Established in 1974, The Metropolitan Washington Ear, Inc. is a nonprofit organization providing reading and information services for blind, visually impaired and physically disabled people who cannot effectively read print, see plays, watch television programs and films, or view museum exhibits.
Ear free services strive to substitute hearing for seeing, improving the lives of people with limited or no vision by enabling them to be well-informed, fully productive members of their families, their communities and the working world.
MWE is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization incorporated under the laws of the state of Maryland. We've been providing quality services to the visually impaired adults through out Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia for more than 30 years. Our all-volunteer Board of Directors is composed of visually impaired consumers, volunteers who participate in our program, and a cross-section of business and community leaders.
Because of the quality services provided by The Metropolitan Washington Ear, it is second to none in the tri-state area. We're proud of all we do and look forward to continuing to help meet the needs of the visually impaired and blind of the area.
For the Washington, D.C. area's radio reading service, November 7, 1984 was almost routine. At 6:20 a.m. a Washington Ear volunteer--one of 190 volunteers--started the broadcast day with a reading from the scriptures. Others, some live, some recorded on tape, continued through the day and evening, signing off at 11:00 p.m. following the "Book Shelf" program.
If you were one of some 1,700 visually impaired or handicapped people who had Washington Ear radios you probably listened to -- you probably "read" -- The Washington Post, or at least as much of it as you had time for before you dashed off to work. Or perhaps you didn't get a chance at the paper until after the children were off to catch the school bus.
If you were retired, perhaps you didn't bother with the newspaper that early and didn't get going until a second cup of coffee and the Washingtonian Magazine at 9:00. After the 10:00 "Cover to Cover" reading of a recently published book, you finally caught up with The Washington Post at 11:00. After lunch you read some of the county paper; at 1:00, because it was a Wednesday, they were the Prince William, Loudoun, Frederick and Winchester weeklies. After that, selections from the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Times.
At 4:00 you took "A Second Look" at the Post, then read the Wall Street Journal from 5:00 to 6:00, followed by the comics and "What's Happening" for half an hour.
At 6:30 p.m. the Post was rebroadcast for 90 minutes so you gave your ears a rest. But you began reading Time Magazine at 8:30.
Being sleepy after absorbing all that information all day, perhaps you set your tape recorder timer to catch "The Book Shelf" at 10:00 and you went to bed before the 11:00 p.m. sign-off. Almost a routine day--except that during the reading of the Washington Post on November 7, 1984 you heard a few minutes of news, advertisement, editorials, columns and comics from The Washington Post of November 7, 1974, plus greetings from Ear's founder and president, Dr. Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl, recorded on the very first Ear broadcast exactly ten years before....Because on November 7, 1984, The Washington Ear, Inc., began its second decade of service for the Nation's capital area.
The Washington Ear, Inc., is the closed-circuit radio reading service for the blind, visually impaired, and print-handicapped in the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. In some areas its broadcasts are extended by cable beyond the 35-mile radius of the transmitter.
The Ear is a private, non-profit corporation funded primarily by the District of Columbia and those counties in suburban Maryland and Virginia where its broadcasts are heard. Funding from these political jurisdictions covers only 75 percent of operating expenses. The remaining 25 percent and other funds, such as for receivers, must be obtained from foundations, service clubs, corporate contributions, and individual gifts.
The Washington Ear is a separate entity and not part of any organization, library, or government agency serving the blind. Its studios are located in Silver Spring, Maryland, and it uses the sub carrier channel of WETA-FM, a Washington area public radio station, in Arlington, Virginia.
The programs of The Washington Ear can be heard via special pre-tuned radio receivers in private homes and in some hospitals and retirement homes. The receivers, which can be attached to a timer and a tape recorder, are loaned without charge to individual users.
To be eligible for the service The Washington Ear provides, a person must be unable to utilize ordinary print because of limitations such as legally defined blindness, blurred or double vision after normal correction Dyslexia, inability to hold a book or turn pages, extreme weakness or excessive fatigue, any other visual or physical impairment which prevents a person from reading regular print, or a person who is a registered user of the Library of Congress Talking Books Service.
The Washington Ear is on the air seven days a week, 112 hours a week. At present it has distributed approximately 1,700 receivers in the greater Metropolitan Washington area, to homes as well as institutional facilities. The cost of each receiver has risen from approximately $63.00 per unit in 1974, before Ear went on the air, to approximately $80.00 in 1984.
All reading for Ear's programs is done entirely by volunteers. At present (late 1984), there are 190 readers on call; the majority of these read on a regular basis, others act as substitutes. The full time staff of the organization consists of four employees, including two full time engineer technicians. Part time employees number five, including two weekend engineer technicians, plus a part time bookkeeper.
Founder and president of Washington Ear, Inc. is Dr. Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl. In August, 1984, David Felzenberg joined the Ear as executive director.
But Ear is much more than just the sum of these facts. Ear has become an integral part of the daily lives of the many listeners who have to rely on its services for their newspaper and magazine information. What a sighted person takes for granted--a glance at newspaper headlines, a quick article about an upcoming event or program, a detailed commentary about new breakthroughs in medicine or science--all these myriad pieces of information that a sighted person absorbs, almost without realizing it, are unavailable to a visually handicapped person.
Radio and television often provide only headlines and rarely information in depth. A great number of books, of course, are available through the services of the Library of Congress Talking Books program. An extremely valuable service, Talking Books provides thousands of fiction and nonfiction titles on disk and tape. There is also much literature available in Braille and services are available for the reading of textbooks to blind students and professionals. Although all of these services are extremely valuable, they cannot, by their very nature, be as current as a reading service can. But the blind, as are the sighted, are interested in up to date information. Conversation is frequently about something that was in the daily newspaper or in the current magazine, not on radio or television, and bestsellers want to be read and are discussed when they are current and as soon as they become available in bookstores.
