Student Spotlight: Audio books level the academic playing field


With the help of books on tape, Cronin learns through listening.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

Instead of opening a book, try pressing play, rewind, pause and fast-forward. You’ve now entered the world of Sean Cronin (C’05), who learns with the aid of recorded textbooks.

Having attention deficit disorder and dyslexia hasn’t stopped the Penn freshman from achieving academic excellence, a feat that recently earned him a trip to the White House and personal congratulations from First Lady Laura Bush. Cronin is one of six 2001 National Achievement Award winners—a recognition bestowed by the nonprofit organization Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D).

With professors assigning hundreds of pages of reading daily, it’s a wonder how Cronin manages to keep up with the rest of his classmates. But he said learning for him isn’t always a game of catch-up. “The books on tape put me on even ground with everyone else.”

And while learning via listening means that Cronin may not turn the page as fast as other students, he said the alternative is worse. “You either go at a slower pace or you don’t learn at all.”

RFB&D provides the taped textbooks, which are recorded by more than 5,000 volunteers working in studios around the country. The organization’s master library in Princeton, N.J., houses in excess of 90,000 textbook titles in every subject and grade level.

Cronin, who confuses concepts without the books on tape, said he started using the textbooks in high school when it became clear to him that—after years of falling behind in middle school—he couldn’t earn high marks without them. “I realized if I wanted to go to a really good college I had to do well in high school.” Landing a spot at Penn has been a sort of capstone and validation for all of his hard work.

Today, Cronin uses the recorded texts primarily for literature courses. His professors are aware of his disability, but he said he doesn’t ask or want special treatment. Not that he needs it either.

In addition to keeping on top of his studies, Cronin is a member of the Quaker rowing team and a puppy raiser for Leader Dogs for the Blind.

Since the sixth grade, he has socialized and loved eight Labradors for later use as guide dogs for the blind. The puppies live with the Cronin family for one year, after which they are placed in formal training.

“It was harder in the beginning because it was our dog and [then] it wasn’t any more. You still get really attached to it but you know it’s happening, you know it’s coming.”

But luckily for Cronin, he hasn’t always been a successful puppy raiser. He got to keep his favorite dog, Bailie, because the Labrador couldn’t adjust to life in the kennel.

Like every other overachiever, Cronin said he is quickly learning that there are only so many hours in the day. “I don’t have as much time as I thought I was going to have.” His accomplishments notwithstanding, Cronin is like any other college newbie, still unsure of what to do in the future and still wondering about which major to choose.

Originally published on May 9, 2002