OLOS Columns ALA's Office for Literacy and Outreach Services

9May/11Off

Older Adults and Readers’ Advisory

The following article is reprinted by permission of the author, Alicia Ahlvers, and the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), publishers of Reference and User Services Quarterly.  The article originally appeared in Reference & User Services Quarterly, Volume 45 No. 4, pp 305-12, Summer 2006.

Libraries across the country are experiencing an increase in use of their facilities and services by senior citizens. A search of the literature turns up numerous articles and books on working with seniors in the library. From computer classes to film series to programs on health, finance, and long-term care, libraries are looking at ways to reach out to an older population and provide them with the information and resources that they need.

The demand for services and resources for seniors is also being felt in the readers' advisory world. In this issue, Alicia Ahlvers examines some of the generational trends of which readers' advisors should be aware when working with seniors. She then explores ways that readers' advisors can shape encounters with senior readers based on this knowledge. Ahlvers considers some of the challenges of working with seniors--in particular, challenges associated with physical limitations of the reader. She then discusses opportunities for librarians to overcome these barriers, and to provide seniors with a satisfying readers' advisory encounter that will keep them coming back to the library for further suggestions.

Ahlvers serves as the senior services librarian for the Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library. She coordinates the delivery of services and programs to older adults. These include delivery of materials to homebound patrons, providing materials in large print and audio format, providing adaptive technology for users with disabilities, and, of course, providing readers' advisory services.—Editor

Working with older adults can be one of the most rewarding customer interactions in the library. Apart from the preschool crowd, no other group is as openly appreciative when they receive the help they need. The elder group also is most likely to form long-term attachments to a favorite librarian or staff person. Throughout the years, working both in branch settings and with the homebound population, I have received everything from home-baked cookies to hand-knit scarves to express their fondness and gratitude. They are also quite likely to point out how young I am on a satisfyingly regular basis. This is in direct contrast to my years as a children's librarian, when I was often asked on school visits how old I was. When I would tell the students that I was the advanced age of thirty-five, I would often hear something along the lines of "Wow, you are even older than my mom."

One reason older adults are often so appreciative when receiving good or excellent customer service is that in today's fast-paced world, service staff often can be impatient with anyone who needs extra attention. Because seniors frequently need extra attention as a result of physical problems, this can be particularly disheartening for bright, aware older adults already mourning the loss of vision or hearing. It is important for librarians working with seniors to remember that becoming an older adult can be a challenging and stressful time. We all know people who embrace the changes that come with aging, but for many the loss of mobility and independence can be a frightening experience. Pipher notes that:

Many old people are living in a world designed for young people. They can't drive, walk through shopping malls or airports, or deal with rushed doctors in managed care systems. Many can't handle stairs, small-print books or menus in darkened restaurants. ... Some people live to be more than a hundred, but they often outlive their support systems, neighborhoods, and bank accounts. [1]

Older adults are also often cut off from their support systems. One of my customers is ninety-five, and all of her friends in town have passed away. Her daughter lives halfway across the country, and her granddaughter is in Africa. Her daughter calls once a week, but apart from health-care visits, she has very little contact with other people. The volunteer who delivers her library books to her each month is one of the few nonmedical visitors she sees. Try to keep in mind that some older adults crave human contact and may only get this contact from their library encounters. Look at this as a customer need and understand that you may have to spend more time working with older adults in order to help them find library materials. My position allows me to work with a customer for long periods of time on a fairly regular basis, and I have more time allotted to spend with each customer. This does allow for a depth of interaction that isn't always possible when working in a busy branch. However, a few extra minutes with a librarian may enrich a customer's life, not only by gathering information to provide well-thought-out readers' advisory, but also by giving the gift of time. After all, studies show that older adults thrive if they have at least three regular contacts with which to converse.

When working with older adults, it can be useful to know something about the different generations. The three distinct categories used to refer to older adults include the G.I. Generation, the Silent Generation, and the Baby Boomers, who are just now starting to retire (table 1).