This is where the radio reading service of Washington Ear is most valuable. Its programs can augment other services by making available current and local information and readings from bestsellers as soon as they become available, enabling Ear's blind listeners to feel as well informed and up to date as their sighted neighbors. Shopping and food ads, information about upcoming events, movie and TV reviews, Ann Landers or the Personalities column, those are little tidbits that the Washington Post makes available to its readers in the metropolitan Washington area and, thanks to Ear, to its sightless or visually handicapped readers as well. Ear provides a way around one barrier for the blind in the region and, as one blind mother of four small children says, "Ear has kept me sane". It has kept me in touch with what's going on in the outside world.
But it was not always so. Everything, from fund raising to provide receivers, to negotiations with WETA for the use of its sub-channel, to assembling an original budget for the first year of over $100,000, to recruiting volunteers even before the first day Ear was on the air, and especially to getting official support and funding from all the local governments within the Washington region--all of this had to be done first to translate an idea into reality, long before the first newspaper and magazine could be read on the air. And it is Dr. Rockwell who organized all this effort from the very beginning.
Dr. Rockwell is a victim of retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic progressive eye disease which limits peripheral vision and eventually, generally in young adulthood, leads to severe visual impairment. In her case, Dr. Rockwell was able to read, albeit with increasing difficulty, during her college years. After undergraduate studies at the Peabody Institute and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, she became a housewife and mother. In the early 1960s, she was divorced, was left with a son, and had lost the ability to read ordinary print. In 1963, she began attending the University of Maryland and eventually earned both a master's degree and a doctorate in counseling and human development from the School of Education at College Park.
After she obtained her Ed.D. degree in January 1971, Dr. Rockwell worked for a time for a research institute in the District of Columbia. During that time she first heard of a radio reading service for the visually handicapped in St. Paul, Minnesota.
This first radio reading service for the blind and physically handicapped had been established only two years earlier, in 1969, as adjunct to the Minnesota State Services for the Blind. When Dr. Rockwell first heard of this service, which read newspapers and current magazines over the air to the visually impaired, it intrigued her to think that such a service was available at all, but she herself was at that time very much involved with her job and with family matters, so she did not act on this information at that time.
In 1972, her father died. During the same year she changed jobs, becoming a marriage and family counselor at a Lutheran church in Silver Spring. This job freed some of her time so that she began to think of this reading service idea again. She also began to feel, although she found counseling rewarding, that she would not want to spend her whole life in that field. She began to discuss the idea of such a reading service for the metropolitan Washington area with members of her family and with friends. When it was suggested to her that she herself undertake to start such a service, she at first turned the suggestion aside as being preposterous. But the idea persisted, strongly supported by her mother, "the first Ear volunteer," as Dr. Rockwell often points out. At that time, she and her 17-year old son Justin lived together with Dr. Rockwell's widowed mother Crystal Woodland, in a house in Silver Spring. One day, therefore, with Justin supplying both the wheels and the eyes, she went to the Research Division of the National Library Service for the Blind and Handicapped, to gather information on the radio reading services then existing in the country. There was only a meager file available. But while there, she learned that WETA-FM, a public radio station in the Washington area, had what is called a sub carrier which could in fact be used to transmit broadcasts for a radio reading service.
An FM signal is made up of different parts; in the case of WETA-FM, its major carrier frequency is 90.9, at which number it can be found on the dial of normal FM radios. It further consists of the original 19 kHz pilot originally for stereo, a signal of 67 kHz which is presently used for Ear, and the capability for another sub channel of 92 kHz which is at present not used. Ear's radio receivers reject all but the sub carrier channel of 67 kHz just as a normal radio receiver rejects all other frequencies but 90.9 kHz for WETA-FM.
When WETA was first established, management and engineers had enough foresight to purchase the necessary equipment to run an FM sub carrier. WETA therefore held a license to operate this sub carrier from the Federal Communications Commission. WETA had availed itself of the technology and thought that the sub carrier could be used for educational purposes in the future, but until then it had remained vacant. In fact, at one time WETA had expressed interest in a reading service, but was not interested in establishing and administering such an enterprise itself.
In any event, after she wrote to each of the radio reading services whose addresses she had found at the Library of Congress, asking them for any information they might be able to provide, Dr. Rockwell went to visit WETA. She found WETA very open to the idea. After some discussions, it was decided that WETA endorse the project but that the public radio station would not get involved itself with running it. Somewhat to her surprise, Dr. Rockwell found that Fred Flaxman, then Director of WETA-FM, took her seriously in her notion that she start a radio reading service herself, seriously enough that he introduced her to Fred Klimes, then chief engineer at WETA-FM, who became her technical advisor and, as she says, "almost cofounder" of The Washington Ear. WETA generously made much time available to him and, by extension, to Ear. Klimes advised Dr. Rockwell on what would be necessary to set up a studio to provide the service that suddenly seemed to become more than just an idea; he advised her what funds would be necessary to purchase such equipment; he advised her on the type of studio facilities that should be used and the amount of space that would be needed. They collaborated in drawing up proposals for all equipment, including the receivers that were to be used by the prospective listeners. He also talked to the various manufacturers of the equipment on behalf of Ear and obtained samples of receivers to be evaluated by the Washington Ear Board of Directors.
But that was still in the future. By June 22, 1973, WETA sent Dr. Rockwell a letter congratulating her "on the formation of The Washington Ear." By the end of the following month, the Library of Congress endorsed the project. While she was obviously taken seriously, she knew that she had "nothing, not one red cent, no funds, no board of directors. . ."; she had still only an idea. She admits that if she had known what eventually would be involved in this enterprise, she might have been more nervous than she was; as it was, once she took the plunge there was no place to go but forward. So she went about to set up a corporation and find a board of directors.
The first step was incorporating The Washington Ear. For this, Dr. Rockwell naturally turned to Howard Thomas, a lawyer who is now on the Ear's Board of Directors and who, over the years, had been her parents' legal advisor as well as her own. She could offer him little or no money at the time, so he performed the necessary services "on credit", and even though he was later paid, Dr. Rockwell recalls that his fee was nominal. However, he was delighted to be of service; the Articles of Incorporation and by-laws were established. By June of 1973 an idea had become an entity. By December of the same year, the new corporation's tax exempt status was confirmed.
