TROY, Mich. - Last fall, Richard Bernstein, a 28-year-old lawyer, was elected to Wayne State University's board of governors, narrowly beating out a man who had been there since before Mr. Bernstein was born. State university board members tend to be party war horses or retired politicians, but his youth wasn't what drew the most attention.
What was most remarkable was that he is blind, and has been since birth. Nevertheless, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Michigan and Northwestern Law School - and that makes Carla Reeb very proud.
That's because she is executive director of the Michigan unit of a national nonprofit organization with the ungainly name of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic - RFB&D. What that group does is find volunteers to record books, mainly textbooks, all day long, which they make available - free of charge - to students who have a vision or learning disability.
And RFB&D played a major role in helping Mr. Bernstein get his law degree. “He used our textbooks right on through school,” Mrs. Reeb said. Tomorrow, Mr. Bernstein will be among a host of other Michigan politicians and celebrities who will help RFB&D celebrate its 45th year of helping those who are challenged to learn and compete in today's fast-paced society. RFB&D's headquarters isn't much to look at - a fairly small, one-story ranch on a bustling affluent commercial strip a dozen miles north of Detroit.
But for thousands, it has made the difference between education and despair. And for those who need to use their “talking books,” the price is right. Absolutely free. All any student of any age need do is get a doctor or a responsible education official to certify that he or she is visually or learning impaired.
“They have to buy the device to play them back, which comes in a variety of styles, including portable, and usually runs from $100 to $250 or so,” said Don Haffner, who runs the nine-booth recording studio, which is in the process of switching to a high-tech, more user-friendly digital format.
How long may students keep the textbooks? “We ask them to send them back after a year,” though most do earlier, Mrs. Reeb said. Is there a geographic limit on where they will send talking books? “Well, I put one in the mail today to Bangkok and one to New Zealand,” Mr. Haffner said.
This all got started in the years right after World War II, when Anne MacDonald, a volunteer at New York's Public Library, started encountering frustrated veterans who had lost their sight in the war and wanted to take advantage of the GI Bill.
She put together a few volunteers, and in 1948, started recording textbooks on small wax discs with a mere 10-12 minutes of material on one side. Reel-to-reel tape recording followed; then cassettes, and now more and more books are being recorded on compact discs.
The Michigan unit began operation in 1958. Interestingly, less than a third of its clients are blind or severely visually impaired. The rest have other learning disabilities, like dyslexia. It's easier for them to take in information by hearing it.
Most of the books are kept in New Jersey, at RFB&D's national headquarters. “What we mainly do is record books here and then ship them to our office in Princeton [N.J.] where they have a library of more than 93,000 books - you can check them out on the web (www.rfbd.org),” Mr. Haffner said. But if someone contacts the Michigan unit, and it's convenient, the unit will gladly ship them.
Though there are 31 different chapters, or recording “units” across the country, there are none in Ohio or Indiana. “We wish more folks in those states knew about us,” Mrs. Reeb said. While they wouldn't mind supplying a few more patrons with books, they could also use a few more volunteer readers, especially someone fluent in Spanish, and they wouldn't mind a few contributions either.
The recording operation operates on a shoestring budget of $300,000 a year, 80 percent of which is plowed back into the product. That's not big dollars in the conventional sense, but with the state facing a budget crisis and many other fund sources drying up, RFB&D, located at 5600 Rochester Road, Troy, Mich. 48085, is grateful for any help it can get.
Former Democratic U.S. Rep. and Lieutenant Gov. Martha Griffiths, a major force in state and national politics as a pioneer for women's rights, died last week at 91. While Democrats mourned her passing, there was also an unspoken sense of relief. Bitter at being forced off the state ticket in 1990, she endorsed Republican Gov. John Engler in his last two campaigns.