Lending a voice

UBC’s Crane Library provides visually impaired students with audio recorded materials.  It is sustained by volunteers like Mary Taitt.

University students spend hours reading every week. Whether it’s a novel, research paper or class assignment, for someone with a print disability, access to materials in alternative formats is critical to staying on top of schoolwork.

At UBC, there is a long tradition of producing human voice audio recordings of school materials through UBC’s Crane Library, part of Access and Diversity. Currently there are more than 130 volunteers who spend an average of 7,350 hours each year narrating and recording all the audio materials needed.

UBC’s Access and Diversity facilitates accommodations for students, staff and faculty with disabilities, which include alternate format materials like Braille, electronic text, PDF and audio.  Crane Library houses an extensive collection of alternate format materials and is one of the largest producers of human voice audio in Canada.

At UBC, volunteers read everything from an undergraduate psychology textbook to a complex philosophy paper for a PhD student’s dissertation. And Mary Taitt, who has been volunteering with the Crane for the past 41 years, has read it all. This year, Taitt was recognized for her dedication and was awarded the Slonecker Award for Outstanding Volunteer Contribution to UBC.

“To be able to do something useful and pass on information to all these folks is a great motivator,” says Taitt, who believes that with all her education and expertise, she should help give back to the community.

Crane was established in 1968 as an informal reading room with a gift of some 10,000 volumes of Braille books from the family of the late Charles Allan Crane, who was both deaf and blind and had been a UBC student in the 1930s. A few readers were hired, production of audio recordings began and volunteers were recruited when extra help was needed.

Taitt began volunteering in 1969 and continued volunteering while working on her PhD in Zoology, and then as an alumnus and UBC employee. Over the years, Mary has worked as a UBC Research Associate, an environmental consultant, an ecotourism whale watching guide, and is an active volunteer for local environmental organizations.  Taitt now works as a faculty member at Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning Division and as an activist for protection of B.C.’s natural environment.

“I’ve been very active in ecological and environmental work and I’ve made choices about my professional career so that I’ve always been able to volunteer,” says Taitt. “Volunteering is a very important part of my life.”

Having been a volunteer with the Crane Library since it opened, Taitt has seen the library evolve.  “We used these giant reel-to-reel tapes and you could hear the machines whirling away in the background of all the recordings.”

The Crane Library now has eight of recording booths, each with its own computer, recording software and microphone.

Today’s digital recordings are produced to US National Braille Association standards. The production of audio materials follow established standards on everything from pronunciation, to how to read a text box, and when to break and read a caption.

“The library has really evolved into a remarkable professional resource,” says Janet Mee, the director of Access and Diversity. “It’s extremely rewarding to be able to provide such a quality service for our students, faculty and staff with print disabilities.”

“To have real voices talking to me, I can’t explain it, it means a lot to me that people are volunteering to do this,” says Katie Hobson, a UBC education student who deals with chronic pain that makes it difficult for her to stay in one position and read for a long time. “The voices are passionate and interested in the material.”

For many facilities, the cost of producing human voice audio recordings is too expensive.  As such, the demand for audio books is high and as a member of the Canadian Association of Educational Resources for Alternate Format Production in Education (CAER), Crane Library is able to share these resources with students across the country.

“We can afford to do this because we have such a long tradition of volunteers,” says Mee.  “If it weren’t for the dedication of people like Mary, who show up at least once a week for a reading shift, it would be impossible to offer this service.”

“I deeply appreciate Mary for all the volunteer service as a narrator, without whose work I would not have been able to carry out my academic journey at UBC that I dreamed for,” says Won Kim, a PhD student in the Department of Language and Literacy Education, who has a visual disability.

But Taitt argues that she volunteers as much for herself as for those who listen. “If the week has gone well or if it hasn’t gone well, you know you’ve done something useful,” she says. “Personally, it’s very satisfying.”

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UBC Reports | Vol. 57 | No. 4 | Apr. 6, 2011

Mary Taitt has volunteered with UBC’s Crane Library for over 41 years. This year, she was recognised for her dedication with the Slonecker Award for Outstanding Volunteer Contribution. Photo by: Martin Dee

Mary Taitt has volunteered with UBC’s Crane Library for over 41 years. This year, she was recognised for her dedication with the Slonecker Award for Outstanding Volunteer Contribution. Photo by: Martin Dee

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