A frustrated student is sitting in a classroom relentlessly trying to follow the day’s lesson. The teacher tells the class that there is going to be a pop quiz over last night’s reading assignment. She spent hours the night before trying to read the chapters. However, she still fails the pop quiz. This isn’t the first quiz or test she has failed. Unfortunately, the teacher sees no hope for her and sends a letter home suggesting she be placed in the school’s special education program.
But what she really needs is a proper diagnosis of her Dyslexia and audiobooks provided by Learning Ally.
“Once they discover the audiobooks it’s a revelation for many of them. They become excellent students at that point, because they can keep up and feel like they’re on par with their peers,” says Eleanor Cotton, production director of Learning Ally in Athens.
According to Cotton, one in five people have Dyslexia or a learning disability. Dyslexia is a processing disorder. Therefore those who have Dyslexia can greatly benefit from using audiobooks.
“Most people are not aware that having the additional input of audio as well as the visual text can help them comprehend and understand the information much better than they would otherwise,” says Cotton.
Learning Ally is a national organization that creates audiobooks with the intent of helping the blind, Dyslexic or paraplegic by leveling the playing field for those with a learning, visual or physical disability. This national nonprofit has an online library of 80,000 textbooks and literature audiobooks, the largest library of audiobooks in the world.
Learning Ally originally started as a way to help provide audiobooks for blinded veterans from World War II. The organization then changed its name to Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, once they discovered that people with learning disabilities could also benefit from using their audiobooks.
Two years ago the organization went through another name change: Learning Ally. The name Learning Ally better reflects the wider range of disabilities that the organization currently serves.
Learning Ally has helped several people with its audiobooks. A young woman spoke at the Learning Ally’s volunteer reception in which she explained how audiobooks helped her with her Dyslexia. She was falling behind in her classes, however once she discovered her learning disability and the resources that Learning Ally has to offer she was able to succeed and go to college. She went on to earn her master’s degree as a counselor.
A blinded veteran who served in the Iraq war has also benefitted from the resources that Learning Ally provides. This soldier was blinded from an IED, Improvised Explosion Device. He wanted to attend college, but was unsure how he was going to read his textbooks. Learning Ally was able to provide him with audiobooks and the soldier was able to accomplish his goal of attaining a college degree.
“I’ve also seen others that were told that they would never go to college. It’s very heartwarming to see how what we do makes a difference in their lives,” says Cotton.
Learning Ally enhances the learning process by only using human voices for their audiobooks. “Studies have shown that not only do our students prefer human voice, but they actually comprehend better when they hear a human voice instead of a computer generated voice,” says Cotton.
As a result, Learning Ally’s audiobooks are recorded entirely by volunteers. Recording audiobooks requires special attention to pronunciations, accents and a certain degree of background knowledge on the subject that is being read. Caren Snook, who started volunteering at Learning Ally in 1973, believes that she would not be able to read the statistics textbook that she is recording now had she not started from the beginning.
“If somebody else read a couple of chapters and then I went back to it, I probably wouldn’t be able to read it because I would have missed terminology,” says Snook. “Like what some of the variables stand for and what the Greek letters say.”
Recording audiobooks is not as easy as it appears. The process requires a meticulous attention to detail. Volunteers are constantly learning new information. “Snook gains benefits from volunteering her time to record audiobooks. “I read math books, which is kind of a specialty. It keeps my brain working. It helps me,” says Snook.
“I am always finding out how to pronounce words. It’s wonderful now that they have the computer programs that tell you how to pronounce things because there’s a lot of names and these are well-known names in the field. Names are particularly strange, because they can be spelled in a way but pronounced however that person wants it to be pronounced,” says Snook. “Because we try to produce as best quality product that we can it’s really important to pronounce things correctly.”
Snook used to teach adult literacy to students in Madison and Oglethorpe County who dropped out of high school and were looking to pass the GED. “I would probably say 90 percent of my students had some kind of specific learning disability, which is why they dropped out of school. If they had these resources when they were in school maybe they would have not dropped out,” says Snook.
Lila Ralston, who also volunteers at Learning Ally records anything from comparative anatomy or religion textbooks to children fantasy novels. When recording children fantasy novels she is able to use her creativity to depict the world of fiction for her young readers to create the voices and personas of the characters.
“You have to be absolutely accurate, especially with the voice to text. But in addition you don’t want to put the kids to sleep. You want it to be not just clear but interesting,” says Ralston.
Ralston became interested in accessibility issues after her experience with her blind roommate in college. As a result of her many encounters with disabled people, Ralston whole-heartedly believes in the mission of Learning Ally.
“It levels the playing field. It gives them the same access that other students in the class have to the material,” says Ralston.
Although people may have different reasons for volunteering according to Cotton there is a unifying element amongst the volunteers and staff of Learning Ally.
“We’re all here to help our members succeed and that’s our overarching reason for being here,” says Cotton.
Cotton enjoys working for Learning Ally, because she is helping those with disabilities that often get mislabeled in society and the education system.
“Personally, I believe in it because we help students succeed that’s what we’re all about and any way that we can do that we explore and provide wherever possible,” says Cotton. We try to level the playing field for the students that aren’t dumb by any means, but they’ve been left behind and our services can help them catch up.”
For more information visit www.learningally.org or call (706) 549-1313