information.

Have the child find a piece of information, such as the population of Bolivia, in an encyclopedia or article. The goal of this assignment is for the child quickly to figure out when the desired information is not in the paragraph being read. This is an opportunity for the child to practice saying "Skip" as soon as he or she realizes the paragraph does not have to be read fully. Have the child practice telling you to begin reading. You can also use this type of assignment to have the child learn when it is appropriate to direct a reader to skim for numerals.

Again, you will be stepping in and out of the reader role, sometimes instructing the child in ways that make him or her think and figure out what to do.

Assignment 3: Listen fast.

Tell the child you are going to read a few paragraphs fast and ask a few questions afterward. Use part of a story and part of a factual article that are at the child's level of comprehension. See how fast you can read with the child still able to take in the information. Find a speed that works for the child. Increase the speed little by little so that she or he learns to listen and gain information as quickly as possible.

Assignment 4: Find information in a novel.

Simulate a typical school assignment, such as the following: "Sam learns a lesson in the story. What lesson does she learn? Support your answer with words from the text."

Use a story that is familiar to the child, such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” so that he/she will know where in the story to direct you. Tell the child you will sit quietly and wait for him/her to tell you what to do. Follow the child's instructions exactly, even when they are bad, so that he/she will learn how to give clear and concise directions. Again, you will be stepping in and out of the reader role to teach the child what to do. You may need to prompt the child with cues so that he/she can figure out what to say.

Assignment 5: Get information from a complicated chart.

Find a multi-columned, multi-row chart that would be difficult to access using technology, large print, or Braille. Perhaps the chart takes up a whole page in regular print but spills over to several pages in alternative formats. Assign the child to find a certain piece of information by directing a reader.

Assignment 6: Choose books for a research paper.

Give the child practice using skills learned in school, such as choosing books, looking at the table of contents and index, skimming for key words and names, and deciding whether a book would be good for the research paper, all using a reader. Again, the child should direct the reader based on how she/he would approach the task if the book were accessible.

Assignment 7: Take notes while using a human reader.

Choose a section in a history or science textbook. Have the child practice directing you to stop reading when she/he wants to take notes. Have him or her practice telling you at the beginning of the reading session to stop when you see him/her starting to write. The child will also direct you to begin reading again.

Using Readers in College

Despite advances in technology, the typical blind college student will need to use human readers. There may well be texts that are not in an accessible format, technology that crashes, and databases that are not accessible. A college student must have the skills to direct a human reader so he or she has access to all the necessary information.

Usually a college student will need more than one reader. It is important for the student to have enough readers so that he or she doesn't wind up at exam time with no access to the material or with a totally inexperienced reader who doesn't read well.

Finding and Interviewing Readers

For college students, most readers are fellow students. Often when a reader is needed for a particular class, the blind student lets the professor know and asks to make an announcement. The advantage of using a classmate is that he or she is likely to be motivated, as he/she will have to read the same material anyway. The disadvantage is that at exam time the reader may not be available, because he or she is busy studying. The blind student can also find readers by placing notices on bulletin boards and by placing ads in the school paper or on social media.

It is important that whenever possible, the blind person chooses his or her own readers. Good readers can be identified through an interview process. For the interview, the blind student should be ready with typical materials that need to be read. The student should explain the process--that she or he will tell the reader to begin, stop, skip, etc., and will ask the reader to read as fast as possible without worrying about inflection. The blind student can then gauge the reader's reaction to taking and following instructions.

How much and when the reader will be paid must be discussed during the interview. Usually blind students can obtain money for readers from their state vocational rehabilitation office. Sometimes reader service is offered through the college's disabled student services office. Whatever the situation, the blind student must be free to choose readers based on their abilities and to get rid of readers who aren't working out.

Working with a Reader at the College Level

To use readers successfully at college, the blind student must learn time management, scheduling, and record-keeping. The student should never put up with a reader who wastes his/her time. By the same token, the student should never waste the reader's time, either. The student should be ready and waiting with his or her books and other materials when the reader arrives. Music and other distractions should be eliminated. Ideally, friendly chatting waits until the work is done. The blind student should treat the reader with respect, consideration, and appreciation, but the relationship must also be businesslike, so that the work gets done properly and in a timely manner.

Skills for the Future

The skills acquired through using human readers are invaluable throughout a blind person's lifetime. Using readers provides experience in recruiting, interviewing, hiring, training, scheduling, supervising, paying, and firing employees. These are all management skills that your child can use someday in the world of work. Make sure your child learns to use readers as early as possible so that he or she will become comfortable, competent, and confident in using the skills. Through the use of readers, your child will be able to access all of the materials needed for success.

Before I close, I want to express my special appreciation to the many Federationists from whom I have learned over the years. Their ideas are woven through this article. In particular I wish to acknowledge Peggy Elliott; Jerry Whittle; my daughter, Serena Cucco; and the late Adrienne Asch.

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