Special thanks to Robert Lewis, Executive Director of Maryland’s Radio Reading Network, for sharing his story.
Listening to Robert Lewis’ voice, you hear a smooth, deep passion for music, humanity, and reading, especially with Bookshare. Mr. Lewis is the Executive Director of Maryland’s Radio Reading Network, a nonprofit hosted by the Maryland School for the Blind, his alma mater.
His radio program, Vision Through Voices, provides a human touch of stories that are of interest to everyone, not just the blind community. Daily, more than two thousand listeners tune in to his broadcast to hear news from publications like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and much more.
“I’ve always been fascinated by what I heard on the radio,” said Lewis. “Information is empowering. Growing up in the heart of Baltimore’s inner city was an interesting place for a young black child who was blind. I never wanted to be just average or a blind person, but that was my fate.”
Blindness Didn’t Hold Him Back
As a child, Lewis would often sneak the family radio into his bedroom to listen to music and talk shows. “If I didn’t have a person to read to me, I was out of luck to learn things that piqued my curiosity,” he said. “I read braille, but back in those days, it took a lot of time and effort.” Thankfully, he had a brother who looked out for him as well as an incredible school in Maryland that specializes in educating blind children.
Now, at the age of sixty-three, Lewis has broadcasted the news to a faithful audience for more than twenty-five years. “It may not sound like the truth, but I’m thankful I’m blind,” he says. “Blindness probably saved my life because my neighborhood was rough. At times, it was filled with gangs and discrimination against people of color and people with disabilities. Blindness forced me to rise above these barriers and understand that when something is taken away from you, you try to give back in other ways.”
Blindness never stopped him from pursuing his talents and dreams. “It helped me to tap into my soulfulness and my senses to develop a deep passion for music, particularly percussion instruments, and also a love of reading,” he said. Lewis honed his musical skills early in life and learned to play the drums. He played with local musicians and national bands – even with Stevie Wonder. “When you are blind, your sense of hearing and your sense of feeling work together. I could get into the groove with other musicians pretty quickly.”
Bookshare Offers Accessible Reading Advantages
Five years ago, Lewis became an adult member of Bookshare. He says, “The online library helps me read anything I want. Reading ebooks with my preferred technology devices — the iPad and Victor Reader Stream – opened many doors for me because reading is infectious. Once you know how many titles (over 495,000) are in the Bookshare collection, the world is vast and reading enjoyment just takes over. I search for one book and always know what I’m reading next. I have a long list.”
Lewis is grateful for the funding from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education that enables Bookshare to be free for U.S. students with print disabilities. “These grants enable students of any age in U.S. schools who are blind or have low vision to become a Bookshare member for free.” He goes on to say, “Just the fact that you can explore thousands of titles is amazing! Blind people could not do that before. Reading was very selective. Bookshare members have access to unlimited downloads, and there are no time limits or book returns. It’s easy to find old books and new titles for all ages and interests.”
Some of Lewis’ favorite stories are about musicians from the 60s and 70s and their legacies such as Ray Charles and Carole King. “Music and reading are important to the soul,” says Lewis. “Life is a big challenge and you’ve got to keep pushing the limits! Bookshare has unleashed information that can help blind people read and learn like sighted people. Accessible ebooks increase opportunities for individuals with disabilities to learn how to become professors, authors, musicians, and even a radio host – any career you can imagine!”
When asked about people he admires in addition to his great love of musicians, Lewis mentions Oprah Winfrey, who lived and worked in Baltimore as a young reporter. “I hope I have had an impact on people, just as she has,” he says. “Oprah has an awesome voice and a heart of gold — maybe we can get her to talk to our audience on the radio one day.”
Interested listeners can view weekly program schedules and apply for a special radio receiver on the Radio Reading Network’s website.
To become a member of Bookshare, visit www.bookshare.org.