The next step was gathering a board of directors for The Washington Ear. Since she had lived in the area since childhood, Dr. Rockwell was able to call on friends of long standing for the nucleus of the board. The first Board of Directors' meeting was held in August, 1973. The owner of a contact lens and artificial eye service, an ophthalmologist, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland, and a priest were among the early Board members. After some months, the Board began to include representatives of the various political jurisdictions and members of the business community.
To approach potential business and philanthropic leaders in the community for possible Board membership had been suggested not only by members of the early Board, but also by representatives of the Metropolitan Council of Governments which she now approached for advice on potential funding sources.
When Dr. Rockwell had investigated sources of funding other early radio reading services had used, she found that none was quite comparable to what could be feasible in the metropolitan Washington area. Minnesota's services were largely supported by the State of Minnesota, as an adjunct to Minnesota State Services for the Blind and had been grafted onto an already existing entity. A few other reading services had been established by 1973, but their financial structures were equally different to what could be applied in the Washington area. Seattle's service was part of the public library system services for the blind. The Lawrence, Kansas, reading service had been endowed by a wealthy patron with the proviso that it become part of the University of Kansas radio station, while a new service in Belleville, Illinois, catering to the greater St. Louis area, was subsidized by the Catholic Church which had been instrumental in its inception. None of these funding sources seemed available to the new Washington Ear, Inc., which was conceived and has remained independent of other services for the blind as well as any other organization. Also, since the prospective area in which the Ear would be received was divided among the District of Columbia and jurisdictions within the two states of Maryland and Virginia, it seemed unlikely that funding could come on the state level or from the District of Columbia alone. It was therefore decided that the most effective way to raise funds would be to contact the local--i.e. city and county--governments within the greater Washington area for their support. Under the circumstances, the next step was to work with the Metropolitan Council of Governments.
Dr. Rockwell contacted Walter Scheiber, COG's Executive Director, who was impressed with the concept and thought that COG might help "run interference" with the member governments. Mr. Scheiber, in turn, introduced her to Ruth Crone, Director of Human Resources and Public Safety of COG. Dr. Rockwell proposed that she work through COG in some way that would assist her in getting local funding and support. "This is not a normal thing that COG does . . . seldom have we been able to do something as creative as this was, to help another organization," Ruth Crone related in an interview. Even if COG could not fund Ear directly, it could at least start "an educational process" through its Human Resources Policy committee. COG committees generally oversee COG's programs, in this case basically those of social services interests. From time to time committees will interest themselves in outside projects, especially if they are of regional character, as Ear obviously was.
Ruth Crone asked Dr. Rockwell to come and talk to the Human Resources committee to inform its members of the concept of The Washington Ear and of her proposal for funding through local jurisdictions. She also suggested that Dr. Rockwell draw up a first year proposed budget, including start-up costs, which she did and which amounted to $106,000.
The committee found that it was indeed interested in the concept, that it was a unique service for the region, and that it was a worthwhile cause for the committee to endorse. The committee also recommended to Dr. Rockwell that she involve representatives of local governments in Ear's Board of Directors which at that time had no such representation. Then the committee, as is the normal course of events after a favorable review by the members of the committee, recommended to COG's Board of Directors that a resolution be adopted by the Board to recognize the need for the service that Ear would provide and that it could be beneficial to a great number of sight impaired people in the region. On November 14, 1973, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments passed a resolution strongly endorsing "the concept of a closed circuit radio reading service for the handicapped who cannot handle printed materials . . ." and recommended the proposal of the Washington Ear to the attention of the Council's member governments for their support. During the Fall of 1973, a number of other organizations sent endorsements: September 8, 1973: An organization called "International Innovations for the Blind," located in Laurel, Maryland, heard of the new idea and congratulated Ear for being "up to date." September 21, 1973: "The Virginia Committee for the Visually Handicapped" endorsed Ear. September 29, 1973: At a meeting held on that day, a resolution was passed by the "District of Columbia Association of Workers for the Blind," endorsing that Ear project.
October 18, 1973: Endorsement from the District of Columbia Public Schools.
October 18, 1973: United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (Office of Blind and Visually Handicapped) endorses Ear.
October 30, 1973: Veterans' Administration, Department of Medicine and Surgery (Blind Rehabilitation) endorses Ear's idea.
October 30, 1973: University of Maryland, College of Education, endorses the idea. November 2, 1973: Endorsement by "President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped (Bernard Posner, Executive Director).
These endorsements were encouraging to Dr. Rockwell and the small group of people that had gathered to make The Washington Ear a reality. But now began the long uphill struggle for funding. COG could help Dr. Rockwell in getting "some doors open", give a good word in her behalf to the various budget officers, and encourage her and give her advice, but in essence it was up to her entirely to raise the necessary funds, not just once, but on a continuing basis.
There were and still are no accurate figures as to the number of blind people in the region. For the United States as a whole, it is estimated that there are 225 legally blind persons per 100,000, or some 500,000 persons. It is generally thought by professionals working in the field, however, that this is a very low estimate and that, in fact, there are some 1.5 million legally blind people in the U.S.A. A person is considered legally blind if his or her central visual acuity does not exceed 20/200 in the better eye with correcting lenses or his or her visual field is less than an angle of 20 degrees. With other words, if a person can see no more at a distance of 20 feet than someone with normal sight can see at a distance of 200 feet, or if his or her peripheral vision is confined to an angle of no more than 20 degrees, the so-called "tunnel vision," which is often the by-product to retinitis pigmentosa.
