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Volunteer Spotlight: Rowena Portch

Categories: Volunteerism

Sarah Klipper, Learning Ally Production Assistant, interviews Learning Ally Volunteer, Rowena Portch.

For this year’s Dyslexia and Blindness Awareness Month, we are turning the spotlight on one of our own volunteers!

We are very lucky to have accomplished scholar, author and editor Rowena Portch join us as a Learning Ally volunteer. Despite losing her vision to Retinitis Pigmentosa, she continues to read and write with the help of screen reading software, braille display, and support from her husband Gregg. She does quality assurance (QA) with our Literature Community, checks files in Science textbooks, and has begun working as a Reader in the Upper Instructional Community. Look for her in the Virtual Water Cooler to say hello!

From her website, rowenaportch.com:
“Her spiritual commitment to God is foremost in her life, but her heart belongs to her husband Gregg and guide-dog Skye-Bear. Other professionals see her as an intelligent woman who learns quickly and follows through with commitments. Her true distinction, however, is her drive for learning. Her family and friends call her a perpetual student who hates wearing shoes.”

How did you find out about Learning Ally? What made you want to volunteer with us?
My sister told me about Learning Ally. I really wanted to learn how to do voiceover… So I looked into it, and it was really hard getting through the training and all that stuff, I had to really come up with different ways to be able to do it [and] make some adjustments.

What kind(s) of adaptive technology do you use as a volunteer checker/reader? How is it similar to what you use in daily life?
I use a lot of different things - I have a braille display that connects to my iPad, my Windows computer and my MacBook Pro all at once. I use EB on my MacBook and I use my iPad to bring up all the PDF files that I’m reading from. I put those into a program called Scrivener, and I cut and paste [the text]… so I can navigate to it and read it. My husband helps me out a lot, because I can’t see the pictures and the boxes and things like that. Then I go through the Guidelines and find out “how do I have to read this”, and I write it out exactly how I have to read it. Then I go to my braille display and hear what to read, and then I record with EB on my Mac. VoiceOver is my screen reading software that comes with the Apple products. For the Windows machine I use JAWS.

What are your favorite subjects to work with?
I really like the scientific books - anything to do with medicine. I went to school to be a doctor, so science and tech interests me. I have a master’s in Computer Science, so I’m very technical. I don’t like Math.

What was your favorite book to record so far?
I’m working on my first recording, and I’m really liking it a lot, it’s about Marketing. There was another one that i was checking, for medical students, and I really enjoyed that one as well.

What would you like to work on in the future?
I want to do novels, that’s my passion. The textbooks are very challenging because of all the different elements… but novels are easy, I can just read from the novel and it’s not a big deal.

What was your most challenging project, and why?
The women’s studies book was the most challenging. Mainly because it was really not a subject I was interested in, and it had way too many internal references that didn’t add anything to the information. In a single sentence you could have five references. By the time you’re done reading it, you don’t even know what the sentence was about! I was reading comments from people who were reading this book, and they loved it! But it kinda burnt me out and I had to take a break.

What do you enjoy about working with the Virtual Community?
I love people, I love listening. I love the Virtual Water Cooler, I think that’s an awesome idea. I love hearing everybody getting together and planning things, they share neat news and they get to know each other, and I like that a lot. The way it is organized is extremely good, very professional. I feel like I’m working with professional people. When I have a question it’s easily answered… I don’t have to wait forever. I think that they put a lot of thought and preparation into each project before they even release it, I think that says a lot. I like the convenience and staying connected. It gives me a sense of working with people without having to go anywhere.

What advice would you give to a student who has a learning difference, dyslexia, or a visual impairment?
If it’s something you want to do, find a way to do it. Don’t let people tell you you can’t do something because it’s never been done. I’m a huge advocate for the mad skills blind people have. I am also dyslexic - I was a blind, dyslexic editor at Microsoft for 10 years, if you can believe that! You can do anything you put your mind to, you just have to think outside the box and come up with a way to make it work.

Learning Ally is a national 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that offers volunteer opportunities. Our volunteer nation has provided narration to our library of over 80,000 audiobooks and has helped students with a financial need, access services that help them succeed in school and in life by making a financial donation. Join the volunteer nation today!