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Talking Books and Reading Disabilities

Individuals whose reading disability has a physical origin may be eligible for NLS service.

Talking Books and Reading Disabilities



The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress, administers a free program for individuals who are visually impaired or have a disability that prevents them from using regular print materials. Under a special exemption of the U.S. copyright law and with the cooperation of authors and publishers who grant permission to use non-covered copyrighted works without royalty, NLS selects and produces full-length books and magazines in audio and in braille. Reading materials, as well as the special playback equipment needed to read the encrypted talking books, are distributed to eligible borrowers through a network of cooperating regional and subregional libraries. Reading materials and players are circulated by postage-free mail and distributed via the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) service.

The NLS collection is made available without cost to adults and children whose physical disabilities or visual impairments makes it difficult or impossible for them to hold a book, turn the pages, or read regular print. The book collection consists of recreational and general informational reading for adults and children at all reading levels. Books and magazines are selected on the basis of their appeal to a wide range of interests and include general fiction and nonfiction, with special emphasis on bestsellers. 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 generally are not included in the NLS book collection.

Public Law 89-522

Eligibility of Persons with Reading Disabilities

The current federal regulation for this national free library service is set forth in the Federal Register for June 7, 1974, as amended October 2, 1981 (Title 36, Section 701.10). 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, readers must be “certified by competent authority [described below] as unable to read normal printed material as a result of physical limitations, under regulations prescribed by the Librarian of Congress for this service.” 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 disability must establish the following facts:

  • the reading disability is of sufficient severity to prevent reading regular printed material in a normal manner
  • the cause of the disability is physically based; that is, it is an organic dysfunction
  • the person certifying the application is medically able to judge whether the disability has a physical or organic basis

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 developmental disabilities, unless accompanied by a specific visual or physical disability.

For more eligibility information, follow this link.

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, 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. Medical authorities are encouraged to consult with colleagues in associated disciplines when certifying applications for individuals with reading disabilities.

Application Procedure

A standard application form and additional information about this free library service may be obtained from any NLS cooperating library or agency that serves people who are blind or physically disabled. The completed application, signed by a doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathy in the case of a reading disability, must be submitted to the cooperating library serving the applicant’s geographic area.

Applications may also be received from and submitted to NLS. To download an application, visit NLS website or contact the NLS Reference Section to have one mailed. NLS may also be contacted to locate the nearest cooperating library in the service area (see back page for contact information).

Other Academic Resources

Special academic needs should be discussed with local educational authorities. Please contact the NLS Reference Section (address below) for information about such sources and about other resources available for individuals with reading disabilities. The following selected resources, provided with their contact information, may be useful.

Learning Ally
20 Roszel Road
Princeton, NJ 08540
(609) 452-0606
(609) 987-8116 (fax)
[email protected] External
Learning Ally is a private, nonprofit organization that lends recorded textbooks and other educational materials to people who cannot read regular print because of visual, perceptual, or other physical disabilities. A registration fee and an annual membership fee are required.

480 South California Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94306
(650) 352-0198
(650) 475-1066 (fax)
[email protected] External

Bookshare provides digital books free to all U.S. students with qualifying disabilities. Books are available for download in audio and braille formats.


To fulfill its statutory obligations, assure the continuity of its program, observe the copyright law and the agreements that furnish NLS with cost-free copyright permission, and protect its “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, would like an application, or would like more information, please contact:

Reference Section
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20542
(202) 707-9275
(202) 707-0712 (fax)
[email protected]