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, Inc., however, there are many definitions of severe visual impairment and even of "blindness." Here we enter a gray area. It has been estimated that in the United States about 11 or 12 million people, or five percent of the population, have some visual impairment. About 80 percent of the blind people, on the other hand--contrary to general perception of "blindness"--have some usable vision, a perception of light, the ability to discern shapes and their outlines, or extreme central vision. Over one million persons--or about 70 percent of the severely visually impaired--are sixty-five years of age or older. But these are not concrete numbers, as experts in the field readily admit. These experts refer to blindness as a "hidden problem", with many people functioning as if they were legally blind or, in the case of the severely visually impaired, not being registered or recognized as legally blind.
Estimates for the metropolitan Washington area are equally hard to come by. In 1984, it is estimated that there are 370 legally blind persons in the District of Columbia per 100,000 population, i.e. approximately 2,500 to 3,000 persons. In the State of Virginia as a whole--no breakdown is available for the region, or per county--the estimate is 225 per 100,000, or about 10,700 persons, while for Maryland, the estimate is about 213 per 100,00 or about 8,600 persons.
It is easy to see that statistics pertaining to the number of potential listeners of the new radio reading service were uncertain, at best. To overcome this uncertainty, and for the purpose of fund raising, a formula was devised in which it was assumed that, for the region as a whole, there were approximately four blind or visually impaired persons per 1,000 of the population. It may be remembered that the Ear's service was also to be extended to those who for a variety of reasons could not use written material, even if not visually impaired.
In any event, rather than to attempt to do an actual count, the formula (4 per 1,000) also assumed that there was no difference in the number of visually impaired among the various jurisdictions of the Washington metropolitan area. Each political entity would be asked to contribute a percentage of the Ear's budget based on the percentage of its population within the region, although in reality there was quite some difference in the estimates for the District of Columbia and the two states of Maryland and Virginia.
It was easiest to persuade smaller jurisdictions to make a commitment to the funding of The Washington Ear, since the actual amounts were relatively small, based on the population/percentage formula. The same could not be said for larger jurisdictions, such as Montgomery County or Fairfax County. Prince George's County was "pretty good at that time," Dr. Rockwell recalls, but although the late Elizabeth Scull, then a member of the Montgomery County council, was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the concept of a radio reading service, it took quite some persuasion to convince Montgomery County to support the newly planned service in its start-up budget as well as making a commitment for continuing support. The same was true for Fairfax County.
As COG's Walter Scheiber comments, politicians in general find that there are never enough funds for all projects and so they tend to lend support to those projects that represent pressure points in a community. Yet, Dr. Rockwell was able, "with virtually no assistance or without any groundswell support, to convince these politicians that this was something they should do . . . . This is due largely to her persuasiveness and to her ability to dramatize, in a low key way, the value of the service that she was presenting. She certainly didn't have a huge lobby supporting her and, in fact, what she was asking them to do was to contribute money for a purpose which would serve only a relatively small portion of their citizens . . . ."
It was a long uphill struggle, emotionally as well as physically. As she had no "mechanical wheels under her," as she puts it, volunteer drivers took her around to each and every jurisdiction as well as to hearings on the Hill. At such hearings, she not only was able to answer any questions that were put to her, but at times committee members would not realize that she was blind herself until they became aware of Gracie, her seeing-eye dog and constant companion. She herself feels that they had no choice but to deal with her, in spite of the fact that she was a handicapped person and a woman, since there was only she, no-one else, who represented the concept and who asked for funding.
In any event, she never had any doubts of the worth of her endeavor and the need for the service for the visually impaired of the region; this belief in what she was doing must have conveyed itself to those pragmatic decision-makers. At any rate, she was able to convince them to "reach down into their coffers" and make a commitment that they have kept, even during relatively hard times, over ten years.
Contributing to the strain of this fund raising process was the fact that by no means all services for the blind were supportive of her endeavor. Funds for such services are always hard to come by, and some associations for the blind were, especially in the beginning, apprehensive that the Ear's gain might be their loss. Other organizations, however, were strongly supportive. The American Council for the Blind, the Library of Congress program for the blind, and the American Foundation for the Blind, all were strongly positive in their attitudes toward Ear. These were organizations with prestige in the field and their views prevailed.
Today, of course, such early differences among various groups working with and for the blind are long forgotten. At the time, however, their negative attitudes appeared to influence at least Montgomery County. At first, the County had been open to the idea; now suddenly, it decided to cancel all plans for support. Dr. Rockwell worked even harder to get support from Fairfax and Prince George's Counties, in which she was successful. She now returned to Montgomery County and presented them with the alternative of the Ear starting its service without Montgomery County's support. If that were the case, prospective listeners in supportive jurisdictions would be able to obtain their receivers free of charge, while listeners within the recalcitrant county would have to pay not only for their sets (at the time about $65 per set), but also for their share of the service operation and other costs. The receiver sets, pre-programmed to receive the sub-channel of WETA-FM and equipped to be connected to tape recorders and timers, are made available free of charge by the Ear to anyone eligible for the service although a number of people contribute to Ear on a voluntary basis. The alternative of Montgomery County listeners--and voters--having to pay for a service that was free to listeners in other political jurisdictions did not make Dr. Rockwell "extremely popular," as she recalls; it did in the end get her the funding she needed.
While this "pilgrimage" was under way, Ear had also applied for grants from a variety of foundations. In January of 1974, the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation gave Ear a $30,000 matching grant. In April of that year, the Junior League of Washington approved a grant for $15,000.
One other small, but at that time important, contribution was made to Ear. Terry Scibilia, the wife of a later Ear volunteer reader, had learned of Ear's need of money. So she organized a flea market on the parking lot of a Giant Food store in the Silver Spring area on an extremely hot August day in 1973. The net result of this endeavor, a sum of about $475, was used for duplicating services, postage, and all other expenses incurred and represented, in fact, virtually the total budget of The Washington Ear until July 1, 1974, when funds actually began to be released.
By the spring of 1974, however, enough firm commitments for funding from a number of jurisdictions had been made, as well as the promise of the two grants received, so that now the next big step was undertaken. If Ear was to go on the air, studio equipment and receivers had to be ordered, as well as a firm commitment to rent office space had to be made, space that would have to be converted into the new studios of The Washington Ear.