The G.I. Generation

The G.I. Generation (GI) is older than the age of 85. This generation tends toward civic duty and fiscal responsibility, and they are big believers in agreement and conformity. As a group they believe in working together to achieve the best for everyone. They stay busy in retirement or don't retire at all and dislike people they perceive to be wimps or slackers. Because this group believes that the harder they work, the more they are rewarded, they often have a strong sense of entitlement.

These traits mean that a person from this generation is not afraid to speak his or her mind. This group will let you know in great detail if your book recommendation is on target. They often have strong feelings early on about a novel, and they are willing to tell you when a book has missed the mark. Luckily, they often have a strong gallant streak to temper their criticisms, and usually are willing to give you several chances to get it right. The GIs are particularly fond of sentimental stories and novels with characters from their generation. In addition, they often are guided by bestseller lists, newspaper recommendations, or any other books "everybody is reading" or should have read. Classic novels that they "should" read and recommendations by loved ones also fall into this category. Remember, conformity is a characteristic of this group.

The GIs have a rather black-and-white outlook, a strong patriotic viewpoint, and a deep interest in politics. If a novel reflects this world outlook, they usually like it. A strong dislike for profanity in novels is also an important consideration. One customer threatened to throw any books with profanity "straight into the trash." Either I have chosen well, or she hasn't made good on her threat because so far everything I have sent her has made it back in one piece. Christian mystery, romance, and fiction and cozy mystery large-print imprints are very useful when selecting for this type of customer--even when they are not interested in the Christian theme.

The most frequently requested authors for GIs at the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) are:
1. Maeve Binchy
2. Belva Plain
3. Rosamunde Pilcher
4. LaVyrle Spencer
5. Louis L'Amour
6. Zane Grey
7. Jan Karon
8. Jimmy Carter
9. Margaret Truman
10. Phyllis Whitney  [2]

The Silent Generation

The Silent Generation covers seniors aged approximately sixty-four to eighty-four. This generation believes in working hard and paying your dues. They like security and stability, dislike debt, believe in clean living, and are often quite reserved. The Silent Generation has a strong stoic streak and doesn't want to be a bother. This attitude can present problems when attempting to provide readers' advisory assistance. I repeatedly have to tell this group to let me know if they don't like a book I recommend. I like to point out that I didn't write it, and so my feelings won't be hurt if it isn't to their taste. I also have to repeatedly reassure the customers that bringing extra books isn't a bother, and they are not intruding on my time whenever they call.

In terms of readers' advisory, the Silent Generation is very willing to accept the advice and recommendations of experts. They will try books recommended by celebrities, newspapers, educators, and librarians, and they have a great deal of faith in the experts. For example, this group tends to trust their doctor to know best, and they usually will not ask for information about medical problems or try to research the topic on their own. This group also remains interested in connecting with the younger generations, and will be willing to stay open-minded to exploring work by new hot authors. On the other hand, they also like novels that show empowered older adults leading full and interesting lives. Authors Haywood Smith, Joan Medlicott, and Alexander McCall Smith are popular for this reason. Some individuals from this generation develop an interest in inspirational and spiritual matters, and will ask for authors that explore these issues in a broader context. Carolyn Myss, John Edward, and Sylvia Browne are current favorites.

The most frequently requested authors for the Silent Generation at KCPL are:
1. Barbara Taylor Bradford
2. Tim LaHaye
3. Robert B. Parker
4. Fern Michaels
5. James Patterson
6.JanetDailey
7. Sandra Brown
8. Patricia Cornwell
9. Catherine Coulter
10. Walter Mosley [3]

Baby Boomers

When the Baby Boomers start to retire, watch out. All of the traditional ideas about older adults will go out the window. The motto of this group could be "if you've got it, flaunt it," and the key characteristics may include a tendency to be talkative, bossy, inquisitive, and competitive. Boomers also see themselves as trend makers instead of trend followers. In contrast to the preceding generations, they do not take the idea of aging philosophically, and are more likely to resent intensely being referred to as senior citizens or elderly. This group is not afraid of debt and likes to spend money, so count on them having all of the latest gadgets and toys. Those who become homebound are more likely to be willing and able to use the online catalog to reserve or download books. Another reason that they will appreciate this technology is that they are used to having immediate service. They expect to have the book in their hand as soon as they ask for it. Downloadable books and audio-books likely will be very popular with this group.

