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Talking Books and Reading Disabilities

Web version revised September 19, 2012.
Original document posted 2010.


The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, administers a free national library program for visually and physically handicapped persons who cannot use normal print library material. Under a special exemption of the U.S. copyright law and with the cooperation of authors and publishers who grant permission to use noncovered copyrighted works without royalty, NLS selects and produces full-length books and magazines on recorded disc and cassette and in braille. Reading materials are distributed to a network of cooperating regional and subregional libraries where they are circulated to eligible borrowers. Special playback equipment is needed to listen to books and magazines on cassette and disc because they are recorded to play at speeds of 15/16 ips for cassettes and 8-1/3 rpm for discs, which are slower than standard speeds. Reading materials and machines are sent to borrowers and returned to libraries by postage-free mail. The book collections consist of recreational and general informational reading for adults and children at all reading levels. Books are selected on the basis of their appeal to a wide range of interests and include bestsellers, biographies, and general fiction and nonfiction.

The NLS collections are recorded for visually or physically handicapped adults and children, those who are physically handicapped to such a degree that their impairment makes it difficult or impossible for them to hold a book, turn the pages, or read standard print. Each book is narrated without background music or special sound effects. The materials at any given reading level are not geared to children or adults with short attention spans or to those who need high-interest, low-vocabulary books. Textbooks and curriculum-oriented and remedial reading materials are not included in the NLS book collections.

Public Law 89-522

The NLS program was established by an act of Congress in 1931 to serve blind adults. The program was expanded in 1952 to include blind children and in 1966 by Public Law 89-522 to include individuals with physical impairments that prevent the reading of regular or standard print.

Eligibility of Persons with Reading Disabilities

Public Law 89-522 states that materials will be loaned to readers "certified by competent authority as unable to read normal printed material as a result of physical limitations, under regulations prescribed by the Librarian of Congress for this service." The current federal regulation for this program is set forth in the Federal Register for June 7, 1974, as amended October 2, 1981. Individuals with reading disabilities are not expressly covered by this statute. Under Public Law 89-522, only persons whose reading disabilities are physically based are eligible for the NLS talking-book program. Furthermore, the reading disability must be certified by competent authority, described below, as having a physical basis before an applicant is considered for the talking-book program. An individual whose reading disability does not have a physical origin is not eligible.

Applications for service from individuals claiming a reading disability based on a physical handicap must establish the following facts:

The following groups of individuals are not automatically eligible: those who have learning disabilities, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, chronic-fatigue syndrome, autism, functional illiteracy, or mental retardation, unless there is a specific accompanying visual or physical handicap.

Competent Authority

For most eligible people served by this program, the cause of the inability to read printed material-such as blindness, paralysis, loss of arms or hands, extreme weakness, or palsy-is readily observable. In these cases, professionals in various fields related to health care, education, or rehabilitation are acceptable as certifying authorities. With persons classified as reading disabled, usually only the effect is readily apparent. The cause, when physical, lies within the central nervous system, and, under the existing regulation, this cause can be determined only by competent medical authority.

The signature of a doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathy is required by federal regulation on the application to certify not only that a reading disability exists and is serious enough to prevent reading regular printed material in a normal manner, but also that the identified condition has a physical basis. Nonorganic factors-such as emotional or environmental causes, intellectual or educational deficiencies, or other possible nonorganic or nonphysical causes-must be ruled out and cannot be taken into consideration. When certifying applications for service for persons with reading disabilities, certifying medical authorities are encouraged to consult with colleagues in associated disciplines.

Application Procedure

A standard application form and additional information about this free library service may be obtained from any regional or subregional library for the blind and physically handicapped. Individuals may also write to the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20542 or e-mail nls@loc.gov to request an application form and the addresses of cooperating libraries. The completed application, signed by a doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathy in the case of a reading disability, should be submitted to the cooperating library serving the applicant's geographic area.

Learning Ally (formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) Program

Learning Ally (formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic [RFB&D]) is a private organization that lends recorded textbooks and other educational materials to people who cannot read standard print because of visual, perceptual, or other physical disability. There is a registration fee and an annual membership fee for Learning Ally service. Learning Ally does not lend playback equipment to its patrons. Information about the Learning Ally program its eligibility requirements, and applications for service are available from: Learning Ally, 20 Roszel Road, Princeton, NJ 08540, (609) 452-0606, 800-221-4792, (609) 987-8116 fax, http://www.learningally.org.

Some individuals with learning disabilities who are already receiving service from Learning Ally apply for the NLS talking-book program to obtain playback equipment. They expect that the Learning Ally membership will guarantee eligibility for service from NLS. However, Learning Ally has its own eligibility criteria for persons with specific learning disabilities; these criteria differ from the NLS requirements. Learning Ally has more flexibility in its policies because it is a private, nonprofit organization; NLS, however, can provide service only to those who meet the federal statutory requirements.

NLS cooperating network libraries can lend playback equipment to individuals who: (1) meet the eligibility requirements of the NLS program, which include providing a detailed application, certified as required by NLS regulations described above; and (2) will actively borrow and use NLS reading materials. The playback equipment provided by NLS is intended for use with the general-interest reading materials NLS provides; it is not assigned to patrons to meet academic needs. Such needs should be discussed with local educational authorities. Individuals receiving Learning Ally books who are not eligible for loan of NLS equipment must obtain their own playback equipment. Suitable equipment for Learning Ally books is available for purchase from a number of sources, including Learning Ally. Contact the NLS Reference Section for information about such sources and about other resources available for individuals with reading disabilities. (Reference Section, NLS/BPH, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20542, (202) 707-9275, (202) 707-0712 fax).


To fulfill the NLS statutory obligations, assure the continuity of this program, observe the copyright law and the agreements that furnish NLS with cost-free copyright permission, and protect the "free matter for the blind and handicapped" mailing privileges, NLS must ensure conformance with the regulations governing this program. If you have any questions about the eligibility and certification of those with reading or learning disabilities, please refer them to:

Chief, Network Division
National Library Service
for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20542

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Posted on 2012-09-21