July 5, 2002 - Washington Times: Ethiopea RPCV Courtney Arnold put words on discs for the blind

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Ethiopea RPCV Courtney Arnold put words on discs for the blind

Read and comment ont his story from the Washington Times on Ethiopea RPCV Courtney Arnold who runs a nonprofit organization that records books for people who have difficulty reading at:

Reading for others ; Volunteers put words on discs for the blind, dyslexic *

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Reading for others ; Volunteers put words on discs for the blind, dyslexic

Jul 5, 2002 - Washington Times Author(s): Tim Lemke. The Washington Times

There's nothing quite like a book on advanced algorithms to get the brain's juices flowing. Or maybe there is. Either way, Courtney Arnold is searching hard for someone to come down to her office and read it - out loud.

It's not that Mrs. Arnold likes math all that much. It's just that there might be a blind college student who needs some help.

Mrs. Arnold, 60, is the program director at the Washington, D.C., office of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, or RFB&D, a Princeton, N.J., nonprofit that records books for people who have difficulty reading.

Her job is to organize a hefty team of volunteers, who spend hours recording everything from "The Oxford History of Western Art" and "International Business" to a Polish version of the most recent Harry Potter book.

"A lot of action is going on here," Mrs. Arnold says, as she wanders through small hallways that separate the nine soundproof recording booths.

Inside each booth, a volunteer wearing a headset reads crisply and clearly into a microphone. On the other side of a glass window, other volunteers wearing headsets read along, marking pages and watching a computer screen. These volunteers, called directors, are in charge of making sure readers don't make mistakes or talk too loudly or too softly. Mrs. Arnold says watching volume levels is particularly key.

"The microphone placement and voice levels are important," says Mrs. Arnold, who may be the most soft-spoken person in the office. "If you're off to the side or if the microphone is turned around, the quality is not as good."

RFB&D has about 400 volunteer readers, and about 270 of them will work during the average week. Many of the volunteers are retirees. Some are high school or college students on break. Each volunteer works in shifts of 90 minutes or two hours. A schedule, written out by Mrs. Arnold, hangs on the wall as volunteers arrive for the day.

Most of the books recorded at RFB&D can't be found on tape or compact disc at the average bookstore. Many recordings are made by special request from students in the area who need a recorded textbook for a high school or college class.

The local chapter serves about 4,000 students in the District, Northern Virginia and Maryland. About 72 percent have a learning disability, such as dyslexia, 25 percent are blind or visually impaired and the rest have disabilities that make it difficult to turn pages or read books in traditional fashion.

It takes anywhere from weeks to years for books to be fully recorded and ready to ship to RFB&D members, who pay $25 per year for access to any recordings the group has.

The longest turnaround time for a book was nearly four years, for an edition of the Jerome Biblical Commentary, a massive resource book requested by a blind doctoral student at Catholic University.

Mrs. Arnold has helped oversee a big change at RFB&D: the shift from analog to digital recording. In the past, everything was done with long tape reels and clunky equipment. But over the past 18 months, the organization has modernized to use computers, recording everything onto high-volume digital video discs for those who can see but have other impairments.

"It's absolutely amazing to think we've made this transition and it's working," Mrs. Arnold says. "It does get demanding at times."

One challenge was teaching some of the older volunteers, many of whom never touched a computer in their lives, how to use the new equipment. But over time, this has become less of a problem, and Mrs. Arnold usually requires new volunteers to have some computer knowledge.

"I thought it was going to be a nightmare, but it really wasn't," Mrs. Arnold says. "It's a real challenge because there are new problems every day. But I like helping people learn new skills."

There are still technical glitches, of course. One computer accidentally erases recorded files. Another keeps flashing an inexplicable error message. But it's still better than the old way, Mrs. Arnold says.

Right now at RFB&D, every recording booth is being used. There is no shortage of volunteers, and Mrs. Arnold is actively searching for anyone with special knowledge of advanced math or computer science. It's most recent request came from a blind college student in Virginia taking a class in advanced math.

The group is about to expand its presence at the National Institutes of Health, where it has a satellite office. Mrs. Arnold says she hopes the expansion will mean more volunteers with knowledge of science or medicine.

In the meantime, she will help volunteers get recorded books out as quickly as possible.

Mrs. Arnold has spent a lifetime helping people. She joined RFB&D nine years ago, after spending time in Pakistan with the Peace Corps and working as director of volunteers for a school district in Oregon. She also served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia in the early 1960s, where she met her husband, David, who is now editor of Worldview, a Peace Corps-owned magazine. Mrs. Arnold and her husband reside in Mount Pleasant.

And she appears thrilled to be working at RFB&D.

"The best part of this job is the wonderful people involved," Mrs. Arnold says. "It's really exciting to see the success you have."

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