The GIs and Silent Generations tend to prefer the mystery and romance genres, and few in these age groups will express interest in other genres. Boomers will use all of the traditional sources for obtaining book suggestions, with online book sites as popular selection tools. Fans of certain genres will seek out romance, mystery, or science fiction electronic discussion groups and will expect to walk into the library and find the newest titles waiting on the shelf. The Boomers will accept more sex, violence, and profanity, so interest in true crime and horror stories will increase. They will be much more particular about getting just the right book. They look for riveting tell-all books, fast-paced thrillers, and conspiracy mysteries--which helps explain why The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown became such a huge hit. While the Silent Generation will be likely 'to be patient with the trial-and-error process of readers' advisory, the Boomers will be much less willing to spend months working with you to fine-tune your recommendations. You will have only a few chances to get it right and then they will move on. On the other hand, they will be willing to try less well-known authors and "sell" them to their family and friends if they like them. And once you have sold them on the new library conveniences and earned their trust, they will become loyal library users.

The most frequently requested authors for Boomers at KCPL are:
1. Stephen King
2. Anne Rice
3. Nora Roberts
4. Dean Koontz
5. Suzanne Brockmann
6. Janet Evanovich
7. Terry McMillan
8. Jonathan Kellerman
9. David Baldacci
10. Richard North Patterson [4]

The following authors are extremely popular with all generations:
* Mary Higgins Clark
* Lilian Jackson Braun
* John Grisham
* Sue Grafton [5]

Pipher also talks about two additional categories that can have a profound effect on the different generations. She refers to these as the young-old and the old-old.[6] The major difference between the two groups is that the young-old are healthy and the old-old are not. The young-old are energetic, vibrant, and active. The old-old suffer loss of mobility, are often in pain, suffer increased hearing and vision loss, and do not have opportunities to interact with others, especially those outside of their age group. This group craves interaction with children and younger generations and values social interaction a great deal.

Trends

Another essential element to providing good readers' advisory service is awareness of the reading trends among senior readers. Not surprisingly, these tend to match up with the generational characteristics mentioned above. Bestsellers are popular with almost every generation. Books by John Grisham, Sue Grafton, Nora Roberts, and Jan Karon are requested daily, and customers are always checking to see if the latest is out and if their name has been added to the waiting list. Older adult customers still tend to request no profanity, nice characters, and lack of gory description as elements that appeal to them.

For this reason, cozy mysteries are in high demand. Authors such as Lilian Jackson Braun, Mary Higgins Clark, and Alexander McCall Smith are current favorites. In addition, the cozy animal mystery trend that started with Jackson Braun is still popular, although this seems to be on the downswing. For the same reasons that cozy mysteries are popular, Christian mysteries and romance are also in high demand. Customers report that these books are comforting reads, and they are reassured that there will not be any unpleasant or unwanted surprises while reading these novels. Romantic suspense and contemporary romance are on the upswing with the older adult crowd. These sub-genres are popular because as a result of their exciting plot lines. Some of these have some of the same elements as the cozy mysteries, but many can be quite explicit, so with this category it pays to know your authors. For example, Nora Roberts, the queen of romantic suspense, can be a little racy for some customers while others love her. Luckily, she writes enough to keep her fans well-supplied with new titles.

The lack of useful subject headings for romance and, to a lesser extent, mysteries, can make these genres difficult to search. Books aren't often assigned sensuality ratings or subgenre notes and these elements can be of vital importance to many readers. The readers' advisor can keep up in these areas by reading extensively in the romance and mystery genres, using reviews, participating in fan electronic discussion lists, and keeping an eye on the genre Web sites in order to assess the profanity level and sex scenes. A useful Web site for romance, www.likesbooks.com, includes "heat level" ratings from "kisses" to "burning." When not familiar with an author, it is useful to check the reviews in order to see how their books are typically ranked.

