Dr. Margaret R. Pfanstiehl Honored for Excellence in Accessibility Leadership


On Saturday, August 15, 2009, Dr. Margaret R. Pfanstiehl, Founder and President of the Metropolitan Washington Ear, received the Excellence in Accessibility Leadership Award at the Kennedy Center for her lifetime commitment and enduring advocacy on behalf of audio description and other forms of information access for the visually impaired community. The award was presented by the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEADS).

Dr. Margaret R. Pfanstiehl has been on the cutting edge of the information access movement almost as long as the movement has existed. After obtaining her Ed.D. degree in 1971, she heard of a radio reading service for the visually impaired in St. Paul, Minnesota and decided that D.C. needed something similar.  Starting from scratch, she devoted herself to translating that idea into a reality.  She garnered support and funding from governments around the Washington, D.C. region, negotiated with WETA, the local public radio station, for the use of its sub-channel. She raised over $100,000 in operating funds for the first year and recruited and trained volunteers. In 1974, her efforts resulted in the establishment of a regional institution, the Metropolitan Washington Ear, Inc., a nonprofit organization and radio reading service focused on improving and enriching the lives of individuals who are blind, have low vision, or have physical disabilities by enabling them to be well-informed, fully productive members of their families, their communities and the working world through the provision of reading and information services. Margaret continues today as the founder and president of the Washington Ear.

In 1981, Margaret and her late husband Cody were recruited by Wayne White at Arena Stage to use their expertise to develop a system for live commentary and narration techniques for theatrical productions.  Thus, they developed the unique art and technique of Audio Description, and the Arena Stage’s production of “Major Barbara” was the first play in D.C. to be audio described.

After their success at Arena Stage, Margaret and Cody became tireless advocates for making theater, television, film, museums, and exhibits accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. They travelled the United States and abroad to train others in the technique of Audio Description. They developed descriptions for museums and exhibits, including Ellis Island and the Statute of Liberty, and films, such as the local IMAX favorites “To Fly” and “The Blue Planet” at the Air and Space Museum.  In 1982, Dr. Pfanstiehl was honored as Washingtonian of the Year with several others. That same year, Margaret and Cody teamed up with the producers of the “American Playhouse” series to create a separate soundtrack that was broadcast on radio reading services around the country in sync with televised plays.  In 1986, Dr. Barry Cronin at WGBH –TV in Boston launched Descriptive Video Services (DVS) and for the next few years Margaret and Cody worked closely with WGBH to train narrators and write descriptions for television programs.

Today a corps of dedicated Washington Ear volunteers, trained by Margaret, Cody and Bill Patterson of Audio Description Solutions, continues to provide Audio Description at performances in many of the major live theaters in the Metropolitan area. Margaret remains active in the training of these volunteers. 

In 1990, Margaret was awarded the prestigious Emmy award for her leadership in the field of accessible television for viewers who are blind or have low vision. She has pioneered in the fight to make information access a normal part of everyday life for the visually impaired community. In 1991 Margaret took another innovative step and launched a Dial-In newspaper service that was one of the first in the country.  In 2000, her support of access for individuals with disabilities and testimony before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were in large part responsible for its decision to require broadcasters to adopt technology to provide video description via a secondary audio programming channel.

Margaret was one of the founding members of the International Association of Audio Information Services (IAAIS). In 2003, she received the C. Stanley Potter Award from the IAAIS. This award is named for the father of radio reading. It recognizes and honors outstanding contributions to the Audio Information industry. It is an award that she cherishes.

 Margaret has always had an acute awareness of what could and should be done to make information access, in its various forms, a normal part of everyday life for the visually impaired community. Under her continuing leadership, The Washington Ear provides innovative services for listeners and callers. She continues to provide leadership in this field and is widely respected and sought after for her expertise.

Congratulations to Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl!