For Martin Bender of Commack, L.I., legally blind from diabetes for the past 15 years, books on tape have been a "life saver."
"For a year and a half I was stuck in bed with a bone infection," said Bender, 65. "I have a TV but I don’t see colors, only shadows, so TV is a waste. I spent 16 hours a day listening to the tapes. I would have gone crazy without them."
The tapes, as well as large-print books and books in Braille, are available from the Jewish Braille Institute of America.
Of the estimated 250,000 visually impaired Jews in the United States, only about 6,000 use its service.
Ellen Isler, JBI’s executive vice president, is out to change that through a major outreach effort.
"I expect the number [of users] to double within the next two years, maybe less," Isler said. "We’ve added close to 1,000 users in the last four years" through a limited outreach campaign.
For instance, in the last 18 months JBI has heavily promoted its services to the Russian Jewish community here, including giving away a couple of hundred large print Russian-Hebrew Haggadahs. This effort alone increased JBI’s book circulation by 20 percent.
It also offered free, large-print English-Hebrew Haggadahs and had so many requests that it ran out and had to make photocopies to fill the demand.
"We got 400 new members [from that effort]," said Isler.
And in an upcoming issue of Hadassah magazine, an article about JBI services is expected to raise awareness of the organization even more. The magazine reaches 300,000 women. Although women are no more likely than men to experience age-related diseases that impair vision, their longer life expectancy increases the chance.
Studies show that 35 percent of people above the age of 60 will experience vision loss because of macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma or diabetes. And the number of people with visual impairment is expected to double in the next 25 years as baby boomers age, JBI reports.
Founded 70 years ago, JBIís emphasis during its first 60 years was on the blind. It began by producing books of Jewish interest in Braille and 42 years ago introduced books on tape. But as the number of people living into their 70s and 80s increases, along with the number of age-related, vision-impairing diseases, JBI’s focus has broadened to include the visually impaired.
"We are looking to partner with organizations across the United States that can help us bring information about our services," said Israel Taub, associate director of JBI.
As part of that effort, JBI received a three-year grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation to mount a pilot outreach program on Long Island to visually impaired Jews aged 60 and older.
"We want to saturate the community in an effort to reach not only the senior population but their adult children and family members for future referral," said Nancy Tuck, JBI’s coordinator in Commack.
JBI opened an office at the Suffolk Y JCC that will concentrate primarily on Suffolk County but also reach out to Nassau, if possible.
In the past two years, JBI had established 80 books- and magazines-on-tape libraries at JCCs, Y’s, and assisted living and senior residential facilities in New York City, Westchester and Long Island. The libraries were set up in the institutions’ existing libraries.
Among the magazines on tape are articles from Commentary, Tikkun, Moment, Shíma and the Jerusalem Report. The JBI Voice is also available and features timely articles of Jewish interest from various periodicals, including The Jewish Week.
But Tuck said JBI found this was "too passive an approach" and thus decided on opening a Long Island office.
"People often confuse us with the Jewish Guild for the Blind," Tuck said. "They are a social service agency, we are an educational and cultural service."
The books and magazines on tape are specially formatted and played in a unique cassette player that is available free from the Library of Congress, which maintains regional offices on Long Island in Bellport and Uniondale. Those offices have libraries of large-print and Braille books, as well as books on tape that are of a general interest.
To qualify to use the service, a person must present a note from a doctor, social worker or librarian certifying that the individual is unable to read standard print due to visual impairment or is unable to physically hold a book. All books and books on tape are mailed in special cases, postage-free.
JBI’s books and magazines on tape are recorded at its studio in Manhattan by volunteers, many of whom are actors and actresses, according to Pearl Lam, director of library operations.
Lam said JBIís circulating library includes about 1,000 large-print titles, 8,000 audiotapes and 8,000 books in Braille. There is also a special publications library featuring mostly religious publications that are gifts to clients. They include large-print copies of the Five Books of Moses, the haftarahs, the Book of Psalms, Yizkor memorial prayers, grace after meals, and a conversational Hebrew course. Most of these items are also in audio form.
Lam noted that JBI also makes large-print, audio or Braille textbooks for those requiring the book as part of a course of study, as long as it is of a Jewish nature.
Bender said he is fond of listening to biographies of Jews who immigrated to the United States in the early 1920s, as well as cookbooks.
"I can’t write down the recipe, but I remember it," he said. "It works out. You adjust."
For information about JBI,
call (800) 433-1531.