The Readers' Advisory Interview

Because customers usually sign up for the Home Bound Book program at the Kansas City Public Library by mailing in a questionnaire, my first step is to note their reading preferences. The customer then receives a follow-up phone call to obtain more detailed information. The same process applies to the face-to-face interview: The first step is to ask customers what types of materials they prefer.

If they are primarily interested in nonfiction, especially if they have specialized interests, the level of subject detail in the MARC records makes titles fairly easy to locate. There are also customers who already have lists of authors and titles of books that they are interested in, who will come to the library and request them as needed. Encourage these customers to reserve books ahead of time to ensure that the requested volumes are available when they come to the library to visit, especially if browsing the shelves is difficult for them. If they have Internet access from their home, teach them how to reserve titles using your online catalog. If they don't have access to the Internet, another option is to send them home with vendor catalogs. Please make sure it is a company your library actually uses to order materials. The customer can browse the catalog, call in an order and have it ready to go when they get to the branch. If print size in the catalog is an issue, see if your state library or other agencies in your community have small magnifying glasses available that they give away as promotional material.

My most challenging customers are the ones who would like me to select their ten large-print mysteries or twenty spoken-word romances a month. This is also my favorite type of interaction because it gives me a chance to practice my readers' advisory skills. Of course, my first question is, "What kinds of books do you like to read?" Some have detailed information about types of books, specific authors, and favorite titles or subjects. Others have not given this question much thought and can only hint at broad outlines of their preferences. In these cases, I will often ask what type of television programs they prefer, what hobbies they have, and what current events have they found interesting lately. With these questions, the customer and I can come up with one or two genres or a couple of subjects. Since those of us in the readers' advisory game know how many different subgenres exist, this information can serve as a jumping-off point to gather information in the readers' advisory interview. Keep in mind that sometimes these genre requests are deceptive. One customer routinely asked for paperback romance set in the South or West. After working with her for a while, it became clear that what she really wanted was Westerns.

Try to keep the trends and characteristics of each generation in the back of your mind, but always remember to treat every older adult as an individual. When asked what she liked to read about, ninety-three year-old Sadie stated that she wanted to read about "sex, sex, sex," to the surprise and delight of a colleague. While it is important to be aware of the generational trends discussed above, it is equally important to remember that each individual has a type of book that speaks to them in a personal way. Books about ladies living in small towns may be a current trend, but don't jump in with a suggestion too quickly. Wait until you have conducted the full readers' advisory interview before suggesting titles.

Another challenge to working with older readers may occur when a middle-aged adult comes in to pick out books for their parent. A daughter may have an image of what she thinks her sweet, eighty-year-old mother should be reading, but at the same time have no idea of what books actually bring her mother joy. In these situations, it may be useful to call the parent or have them call you to give more information about their reading tastes. This could be a problem if there are hearing problems, in which case a questionnaire can be sent home asking for more detailed information.

It is important in readers' advisory interactions with older customers to note a hearing or vision disability because recommending a list of books and then not being able to find them in the necessary format is frustrating for both you and your customer. After taking a reader's personal information, an important question to ask is their preferred reading format. I also have customers rank their format choices. Luckily, in today's world there are a variety of format options from which to choose. Many publishers often offer simultaneous releases of bestsellers in all formats as a selling point.

Multiple formats suited to older adults or anyone with a physical disability are available in today's library market. These include large-print books (sixteen-point print is the standard) in hardcover and paperback, books on tape, books on compact discs, MP3s on compact discs, downloadable books, and spoken-word books. Tomorrow there will options we haven't even dreamed of yet.

Many older adults can still read regular print but to others it can become a difficult process. Large-print books are a great option for anyone experiencing loss of vision. Imagine trying to read an entire novel with very small type. It would be frustrating and tiring and would become a task rather than a pleasure.

There are several mainstream publishers that deal with large print and each has its own specialty and mission. Thorndike Press, a Gale subsidiary, boasts that it is the world's leading publisher of large-print books. Thorndike has purchased many other large print imprints, such as Wheeler, which was known for its Westerns. Thorndike uses current trends to offer a wide variety of standing order plans of interest to the older adult. Both HarperCollins and Random House have large print lines and primarily publish bestsellers in fiction and non-fiction. The HarperCollins Web site mentions that their target market is the one in six Americans older than the age of forty-five who have difficulty reading small type. Ulverscroft, Isis, and Magna have been publishing large-print books since the 1960s. They publish primarily British authors and have extensive Western lines. They also publish a line of smaller, paperback large-print books.

Another relatively new publisher, The Large Print Company (www.largeprintbookco.com), is currently concentrating on growing their line of perennial classic titles in softcover large print editions. According to its Web site, they also select additional titles using library review journals and fan media, including Web site and fan reviews posted on the Internet. The goal of Center Point Premier, another large print company, is to target the Baby Boomer with books that will "thrill as well as enchant the senior patrons."[7]

Downloadable books are predicted to become the wave of the future for those needing large print but we aren't there yet. Access in the downloadable spoken word books may cause problems. Many older adults live on fixed incomes and may not be able to afford the latest technology, while others may be unwilling to learn or fearful about technology. However, older adults are beginning to jump on the technology bandwagon as they discover the joy of e-mailing their grandchildren. Limited selection, lack of superior quality readers at an affordable price, and technology fear make this format difficult to recommend at the present time but look out once the baby boomers start to retire.

Spoken-word cassettes and CDs present a similar problem with availability although this format is also striving for improvement with regard to title selection and simultaneous release dates. In addition to availability issues, spoken-word books have other issues that are frequently mentioned by listeners with hearing loss, such as the narrator reading too fast, the narrator's accent making hearing each word difficult, and higher-pitched or softer-spoken voices being hard to hear. It is worth your time if you have a large population of older adults visiting your library to research the different narrators to find those who have slow, clear diction. Of course, they must also be lively and interesting narrators. Audible.com has ReadAudio samples that you can use to get an idea of the different narrator styles. Barbara Rosenblatt and Jim Dale are two current customer favorites.

Another option for small libraries with very limited selection or for customers who are not particularly mobile is to refer them to your state library Talking Books program. Although the quality of the recordings is not comparable to those produced by publishing houses, this program features more variety. In addition, the special player, the four-track cassettes, and the postage are free to eligible candidates. These programs are available to anyone who is visually impaired or physically unable to hold and read a book. Applications can be obtained through your state library and kept on hand for customers.

In addition to vision problems, another consideration with older readers is the customer with arthritis or loss of physical strength. This customer may have trouble holding or carrying hardback and other heavy books. Some older customers have difficulty holding books for long periods of time and you may have to look to the very limited supply of paperback versions of large print title. In a best-case scenario, they will not have vision problems and can be supplied with an endless supply of paperbacks. In more extreme cases it may be necessary to try to help them adapt to using the spoken-word format.

Once genre preferences have been established, ask your customers to talk about a recent book they have read. This step can give a lot of information about the style of book that a customer wants, although you may find that some customers have difficulty verbalizing or even describing the book. If this is the case, ask them if they like fast-paced books with lots of plot twists or a descriptive story about relationships. This will usually give them a starting place to use to describe the book in more detail. Sometimes you may have to read or skim the book being described to figure out what different references mean. One customer loves John Grisham's books and during an initial interview said how much she loves the level of detail in his books. After further discussion it became clear that she didn't mean that she likes lots of descriptive scenes with plenty of detail, but that she likes the same amount of detail that John Grisham uses in his novels. Going back and rereading one of her favorites while paying particular attention to Grisham's descriptive details helped me recommend other authors to her.

Once enough information has been gathered, recommendations can be made, but this is not the end of the interaction. It is important to stress to your customer that this is just a starting point and that having her provide honest feedback will help you make even better recommendations in the future. This is particularly important with the Silent Generation, who will not want to criticize your recommendations or take up your time. Also, if you find that your interactions with a customer are frequently rushed or interrupted, it can be helpful to let customers know times when they can call or find you at the service desk, or when the library is less busy. In this way, readers' advisory interviews can be unhurried and productive and customers won't feel pressured or guilty at taking up your time.

Overcoming Barriers

Physical disabilities, lack of reliable transportation, and different world views or perspectives can all create barriers to a successful readers' advisory interview. Librarians need to be particularly sensitive to any customer who has a hearing or vision loss. Because older adults often have these problems, it is important to look for warning signs. When suggesting titles, ask how often they are able to come to the library. Also ask how many books will last them until their next library visit. Sometimes older adults won't get a desired number of books because they can't carry the books to their car or other transportation. This may also be a reason for them to stick with tried-and-true authors so that they can count on having something to read before the next library visit. If you have the time or another staff person is available, you may want to offer to carry their books to the car.

If your senior readers are depending on rides from family members, friends, or senior care providers, they may also be anxious about incurring overdue charges or having their library card taken away. Let them know about library policies on telephone renewal options and overdue fines. Also, point out any special services you offer, such as home delivery service or books-by-mail. If your library does not currently offer these services, you may wish to consider adding them. If these are not options, you may be able to offer extended checkout or to create special library cards that have extended checkout or a no-fine feature. Vision problems may make it difficult to know when the books are due. Be sure to offer to use large print to stamp the book or print out their receipt and have large-print versions of booklists or other promotional material on hand.

If you are interested in adding a books-by-mail program to your service plan, your library can create a fairly simple and inexpensive program. A Friends group is a good resource for providing funding to purchase canvas mailers to use. There are also grant opportunities available to fund these types of programs and getting durable mailers can be obtained for very little money. If that is not an option, manila envelopes are a low cost alternative, although they are not as sturdy as the canvas mailers. Postage is usually the biggest expense to think about when establishing a books-by-mail program. Under the U.S. Code, title 39, sections 3403-3405, libraries may be able to mail items to qualifying recipients free of charge. There are very clear rules and regulations as to what customers may be eligible, how mailing labels should be worded, and the type of materials that can be included. This option can be used when mailing large-print or spoken-word materials to visually impaired persons of any age. In addition, most libraries also use an application for the service (with a doctor's signature) to weed out those not qualified and to keep on file to verify that a customer is visually disabled in case questions arise. For more information, see the appendix.[8]

All of these suggestions are designed to make the readers' advisory experience more pleasurable for you and the older reader. Every community is unique and has its own set of challenges, so take a look at your older adult users and see how close they match up to generational characteristics. Then tailor these ideas to fit your community. Above all, enjoy your older adults. They will reward you with their enthusiasm, loyalty, and gratitude. Who knows, you may even make a new friend with stories to tell and knowledge to share.

My supervisor often jokes that she wants me to have the programs possible for older adults since someday she will need to have this help from the library. It is up to all of us to look for ways to make our libraries places where all of our generations can feel welcome and will find the help they need to entertain, educate, and inform them. After all, as Pipher so aptly puts it:

In a few decades, our solutions to the dilemmas of caring for our elders will be applied to our own lives. The kindness, the indifference, the ignorance, and the wisdom will be passed on. The more we love and respect our elders, the more we teach our children to love and respect us.[9]

Table 1 Generational Profiles

Generation                  Other Names             Approximate              Characteristics
Birth Range

G.I.                                 Builders, Hero Gen   1900-22                       Gallantry

Silent                             --                                       1923-42                       Reserved, stoic, clean-living, gentlemanly

Boomers                      Baby Boomers           1943-63                         Talkative, bossy, inquisitive, stylish,
competitive

Xers                               13ers, Busters,           1963-82                         Pragmatic, individualistic, arrogant, risk-taking

Nexters,

Lost Generation

Millennial                  NetGen, Gen Y,            1983-2000                    Tolerant, caring, honest, balanced, independent, optimistic, cleancut

Next Generation

Gen Z                                                                       2000-(?)2020               Undetermined

Adapted from TomorrowToday, The Generations Model: The Theory Explained, "Generational Profiles." Accessed January 4, 2006, www.tmtd.biz/articles/generations/training-the-generations.