Fred Klimes of WETA-FM had continued to work with Dr. Rockwell, and now he advised her on the type of studio facilities that would be necessary. As with other broadcasting operations, there were a number of problems involved in finding the right location. Many commercial office buildings would not be suitable for radio studios. In such commercial office buildings, for example, heat and air conditioning are often shut down after five p.m. and on weekends; sometimes access is also limited to those buildings during evening and weekend hours. As any radio station does not operate only during normal business hours and Ear expected to be on the air during odd hours of the day and night, a number of otherwise available commercial locations would have to be passed over. Also, it had been decided almost from the beginning to rely exclusively on volunteers for the actual reading of the printed material; therefore a location was sought that would be convenient for those volunteers who had to reach the studios from various areas around the metropolitan area. Further, the studios would have to be located in an area considered relatively safe for volunteers both in the early morning and late night hours, and with parking easily and closely available. Finally, since Dr. Rockwell was to take an active part in the day-to-day running of the fledgling operation, certain locations that would be too hard to reach for her--such as locations in Virginia, for example--were to be eliminated. She had of course traveled to the University of Maryland at College Park and had worked in the District of Columbia and was reasonably mobile with public transportation available and aided by her seeing-eye dog. But reaching locations in Virginia, for example, would have been simply too time-consuming for her.
Efforts to find free studio space were unsuccessful, but office space became available at that time at the Woodmoor Shopping Center at 10111 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, Maryland. It was inexpensive, there was parking available for volunteers and the handicapped, and it was very close to an exit of the beltway, which made it easily accessible from many parts of the Washington area. As an extra bonus for Dr. Rockwell, it was within easy walking distance for her and her guide dog from her home in Silver Spring, although that had not been one of the major concerns in the search for studio space.
So the plunge was taken. Equipment was ordered, a lease was signed for the office space, and re-decorating and alterations were begun to change the offices into a studio. Dr. Rockwell remembers the feeling with which she heard Fred Klimes discuss "$15,000 for this and $10,000 for that" at a time when even $1,000 seemed like a lot of money, since all she had were promises that money would be allocated.
Some equipment began arriving, delivered not to the unfinished office on Colesville Road, but to the Rockwell-Woodland home. Ten thousand dollars worth of electronic equipment filled a workroom, when Dr. Rockwell learned that the District of Columbia, or rather the appropriate Senate Subcommittee on the District of Columbia, who held D.C.'s purse strings, had decided not to fund the project after all. Without the District of Columbia 's part of the budget, The Washington Ear couldn't go on, but by that time, according to Dr. Rockwell, she was in no position to pull out--she had burned her bridges.
This was when Louise Emanuel, the wife of an influential Maryland State Senator, decided to take up the cause of The Washington Ear. She was a friend of Ear's Board Vice President William F. DuBois, who in turn had been a Rockwell friend of long standing. Mrs. Emanuel offered to drive and accompany Dr. Rockwell to visit each and every senator on the D.C. Appropriations Sub Committee responsible for the funding of the District's share of the Ear budget. This the two women did, during the days of former President Nixon's imminent resignation, in an atmosphere that Dr. Rockwell remembers as "strange". The effort paid off, however; the sub committee decided to reinstate the funds for Ear that it had earlier deleted. The call to inform her of the sub committee's decision came on the day of Nixon's resignation; Dr. Rockwell remembers the day less for its historic significance, but that she could sigh a huge sigh of relief--she had already seen herself go to jail for nonpayment of all the equipment that was cluttering up her house at the very moment.
This took place in August of 1974. In September, the office of The Washington Ear Inc. opened for business, with one administrative employee, Terry Franko, and two engineers for the control room. Earendil Duncan, one of these, was the first in a series of engineers who worked for the Ear over the years, and he was a good one--he is still fondly remembered by long time listeners for the wonderful way he read the comics. Others were less well remembered, especially by the staff, including one who tried to build a boat in the control room.
Even before the office had opened, auditioning had begun for volunteer readers. Since Ear did not have studios yet, auditions took place at the premises of the Columbia School of Broadcasting in Bethesda. There never seemed to have been a shortage of volunteers, even at the very beginning. From time to time, articles were published in local newspapers about this new service that was planned for the Washington area; when such an article appeared there would usually be quite a few phone calls to Dr. Rockwell from people who were eager to become volunteer readers. One article especially, which appeared in the Washington Post, had brought a tremendous response. Now a schedule was set up for auditions. A format had been devised in cooperation with members of the Library of Congress staff; guidelines used for the Library of Congress Talking Books were taken into consideration, albeit modified for the purposes of Ear; the audition method used by the Minnesota radio reading service was also incorporated. Audition material included and still includes readings from lists of foreign names of persons and places, foreign terms, a poem or two, a comic strip, a piece of a novel or short story, and a news article. By October 21, 1974, as a result of Carmody's Post article on Ear, there were 267 requests for applications to use the receivers and the names of 278 volunteers as a response from the community. By November 7, 1974, Ear's first day on the air, 580 requests for applications had been received, sixty-three receivers had been placed, and 300 volunteers had been auditioned, with 173 cleared to read and 80 volunteers actually working with Ear, 60 of them as readers.
Even though work on the studios took longer than expected, both Dr. Rockwell and Fred Klimes felt that Ear had to go on the air as soon as possible. Fred Klimes suggested a starting day toward the latter part of a week so that there would be some time for last minute wiring before the first broadcast, and a weekend without broadcasts shortly afterwards, following Ear's debut. So a Thursday--Thursday, November 7, 1974--was decided upon. Chaos still reigned at the new studios, with construction material strewn about; Fred Klimes spent until the early hours of Thursday putting the finishing touches on the wiring, so that Ear really could go on the air.
