Aphasia Book Club Members Find Their Voice

Monica Valencia, Public Relations Specialist,
Dr. Michael Biel, and Francie Schwarz seated at a table in the library
Pictured, from left: Aphasia Book Club founders Dr. Michael Biel, speech pathologist, and Echo Park Public Service Librarian Francie Schwarz

The group gathered inside the Echo Park Branch Library meeting room looks like any book club. And in most respects, it is.

Ten attentive members clutched well-worn library copies of A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor. Some members penned words and associated feelings in lined notebooks beside their coffee cups. One reflective member pondered the sentence:

"The trees were full of silver-white sunlight, and the meanest of them sparkled."

But this is not just any book club. This is the Aphasia Book Club, the first known of its kind at a public library in the nation, and possibly in the world, said Francie Schwarz, Public Service Librarian at Echo Park Branch Library. The Aphasia Book Club, which has been meeting since 2013, was founded by Schwarz and her husband, Dr. Michael Biel, a speech pathologist who teaches at California State University, Northridge. A small committee of adults with aphasia, along with their friends and family members, took part in organizing this group.

Aphasia is a communication disorder that affects the ability to speak, write, read and understand language. It is often acquired through stroke, but can also result from other neurological causes. About two million people in the United States have aphasia, and nearly 180,000 Americans acquire it each year, according to the National Aphasia Association. While this condition is common, programs like Echo Park's Aphasia Book Club are not.

Schwarz said the Aphasia Book Club, with specialized programs that are free and hard to find, is one of many ways our library can respond to the needs of a community.

"As a librarian, it is part of my mission to make information accessible to as many people as possible. But that's useless for somebody who can't process language very easily," she emphasized.

The popularity of the class has prompted Schwarz to continue the book club as an ongoing program. A second club has opened at the Mid-Valley Regional Branch Library and she hopes other branches will take it on as well.

"The Aphasia Book Club is a way to serve an underserved population," she said with compassion. "Professionally speaking, this aphasia group is the best thing I've ever done."