References and Notes
1. Mary Pipher, Another Country (New York: Riverhead Books 1999), 5.
2. This information is taken from the Home Bound Book customer database histories at the Kansas City Public Library, as of May 4, 2005.
3. This information is taken from the Home Bound Book customer database histories at the Kansas City Public Library, as of May 4, 2005.
4. This information is taken from the Home Bound Book customer database histories at the Kansas City Public Library, as of May 4, 2005.
5. This information is taken from the Home Bound Book customer database histories at the Kansas City Public Library, as of May 4, 2005.
6. Pipher, Another Country.
7. Center Point 2005 Fall Catalog. Accessed Jan. 5, 2006, www.centerpointlargeprint.com.
8. Adapted from the Domestic Mail Manual, United States Postal Service, "Free Matter for Blind and Other Physically Handicapped Persons." Accessed January 5, 2006, http://pe.usps.gov/cplm/ftp/manuals/dmm_old/E040.pdf.
9. Pipher, Another Country, 17.

Appendix

Relevant sections of the code for free matter for the visually impaired are included below. To see the code in its entirety go to http://pe.usps.gov/cpim/ftp/manuals/dmmrrold/E040.pdf

TITLE 39 -- POSTAL SERVICE
PART IV -- MAIL MATTER
CHAPTER 34 -- ARMED FORCES AND FREE POSTAGE
Sec. 3403. Matter for blind and other handicapped persons
-STATUTE-
(a) The matter described in subsection (b) of this section (other than matter mailed under section 3404 of this title) may be mailed free of postage, if --
(1) the matter is for the use of the blind or other persons who cannot use or read conventionally printed material because of a physical impairment and who are certified by competent authority as unable to read normal reading material in accordance with the provisions of sections 135a and 135b of title 2;
(2) no charge, or rental, subscription, or other fee, is required for such matter or a charge, or rental, subscription, or other fee is required for such matter not in excess of the cost thereof;
(3) the matter may be opened by the Postal Service for inspection; and
(4) the matter contains no advertising.
(b) The free mailing privilege provided by subsection (a) of this section is extended to --
(1) reading matter and musical scores;
(2) sound reproductions;
(3) paper, records, tapes, and other material for the production of reading matter, musical scores, or sound reproductions;
(4) reproducers or parts thereof, for sound reproductions; and
(5) braille writers, typewriters, educational or other materials or devices, or parts thereof, used for writing by, or specifically designed or adapted for use of, a blind person or a person having a physical impairment as described in subsection (a)(1) of this section.
(c) Other physically handicapped persons certified by competent authority as meeting one or more of the following conditions:
(1) Having a visual disability, with correction and regardless of optical measurement, that prevents the reading of standard printed material.
(2) Being unable to read or unable to use standard printed material as a result of physical limitations.
(3) Having a reading disability resulting from organic dysfunction and of sufficient severity to prevent their reading printed material in a normal manner.
(4) Meeting the requirements of eligibility resulting from a degenerative, variable disease that renders them unable to read or use conventional printed material because of impaired eyesight or other physical factors. These persons are eligible during the time in which they are certified by a competent authority as unable to read or use conventional materials.
SOURCE- (Pub. L. 91-375, Aug. 12, 1970, 84 Stat. 757.)
1.4 Certifying Authority
For purposes of this standard:
a. The postmaster may extend the free matter privilege to an individual recipient based on personal knowledge of the individual's eligibility.
b. In cases of blindness, visual impairment, or physical limitations, "competent authority" is defined to include doctors of medicine; doctors of osteopathy; ophthalmologists; optometrists; registered nurses; therapists; and professional staff of hospitals, institutions, and public or private welfare agencies (e.g., social workers, caseworkers, counselors, rehabilitation teachers, and superintendents). In the absence of any of these, certification may be made by professional librarians or by any person whose competence under specific circumstances is acceptable to the Library of Congress (see 36 CFR 701.10(b)(2)(i)).

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