A Haven for Sightless Readers

Thomas Fields uses a magnification monitor to read The Washington Post at the library for the blind within the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in the District.
Thomas Fields uses a magnification monitor to read The Washington Post at the library for the blind within the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in the District. (Photos By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Lindsay Ryan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Berta Roze, 102, checked out 212 audiobooks last year. A single audiobook can run 12 hours, so that amounts to pretty much a full-time job.

A couple of decades ago, Roze, a Latvian immigrant who authored an English-Slovak dictionary, read prolifically in English, Latvian, Russian and German, said her stepdaughter, Irene Karulis. But when macular degeneration blinded her in the 1990s, she turned to audiobooks offered by the District's Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Karulis said.

Although Roze holds the citywide record for most audiobooks checked out last year, other patrons are almost as devoted in their use of the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Located within the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at Ninth and G streets NW, the special needs library serves more than 1,250 readers and institutions, according to Phil Wong-Cross, chief of adaptive services.

Some library systems, including the District's, began offering services for blind and physically handicapped patrons in the 1930s, and the D.C. facility was opened in 1973, according to Wong-Cross and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

The D.C. library has special computer programs, magnification televisions and software and videos that describe scenes and characters during breaks in dialogue. Drawing on the library's collection and a nationwide loan network administered by the Library of Congress, librarians lend or arrange shipment of audio, Braille and large-print books to patrons. A bookmobile and delivery service reach retirement homes, hospitals and the homebound.

Other public library systems in the region provide similar services, although the quality and type vary by county. The Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Baltimore is recognized as a particularly excellent facility, according to several patrons of the District's library.

One of the MLK library's regular patrons, S. Robert Morgan, 42, came to the library on a recent morning, navigating with his white cane. Like Roze, Morgan, of Fort Washington, has macular degeneration, although in his case it struck when he was in his twenties, he said. An actor and the artistic director of a theater company, Morgan uses the library's special computers to make spreadsheets, check e-mail and write grants, he said. Some weeks, he comes daily, usually for four hours but at times up to eight.

He uses the JAWS software program and said that when it is running well, it is a model of accessibility because it allows blind people to use a computer without help. They are guided by a computerized voice that reads text aloud, from sentences typed to what icons are on the screen. "If JAWS did not exist, I'd have to Braille everything out and dictate it to someone or record it on a tape," he said.

At another desk cluttered with talking books in plastic cases, George McIntyre, 21, of Southeast Washington, listened to the audiobook "Weasel." An aspiring rap artist who was born blind, McIntyre has come to the library since he was in elementary school. He goes through countless numbers of talking books, he said.

Although Thomas Fields, 52, uses the library's magnification technology daily to read newspapers and books, he said he would like changes to be made. He cited the libraries in Seattle, where he used to live, as having more equipment, more of a variety, quicker repairs and a room for the magnification machines where visually impaired people can take care of such tasks as balancing their checkbooks in private.

Morgan also hopes for some improvements, mainly in the condition of the building, he said, mentioning the need to fix broken elevators, replace carpets and better clean the library. "But that's a government issue," he said. "The government needs to step up, because if education is important and libraries supplement education, they need to be at the top of the priorities -- like the Nationals' stadium."

The people at the library "make it a pleasure to go there," Morgan added. "I miss them when I'm gone."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company