Voluntary voices needed

Thursday 27 January 2005

A new initiative at the University of St Andrews to create innovative ‘talking books’ for blind students is appealing to the local community for volunteers.

The hi-tech initiative is being led by new member of staff Paresh Raval, who is aiming to create invaluable ‘books’ for students who need a helping hand. Amongst those classed as ‘print disabled’ are the blind, partially sighted, dyslexics, sufferers of ME and those suffering from short or long- term injury rendering them print disabled.

The development will provide such students with vital course material in ‘alternative formats’ such as digital ‘talking books’ in a variety of formats, large-print, electronic text or Braille. The ‘talking books’ are far- removed from the usual audio tapes – with a number of enhanced options which provide invaluable benefit to the reader. The initiative desperately needs volunteers, young or old, male or female, to ‘lend their voice’ to the project.

Paresh said: “It can take up to one month to create just one talking book, which is why it is vital for us to have a bank of volunteers we can call upon. We urgently need people to help us with the whole process. We need help to scan books, make voice recordings and proof-listen to recordings as they are made, so that we can do our best to meet the needs of individual students at St Andrews.

“Print-disabled students have every right to accurate reading material in formats more suitable to them, and it is my aim to not just provide this, but to ensure that the material is the best quality it can be. We are creating a new standard at St Andrews and that standard is high.”

Paresh started last November and has almost completed the transformation of the Crawford Cottage (within the grounds of the Crawford Arts Centre) into a state- of-the-art recording centre. Paresh is the University’s ‘Alternative Format Suite’ Manager. The AFS will provide a base for Paresh and a studio where volunteers can make recordings and scan material. Each recording will be made upon request by individual students and can be provided on CD, tape or mp3 format, depending on the student’s personal preference.

One copy will be given to the student for as long as they need it, after which it will be retained and made available by the University, meaning that the process will only have to be done once per book.

Another will be donated to the RNIB (Royal National Institute of the Blind), meaning that potentially the books will be used by anyone anywhere in the World.

“When you put your voice to one of our talking books,” Paresh explained, “you can really have no idea who will end up listening to it. What you can be sure of, is no matter where in the world the listener is, whether in St. Andrews or the other side of the world, the benefits to them are immeasurable.”

The Alternative Format Suite houses two soundproof booths as well as a room in which books can be converted into Braille. Up to six volunteers can work at a time and each session should last at least an hour. A ‘Buddy’ system will be in place so that ‘live checking’ or ‘proof-listening’ can be done at the same time as voice recording to ensure that each sentence is accurate. Two other volunteers can scan and proof-read their work. Paresh will provide initial and ongoing training for all volunteers and prior experience is not essential.

Paresh worked for Oxford University, who developed the first ‘talking books’, before joining St Andrews. Paresh started in Oxford as a volunteer and went on to become the Centre Manager.

The production of a talking book can be broken down into small steps: the first step is to scan the book then proof-read the text – this can take a long time and accuracy is important; especially as the conversion using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) is not 100% accurate. The final step is recording the text, with a “Buddy¿ listening out for mistakes. Accuracy and attention to detail is vital.

“Mistakes will happen as we are all human – but to accept you have made a mistake and correcting it when you are told to do so requires humility and common sense,” Paresh explained.

A scanned book can be manipulated in many ways according to the user’s needs. Large print can be produced on screen or read out using voice synthesiser. Alternatively, it can be printed off (on different coloured paper if required); emailed or sent to specialist software known as Text- to-Speech (TTS) that can read and record it using an electronic voice.

Specialist software is used to build navigation into the talking book so that the user can access any part of the book in the same way you can access any track on a music CD.

The software incorporates the DAISY (Digital Accessible Information SYstem) standard, a digital experience which has transformed the reading experiences of print-disabled readers all over the World. One advantage is that readers can skip chapters or search for a particular section, something typical audio books cannot provide.

Paresh is looking for volunteers. If you can spare at least one hour (though more time would be appreciated) per week – please contact Paresh on pr19@st- andrews.ac.uk, Tel: 01334 461167

Further information on RNIB can be found at www.rnib.org.uk Further information on DAISY can be found at www.daisy.org


Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st- andrews.ac.uk Ref: Voluntary Voices 260105.doc View the latest University press releases at http://www.st- andrews.ac.uk

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