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A Nontechnical Solution to a Technical Problem

Reading Engineering Textbooks for Students Who Can’t

“I used to jog but the ice cubes kept falling out of my glass.” – David Lee Roth

It’s summertime, and time for a little light reading – of engineering textbooks. 

But what if you can’t read? That is, what if you’re blind, dyslexic, or otherwise not able to access printed material the way most people can? Should that be an impediment to engineering school? How would incoming students study Electrical Engineering 101 if they couldn’t read the books? 

That’s where you come in. You can read the texts for them. 

For me, it started with a small announcement in a technical magazine some 25 years ago. A local group near my Silicon Valley job was looking for volunteers to read engineering texts out loud, on tape. (They were also looking for specialists in chemistry, biology, and art appreciation, but more on that later.) Since they were just down the street, I poked my head in the door… and wound up staying for many years. The process was fascinating. 

You may know them as Recording for the Blind, but the group has since renamed itself Learning Ally. They’ve been around since the 1940s, with the goal of allowing nonreaders to study, learn, and advance their careers and education like anyone else. They have locations all over the country; the Palo Alto office specializes in technical materials, naturally enough. 

Each reader is part of a two-person team. You sit in a sound-proof booth, with your partner on the other side of the window. As you read from the book, your partner operates the recording equipment and also reads along to make sure you haven’t made any mistakes. If you goof something up, mispronounce an important word, or just get lost, you can stop any time, rewind a few seconds, and start again. It’s very low-pressure, but the rewards are great. 

The diagrams are where it gets interesting. 

Reading text is pretty straightforward, but how do you describe a schematic, truth table, or Nyquist chart to a blind listener? For practice, try describing a spiral staircase or a typewriter without using your hands. This requires some practice, and (in my case) more than a few aborted attempts. You get the hang of it after a while, but the first few “audio schematics” can be tricky. 

The recording booth next to ours was usually occupied by a pair of chemistry readers. They’d read through the text as normal, and then describe the complicated chemical diagrams. I didn’t know much about chemistry (still don’t), but I gleaned a bit by listening to them describe those funny stick figures. 

Most impressive of all were the art readers. They’d page through big glossy coffee table books on fine art from, say, the Louvre, and give knowledgeable descriptions of each picture, focusing on the composition, brushwork, color, and more. Like the chemistry books, I learned just enough to be dangerous by overhearing their work. 

(And, to answer the obvious question of why a blind student would need an art book: not all the borrowers are blind. Some just have reading disabilities that prevent them from enjoying all the content.) 

At the start of each page you announce the page number (“beginning page 178”) and your partner presses a button that inserts a beep tone in the recording. This helps borrowers skim through a book by counting the beeps as they fast-forward or rewind the recording.  

Captions and footnotes also need special treatment. You announce that you’re departing from the main text (“Reader’s note: jumping to footnote 2.”) and that you’re returning to it (“End of reader’s note; return to text”). 

Reading sessions last about an hour, so you’ll rarely finish a chapter, much less an entire book. That means each book is usually read by several different volunteers over a span of several weeks. I’ve often wondered if it’s jarring to the borrower to hear the reader’s voice change every twenty pages or so. I guess you get used to it. Also, do they have favorite readers they prefer? 

Once in awhile we’d have a rush job – a student facing an exam that required a specific textbook, for example – so we’d gang up and record a book in pieces all at once. This team gets chapters 1–4, that team gets chapters 5–10, and so on. 

Conversely, some books could be read by only one person. Advanced chemistry books had to wait for Cheryl. She was the only one who could make sense of them and read them accurately. The Adv Chem 323 diagrams were really interesting. 

Learning Ally is always looking for volunteers, especially those with specialized knowledge – like engineering, programming, or computer science. You can be a reader if you like, or you can be the listening/recording half of the team. Unbeknownst to me at the time, they also have QA people who double-check your work in case something slipped past both you and your recording partner. 

So, this summer you can read the latest bodice-ripper on the beach, or you can read a technical book for the benefit of an aspiring programmer or engineer. Maybe even both. Check it out.

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