Providing Access to the “Amazing World of the Written Word” for 75 Years
By Donald Gilpin
“I remember back in elementary school, I was taken out of regular classes and put into remedial classes for English,” said Justin Purvis, who is now a 24-year-old graphic novelist with a college degree. “It was hard.”
When Justin was in ninth grade his mother attended a seminar on dyslexia where she found out about Learning Ally. a Princeton-based nonprofit seeking, through audiobooks and other programs, to improve literacy across the country.
“I remember I was in ninth grade, and my mother told me to download a book,” Purvis recalled in a conversation at Learning Ally’s 75th Anniversary Celebration in October, where he was a featured guest. Joining Learning Ally, formerly known as Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, was a turning point in his education and his life. “I was suddenly able to have access magically to all these books that I was using at school. I went back into the mainstream immediately. I was able to participate more and keep up with what was going on.”
He continued, “I was able to take an interest in storytelling, and that led me into being able to really write and illustrate a book. I had always wanted to be an author. Learning Ally made my life easier. I particularly liked the human narration, which brought the words and stories to life.”
Purvis learned that he was an auditory learner and reader, processing information differently from the way most others processed information. “I was able to let go of the shame that I had attached to my dyslexia for so long and embrace the gifts that came with being a dyslexic person,” he said. He graduated from Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in 2018 and went on to study for a career in graphic and comic design at Kubert School of Arts. He said his recently published debut graphic novel is “like Breakfast Club meets Power Rangers.”
Justin’s mother, Lisa Purvis, described the frustration she suffered as she watched her son struggling in elementary school. She knew he was bright, and many of his teachers assured her that he would grow out of his learning difficulties, but she decided to take action.
The Purvises and Justin’s school teamed up with Learning Ally, and Justin started to work with small cassette tapes that were sent to the school. Soon afterwards the format went to digital, and Justin’s books and assignments could all be downloaded.
“We found out that Justin is what’s called an ear reader,” Lisa Purvis said. “We’re eye readers. Blind people might be finger or hand readers, but Justin is an ear reader. It’s no big deal, and that understanding helped with how he felt about himself.”
She continued, “In Justin’s ninth grade year it was like night and day after he started receiving the recordings. What would take a typical kid about 20 minutes, he would struggle with for a couple of hours. But by listening he was able to keep up with what was going on and contribute to class. That changed his world. That changed everything. Now the sky is the limit for him.”
Learning Ally CEO Andrew Friedman explained, “What we do is simple, but the impact is massive. Essentially you learn in two ways: either you read, or you listen. It’s that simple. If you struggle to read the printed word, we are the only other option you have.”
Some of the many offerings on learningally.org.
Friedman cited “staggering” statistics that reveal more than 50 percent of students reading below grade level in this country, with only 11 percent of educators feeling “completely prepared” to teach reading, and students who have reading deficits in high school four times more likely than average to drop out.
“If you read below grade level, we are a lifeline to your education,” Friedman added. “Your entire self-worth may be built on your ability to read in our education system. If you don’t read effectively, then listening is your way to gain information.”
Hoby Wedler is a California-based food and beverage entrepreneur and consultant, chosen by Forbes in 2016 as one of the “30 under 30” leaders in the food and drink industry and recognized by President Barack Obama as a 2017 Champion of Change for enhancing employment and education opportunities for people with disabilities. He has been a member of Learning Ally since 1994, when the organization was known as Recording for the Blind.
“I can’t tell you how amazing Learning Ally has been for me,” said Wedler, who has been blind since birth. “It has helped me through so much starting with audio books — social studies textbooks mostly — in the third grade. It allowed me to excel in high school, then thrive as an undergraduate student in chemistry, history, and math, and then go and earn my Ph.D. in organic chemistry.”
Wedler earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of California, Davis. He explained how he made his way by relying on Learning Ally, listening instead of seeing. “I taught the chemistry department what I could do, not what I couldn’t do,” he said. “They believed in me and trusted me.”
He described the experience of hearing his textbooks on tape read aloud by experts. “Scientifically, it’s amazing to have people describe the imagery that appears in textbooks rather than just somebody who doesn’t know the science trying to explain it,” he said. “The nice thing about Learning Ally is that there are experts who can describe things fluently and thoroughly.”
