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January 2021 Issue
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Listening to the outdoors

Bruce Hopkins narrates content, including Wilderness, for members of the Blind Low Vision New Zealand library. Photo: Alistair Hall

An incredible service ensures blind and low vision New Zealanders can access the outdoors in all its forms.

It’s the most amazing publishing service you’ve never heard of.

Each month, Blind Low Vision New Zealand narrates hundreds of pages of written content, loads it all to CD and posts it to its more than 12,000 members – all of whom have impaired vision.

Each CD includes hours of content – everything from the latest crime thriller to non-fiction books, lecture material, exams, magazines and even company annual reports – that is unique to the reading tastes of each member. It’s a colossal undertaking and for the recipients of the narrated material it provides a crucial connection to, and participation in, society that they would otherwise miss out on.

“They're depending on this information; it's not just a recreational read,” says Joe Gilfillan who oversees the BLVNZ library and coordinates the narration of all the content. “For our members, the only way they can get access to printed material is if it has been narrated for them.”

If just one member requests a title, no matter how obscure, Gilfillan endeavours to get it narrated at the BLVNZ Henderson studio.

Wilderness is one of the titles members have requested. You may wonder, as I did, what value there is in listening to a narrated outdoor magazine if you cannot see the images or walk the tracks but Gilfillan quickly pushes back.

“Why do people read Wilderness? Is it different for someone who can’t see that well? If a blind person has someone with them, they can go tramping. There are blind swimmers, there are blind runners, there are blind trampers. Just because people’s eyes don’t work doesn’t mean the rest of them is munted and that’s one of the very early learnings when you come and work here: it’s only the eyes. The mind is as sharp as anyone else’s.”

BLVNZ organises tramping trips for members and Gilfillan says a sight-impaired person can gain as much from a hike as a sighted person – perhaps more.

“It’s a mistake to think that blindness is an impediment to anything other than seeing things. I know when we've been on a walk through the wilderness and we've reached the highest peak and you can see this wonderful vista around you, it does something for the soul and it lifts the spirit. Well, a blind person can stand on that hill and they would feel the breeze, they would feel the ambience, they would hear the noise or the change in noise and hear the birds, they will probably be paying attention to sounds that you and I would not even register. And if they have a decent support person with them, that person can describe what they are seeing.”

Bruce Hopkins is one of around 25 BLVNZ narrators. He spends three hours a week in one of the foundation’s recording booths and is currently reading Darryl Brougham’s biography Through the Eyes of a Foster Child. “He’s amazing, but, oh my god, what they suffered; it’s so harrowing,” Hopkins says of the book.

Like many of the other narrators, Hopkins is an actor who found the work provided him with a steady income and the flexibility to earn between acting gigs. He’s on a sound financial footing nowadays but still enjoys working for BLVNZ. “I call it my soul food, it's my sanity package.”

He often narrates Wilderness and draws on his experience of walking the Te Araroa Trail to convey the dramatic scenery or trials and tribulations described in the articles.

“You get a sense, if you’re blind and listening to this, of what it’s like,” he says. “If the story is about a tramp and they’re on a mountainside and getting hammered by the wind and rain, I try to get across the feeling that this is exhausting and tiring and you’re over it. When it’s something glorious like the sunset or sunrise, I lift that in my voice as well.”

The only part of a magazine that isn’t narrated, is the advertising. “We’re very good at spotting advertorial, no matter how cleverly it’s disguised,” Gilfillan says.

The BLVNZ library holds more than 35,000 titles, including nearly every issue of Wilderness and dozens more from other outdoor titles. Gilfillan is in the process of moving distribution of the content to digital platforms like Amazon’s Alexa, where library members can use voice commands to request their desired content.