As the cofounder and a partner in Senspoint Design, the only blind-owned marketing agency in the world, Wedler works as a product development specialist and food scientist, hosting a variety of food and beverage tasting experiences, mostly with corporate clients.
“I’m a weird scientist,” he said. “We work mostly with nonprofits to amplify their story and their message.” A 2022 Forbes article described Wedler as “a man with a mission: solving the problems of the business world in creative ways no one has imagined before.”
Volunteer Walter Cronkite, circa 1950s.
Early Days of RFB
In the aftermath of World War II, the GI Bill of Rights guaranteed a college education to veterans, but there were many soldiers who had lost their sight in the war, were unable to read braille, and needed access to audio recordings of textbooks. The Women’s Auxiliary of the New York Public Library took up the challenge, and Anne T. MacDonald, the wife of a Wall Street financier, was one of the first volunteers.
She had served as an Army nurse and a Red Cross volunteer and had worked with veterans, and as the demand for recorded materials grew, she founded Recording for the Blind (RFB) in 1948. The textbooks were recorded on dictating machines in the attic of the New York Public Library then transferred to vinyl phonograph disks.
As demand grew, RFB incorporated as the country’s only nonprofit organization recording textbooks, and under MacDonald’s leadership RFB set up recording studios in seven more cities across the country. “Education is a right, not a privilege,” MacDonald stated repeatedly, and she also asserted, according to encyclopedia.com, “The quest for knowledge has no limits, and RFB has a forever expanding future.”
The organization made its first recording tape in 1957, and production increased rapidly as more and more textbooks were recorded and distributed to a growing number of students — the visually impaired and others who had disabilities that made reading difficult or impossible. That same year the United Nations loaned six soundproof recording booths, and about 60 U.N. staff members became RFB volunteers.
Anne T. MacDonald, one of the first volunteers, receives an award. (Photos courtesy of Learning Ally)
In 1958 new studios opened in Princeton and other towns across the country, where RFB often operated in affiliation with colleges and universities where they could recruit volunteer readers who were experts in the subject of the textbooks they read aloud. In addition to university scholars, a number of celebrities, including Walter Cronkite, Loretta Young, and Alistair Cooke, were among the early volunteer readers.
Other noteworthy RFB volunteers in the following years, according to encyclopedia.com, included Steve Allen, Ed Asner, Anne Bancroft, Mel Brooks, Cher, Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Mary Tyler Moore, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Barbara Walters, and Robert Young.
In the 1960s RFB studios continued to proliferate throughout the country, and newer more effective recording technologies took over. Reel-to-reel tapes replaced vinyl disks and then cassette tapes that could hold as much as four hours of recorded material replaced reel-to-reel tapes.
In 1983 the RFB headquarters moved to Princeton. With operations computerized and new high-speed duplicating machines in place, RFB tripled the number of books circulated to members.
Then, in the 1990s, new digital books provided a major advantage over cassette technology. Instead of many tapes for each book, with frequent winding and rewinding necessary to navigate the text, players used digital books that were contained on a single compact disk, which had convenient searching and bookmarking features.
in 1996 RFB, with a membership of more than 50,000 and more than 200,000 books in circulation, became Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), recognizing that most of its members were individuals with learning disabilities.
As the organization’s 50th anniversary approached in 1998, the transition to digital technology advanced, with the launching of a website and digital recording that made possible the consolidation of all the textbook files into a single computer archive.
The 21st century has seen exponential leaps forward as new technology has helped to bring the organization into 23,000 schools across the country, serving more than 600,000 educators and more than two million students.
CEO Andrew Friedman with Learning Ally prize winners at the U.S. Capitol.
“Our mission continues as we seek to drive sustainable and transformational impact, so that all children have equal opportunity to read, learn, and achieve to their highest potential,” said Friedman on the occasion of the organization’s 75th anniversary.
Friedman, who in 2009 had joined what was then RFB&D, explained how the name change to Learning Ally in 2011 reflected the growth and transformation of the organization.
“We did research on people who were blind and people who were dyslexic,” he said, “and we started considering the needs that they had. They were broader than just audio books, so we decided to expand our services. This is really about helping to educate kids and helping kids to understand how they learn.”
He also discussed the stigma that had become attached to the labels of “blind” and “dyslexic.” He continued, “It really came down to the lack of understanding of how they learn, and the stigma attached to the labels, so we shifted the name to remove the stigma and to support the people we serve. They need allies in education. Learning Ally is about learning. It’s about being partners with kids and teachers to help with education.”
Friedman pointed out that Learning Ally now offers a wide range of services to teachers and schools, as well as to parents and students. “We train more than 10,000 teachers a year,” he said. “We offer a lot of work around community, and most of our distribution comes from schools.” Learning Ally’s focus is on kindergarten through 12th grade, where the blind population is relatively small, only about 80,000 out of 50-60 million school children in the United States.
For the past 10 years Learning Ally has offered professional development for teachers, helping to raise awareness of dyslexia, and providing strategies for recognizing it and supporting it in the classroom through differentiated instruction and other means.
In 2015 Learning Ally launched its annual Spotlight on Dyslexia conference, a nationwide online symposium for parents and teachers. Other successful initiatives include monthly webinars, literacy leadership podcasts, and the fostering of an educator community sharing collective intelligence and a supportive learning environment.
In his remarks to a festive convocation of employees, members, and supporters at the 75th anniversary celebration at Learning Ally’s headquarters on Roszel Road, Friedman emphasized the theme of change. “One of the incredible assets of this organization is that we have embraced change,” he said, not just from vinyl recordings to tape to CD to digital, but change and expansion “have touched uncountable lives and brought hope and success to the educators and students we serve.”
Friedman also highlighted the accomplishments of leaders and volunteers, describing Learning Ally as “a volunteer-driven organization for its 75 years.”
Artwork for the 75th Anniversary of Learning Ally, by Justin Purvis.
“Understand that the impact you have is massive, by understanding how kids learn and making sure that they have access to the format that’s working for them,” he told the gathering. “That’s why we do what we do. That’s why we’ve been around for 75 years, and that’s why we’ll be around for 75 years more.”
Learning Ally, on its website, shared some success stories. “I was no longer confused or ostracized, because I began reading stories alongside my classmates,” said Jake Sporleder, a student in California. “My vocabulary developed with Learning Ally, and I began understanding the beauty of a well written story.”
New Jersey student Ylia Thumann described, “When I was introduced to Learning Ally, I had known about audiobooks for some time, but they never really clicked with me. But human-narrated audiobooks were different. With the Learning Ally app, I felt like I had control over how fast I was reading and when I was reading. If I wanted to follow along or just listen, I had the option. For me audiobooks are exactly the same thing as visual reading, except that it’s reading via the ears.”
Yukima Vannoy, secondary English language arts supervisor in the East Orange School District, noted the success of Learning Ally in her district. “The program has brought fun back into reading. Reading frequency has increased across the district. We are proud to be a Learning Ally school district.”
Learning Ally’s Vice President of Educator Initiatives Terrie Noland described the power and importance of Learning Ally’s mission. “At the intersection of art and words there is a colorful realm of visual storytelling that opens possibilities and the imagination to extraordinary worlds and endless narratives that bridge students to a vision of what they can contribute to the world,” she said.
Into the Future
Pondering what the next 75 years might bring for Learning Ally, Friedman emphasized the advantages in being able to offer all their services remotely. “In the past all volunteer readers had to be in a studio,” he said. “They had to come to us, which limited the number of people we could get.” All the volunteer readers now record remotely and many of the readers are professional voice actors, who volunteer their time and work from home. “There’s a wide swath of people who work with us,” he added.
Friedman emphasized the rapid development of technology and its ability to deliver interactive audio content. “I think it will continue to expand significantly,” he said. “If you think about the population, what’s not fully appreciated is that most kids until eighth grade can’t comprehend through reading to the level they can comprehend through listening.”
He continued, “Kids gain background knowledge and information in interactive conversation through their parents. We can replicate some of that. We can help build kids’ background knowledge if they don’t get it at home. We have huge opportunities here. It’s really exciting for us.”
Wedler, at Learning Ally’s 75th anniversary celebration, offered some advice to the visually impaired or anyone else who might be having difficulty reading. “Find a way that you can have access to the amazing world of the written word,” he said, “because there’s so much to learn out there. Don’t worry if you can’t read it yourself. Whatever works for you, whether it’s listening to it with Learning Ally audiobooks, magnifying texts, reading braille — whatever it is, get yourself access to the written word.”