Ear was scheduled to go on the air with the live reading of the Washington Post; the first volunteers arrived early, and a small number of family members and friends, as well as some members of Ear's Board of Directors had gathered. A local television station, Channel 4, had sent a crew to film the event, there was a large coffee urn and boxes of doughnuts, and everyone felt in a festive mood. Dr. Rockwell's voice was the first to go out over the air, inaugurating the new service, then Meg Graham, a Junior League volunteer, and Don Thomasberg were the first team to read the Washington Post, the first program carried live over Ear, to be received by some 63 listeners, and a program which has continued in that time slot--from 7 to 9 a.m.--ever since.
At first Ear was on the air only for a few hours on weekdays. The Washington Post was read live for two hours, then was rebroadcast, from tape, then Ear signed off until 3 p.m., when the Evening Star was read until 5 p.m. At the same time, volunteers were "banking" book readings in advance so as to have a backlog of readings to get on the air as soon as possible. Grocery and shopping ads were also among the first features heard on Ear. By April of the following year, a monthly program guide began to be sent out, requests for applications as well as auditions were being processed steadily, and the Washington Ear Inc. had become a reality.
Not everything went smoothly from the beginning. Although a preliminary format appeared to have been established for the newspaper readings, it must not have been very specific, since some of the earliest readers remember that each partner had to pay close attention to the other in order to know what had been read and what was still to come, and that one "had to be on one's toes." Raymond Stromberg, one of the earliest volunteers, remembers one anecdote from that period, involving the engineer. The reading of the Evening Star, a now defunct afternoon paper, was routinely taped for later re-broadcast, as is the Washington Post even today. One day, the engineer apparently forgot to tape the reading. The volunteers, having long finished their reading, had gone home, when he discovered that there was no tape. So, for two solid hours, the engineer read the Evening Star, by himself and live.
Another story involves the very first reading of the Washington Post on opening day. Meg Graham remembers that first reading vividly, the people milling about, the television crew, and the heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach when it was time to read live. She read an article about just resigned President Nixon in which a garbled version of one sentence, to her dismay, conveyed the meaning that he had died. Unable to decide whether to laugh or burst into tears, she remembers glancing across to her partner, Don Thomasberg, who eloquently shrugged his shoulders; thus reassured, she finished reading. Afterwards, they both shot out of the booth and had a fit of laughter. "My first day on the air and my first error. . ." she recalls with amusement, if somewhat ruefully.
Henry Tennenbaum was not so lucky at one of his early readings. A professional television personality and an Ear volunteer of long standing, Tennenbaum's assignment, during one live reading of the Washington Post, included a piece by Ann Landers, which on that day had some letters more bizarre than usual. One, about a cow that had to wear a bra, struck Tennenbaum as especially incongruous and he couldn't control his laughter. The more he tried, the more laughter took possession of him, until he had to stop reading altogether in order to collect himself. "Very unprofessional attitude," he chastised himself afterwards.
In those early days, volunteers came in once or several times a week, there was vying for studio space in the cramped quarters at 10111 Colesville Road, and volunteers shared the premises with the office staff. But although this lack of space was by no means ideal, it did lend itself to a certain familiarity among volunteers and staff. Some of the volunteers interviewed for this history recall those early days with fondness and some nostalgia; they remember sharing a certain pride and possessiveness in something new, something that they felt they "were going to make work . . . ." As Ear began to grow and as the organization inevitably became somewhat institutionalized, this early closeness was lost. However, from the beginning, numerous get-togethers, open house activities, teas, receptions, and dinners were held, both for volunteers and listeners; these have helped cultivate a feeling of team spirit, to some extent, and have tried to encourage interaction between readers and those to whom they read.
The Washington Ear had to and did grow over the next ten years. Very quickly Ear extended airtime during weekdays, and beginning in March, 1975, it began to broadcast on weekends as well. Several new programs were tried. In the beginning, some Library of Congress Talking Books were presented; after Ear volunteers were able to "stockpile" readings from current bestsellers, this duplication of available service to the blind was discontinued. For a time, a dramatic reading of plays was presented during evening hours, on a program called "Saturday Evening at the Theater." Later, a show called "Let's Meet at the Smithsonian" featured information and interviews by two volunteers, one of them blind.
Because the Ear had to be responsive to its listeners, in early 1975 a program committee was formed. The only member of this committee with normal vision was its chairman, the Reverend Msg. Leonard F. Hurley, one of the founding members of the Ear Board of Directors. Through the years, the committee has been composed of thirteen to fifteen members, all Ear listeners. They meet quarterly in the board room of the National Association of Broadcasters in downtown Washington, D.C. Some meetings are held at the Ear studios on the air with call-ins from listeners.
A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled Ear in 1981 to produce a series of historical radio portraits of Washington neighborhoods ("Washington Neighborhoods: A History of Change") in order to bring better understanding of their local environment to Ear's listeners. Accompanying the series programs was the publication of a tactile and large print atlas of the Washington Metropolitan Area in a combination of raised line symbols and large print, that could be "read" by the visually impaired. Produced in cooperation with the Geography Department of the University of Maryland at College Park, this atlas was the first such ever produced for any city. One early program that has endured and remained popular with Ear's public for close to ten years is called "Cooking, Cleaning, and Coping." It was hosted by Gladys Loeb, a blind homemaker, who has worked with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Services, Vocational Rehabilitation, and Adult Education on home workshops for the blind. Later, Mrs. Loeb was joined by Dr. Phyllis Burson, a psychologist, wife, and mother. Each week one of these hosts discusses topics ranging from child care, family adjustments, recreational opportunities, home decorating, fashion and clothing, to cooking tips and the selection of kitchen appliances. Once a month, a show is taped in Mrs. Loeb's kitchen during which she prepares either a single dish or an entire meal, complete with such sound effects as water gushing from a spigot, a knife chopping vegetables on a wooden board, and the spattering of hot oil in a skillet.
Another important program not in the usual reading format is the monthly series "The Law and the Disabled", produced by the husband and wife attorney team of Richard and Anne Herman. This program is carried by a majority of the radio reading services across the country via tape recording. But the Ear's first priority has always been and continues to be the reading of daily newspapers, current magazines, and bestsellers which are read at the same time they are read and discussed by everyone else. As Dr. Rockwell believes, "blind people want to be as up-to-date as sighted people," and radio reading services such as Ear, with their immediacy, enable them to be so. She also believes that blind people are entitled to the same choices in reading material as those of sighted people, within the time and fiscal constraints of a radio reading service. This led her to respond rather tartly to a short article that appeared in Newsweek Magazine on October 27, 1975, cleverly titled "Aural Sex." Newsweek poked gentle fund at radio reading services for the blind, such as WUHY of Philadelphia, which had read Alex Comfort's book The Joy of Sex to its 1,300 sightless listeners, and thought that this "treat was . . . almost as tasty, in fact, as the excerpts from Fear of Flying being taped this week for a similar service in Washington, D.C." (p. 78). Newsweek continued: Although most of the programming offers excerpts from newspapers, racy readings seem to be a growth industry virtually untroubled by competition; a single issue of Playboy takes a month to translate into Braille, is an inch and a half thick and has no centerfold.
Although she had been quoted as saying "the blind are entitled to experience an array of literature they could respond to if they were not blind," which made her position plain, Dr. Rockwell wrote a terse letter to Newsweek, protesting the "highly distorted description of a valuable communication tool being used for the blind and physically handicapped who cannot effectively read print," a letter which was duly published without comment (November 24, 1975, p. 10).
Books, whether Fear of Flying, Times to Remember, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy's memoirs, or All the President's Men, Bernstein and Woodward's unraveling of Watergate, or Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy, Le Carre's intricate tale of spying and deceit, were read for two hours each day, divided between two programs, but as Ear continued to grow, newspapers and magazines continued to make up the bulk of Ear's programming.
A very few fund raisers were held over the years since that memorable flea market in 1973. Henry Tennenbaum allowed himself to be "roasted" during a gala evening at the Statler-Hilton Hotel on April 2, 1977. An art exhibit and auction was held the following year. And since 1975, a local chapter of Knights of Columbus holds an annual charity ball, chaired by William Rivers, which nets Ear several thousand dollars annually.
There has never been a concerted effort to raise funds among Ear's listeners, although contributions are sent regularly on a voluntary basis. In general, for its main funding, the annual pilgrimage to the various jurisdictions has to be undertaken; grants from foundations, corporations, and other private sources also have to be sought; additional funding became available through the signing of an Educational Broadcasting Act, through which the Federal Government is able to supply $3.00 for each $1.00 spent by the Washington Ear for such purposes as the purchase of SCA receivers and studio equipment. In 1981, Ear received one of these grants to update its control room and studio equipment. The extensive design and countless hours of wiring and installation were expertly volunteered by Mike Byrnes, former chief of facilities engineer for National Public Radio, now chief engineer at WAMU-FM.
In 1975, the radio reading services became alarmed about copyright legislation contemplated which re-examined the rights which radio reading services enjoyed to broadcast materials without securing copyright clearance or paying royalties. Although wording was proposed that would consider royalty rates for public radio to be substantially lower than commercial rates, Dr. Rockwell and others quickly realized that these proposed changes could eventually include radio reading services such as Ear and could, in effect, force these services to secure copyright clearance and to pay some royalties. The cost of such clearance and even modest royalties would impose an extreme hardship on the chronically under-financed and under-staffed services. Dr. Rockwell contacted all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and attended meetings, with others, of the appropriate Senate Sub Committee. She pressed for language to be included that would specifically exempt radio reading services from any copyright clearance requirements and royalty payment, regardless of the decision that would be made relating to National Public Radio and Television itself. This view eventually prevailed.
Her view also prevailed in 1976, when WETA applied for renewal of its sub carrier license. At that time, WETA and Dr. Rockwell decided to request a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission, enabling radio reading services to read food and shopping ads from newspapers, using the public radio channels. WETA and other public radio stations at that time were constrained from airing any advertisement whatsoever. As such ads always were considered very important for blind people by most reading services, including Ear, many services had, in fact, been reading such ads, but were technically in violation of the law. When the issue was brought into the open, several of the services were less than pleased, fearing that an adverse ruling would preclude the continuation of this valuable service. Dr. Rockwell, however, insisted that this service should be rendered and should be legal; eventually the FCC ruled to that effect.
Washington Ear, meanwhile, had continued to grow; by the beginning of 1979, over 1,500 receivers had been placed within the region, and several jurisdictions had been added, bringing the total to fourteen. Since 1976, more than 110 regular volunteer readers had kept Ear on the air for over 700 hours a month, and new volunteers were added monthly. This enabled Ear to add such new features as the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, a variety of publications of specific interest to black people, and others. In 1976, through the efforts of the Washington Junior League, a Speakers' Bureau had been established which provided lectures to service organizations and other groups within the metropolitan area. Studio space at 10111 Colesville Road definitely began to be too small for the operation of Washington Ear. It was time for a move.
At the same time that Ear's original lease with the Woodmoor Shopping Center expired, larger facilities became available at the Marvin Memorial United Methodist Church at 35 University Boulevard East, Silver Spring, just across the street from the old premises. Raymond Swann, a trustee of the church as well as a veteran Ear volunteer reader, had brought the facility to Dr. Rockwell's attention. Although extensive alterations would have to be undertaken--the whole central portion of the available suite had to be adopted to its use as radio studios--it was decided to make the move. On October 1st, 1979, the first files and furniture were moved, and by October 22 the move was completed, with a number of volunteers at one point carrying the main control board, with wiring dangling, across University Boulevard to its new home. Broadcast of the Washington Ear was not interrupted.
Unfortunately, Dr. Rockwell herself at the time of the move was flat on her back in severe pain, awaiting major surgery on her spine which was scheduled for, ironically, November 7, Ear's fifth birthday. For six weeks following the operation, she was prohibited from riding in an automobile. She remained in a heavy plaster full body cast for nine months. Ear's business had to be conducted from a pallet in her living room, and today she regretfully remembers that she didn't get to see the new studios until December of that year.
Having been successful in fighting for exemption from copyright legislation and payment of royalty fees in 1976 and obtaining a ruling allowing the reading of food and shopping ads using sub carriers of public radio stations, radio reading services faced another challenge in 1982. During that summer, the Federal Communications Commission initiated rule proceedings, "examining whether to change its rules to permit noncommercial educational FM stations to use their subsidiary communications capacity for commercial purposes." In other words, the FCC considered allowing public radio stations to charge commercial rates for the use of its sub channels.
While certainly desirable for NPR, hardpressed itself for funds, as a source of revenue, such a decision by the FCC would be disaster for Ear and other radio reading services like it which relied on the use of these sub carriers of public radio stations. While the FCC rather disingenuously declared that its proposal to allow the use of sub-carrier signals for remunerative purposes was a "purely permissive one" and would not require any station to do so nor would it require displacement of current noncommercial uses, it seemed obvious to radio reading services across the country that noncommercial FM stations would hardly be in a situation to resist such "remunerative purposes." As Dr. Rockwell succinctly stated in a letter to Walter Scheiber of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (June 18, 1982), "the Washington Ear is now giving WETA-FM $3,000 a year for the use of their SCA needed to transmit our programs. This reimburses WETA for the actual costs of providing this service to us. If WETA were permitted by FCC to charge commercial rates for this channel Washington Ear would have to pay from forty to sixty thousand dollars per year as a minimum or go off the air." Or, as Ron Alridge put it in the Chicago Tribune (May 19, 1982), "there is no way such shoestring operations can compete with big business in a war for the sub-channel time." It was clear that Ear's existence was at stake.
The letter to COG was only one of dozens of letters that were now written. Dr. Rockwell wrote to senators, representatives, and members of the FCC, and strongly urged fellow services to do the same. She provided the senator from Maryland, Charles McC. Mathias, Jr., with thoroughly researched information outlining the plight of the radio reading services, should the FCC deregulate use of SCA facilities. The Association of Radio Reading Services, Inc., which included Ear, had meetings with the Director of National Public Radio in an attempt to reach a compromise of some sort, and there were numerous hearings.
The Council of Governments again passed a resolution on behalf of Ear; the COG Board of Directors recommended that the FCC grant an exemption to the proposed rule for non-profit educational agencies such as Washington Ear, Inc., "enabling them to continue to utilize side band channels at a modest carrier cost." This resolution was transmitted to the Commissioners of the FCC as well as members of the area's Congressional delegation. Congressional members, especially from several districts of Maryland, engaged themselves in Ear's behalf.
In the Fall of 1982, the Federal Communications Commission, in the spirit of government deregulation then prevailing, did in fact deregulate the use of sub carrier signals. The commission did, however--no doubt influenced by the frantic activity of the preceding summer--exempt all radio reading services from the effects of this ruling.
So far, an uneasy truce exists between National Public Radio and the Association of Radio Reading Services and its members. Some stations which use a sub channel have already found themselves faced with increased costs for the use of the channel. So far, those stations using such channels have been "protected" by a series of prohibitions for their removal. However, a future confrontation by one or more reading services with the FCC, NPR, and the owners of open channels is still a possibility.
In the meantime, the ruling exemption by the FCC has been good news for the users of the estimated 125,000 receivers placed across the country. Radio reading services have proliferated within the last ten years; there are 89 of them in service now, some of them, like Ear, providing over 100 hours of broadcasting per week. The American Foundation for the Blind believes that the rapid growth of radio reading services is one of the most important advances in work for the blind since the advent of the Talking Book Program during the early 1930s. The Association of Radio Reading Services reflects this growth; it was established in 1977. Dr. Rockwell, who became treasurer of the organization at the meeting held that year in Bethesda, Maryland, hopes that the day will come when a blind person could move to virtually any city in the country and expect to hear the daily newspapers and other current materials over a local radio reading service. But, as she recently said, "it is not going to be a primary concern of society. The blind are only a fraction of the population. . .and while society is fond of financing these things, it then decides it has done its bit and wants to go on with the more important bit of living. . . .People don't want to be bothered with the details. . . .If you don't have strong leadership, it isn't going to happen."
Ear, for the last ten years, has had such leadership. Now, with the service entering its second decade, its day-to-day operation runs relatively smoothly. For long term volunteers, reading for Ear has become such a part of their weekly routine that they could not imagine giving it up. Volunteers for Ear come from all walks of life; they are lawyers, teachers, housewives, rabbis, priests, radio and TV personalities. Many of the volunteers are retired and they are the ones who have time to read during the day; others, who work full time, read at odd hours or over the weekend. They do this for a variety of reasons. Some feel that they want to do something useful during their retirement years; some become aware of the restrictions that can be imposed on a visually impaired person through the experience of a family member or a friend; some work with the blind and handicapped on a professional basis; most would concede that there is something of a ham in them, and there are some who are frustrated radio announcers. But for whatever reason they read, they feel that they are really doing something worth while.
Listeners such as Beth Ostrowski or Penny Reeder or Alva Marcus would agree with them. They are "on the receiving end" of this service. Beth Ostrowski, who works full time and gets around with the aid of a seeing-eye dog, starts her day with the Washington Post; it keeps her abreast of what her clients will have read and helps her anticipate questions they might ask her at her job at the Social Security Administration in Baltimore. She also thinks it is an advantage that she can iron or do other chores while "reading" a book, something sighted persons cannot do.
Penny Reeder also starts her day with the Washington Post. A young mother of four children, the youngest in diapers and a high chair, she considers herself one of the best read people she knows. Her receiver is on all day long and she finds that she knows more about business and sports than she ever did. She is also not above sending a friend home when the last installment of a suspense novel is about to be read. She thinks that Ear has kept her sanity at times. "I've been cooped up with small kids for a long time now, and the Ear has kept me in touch with the outside world . . . ." This is something Ear does for Alva Marcus as well. In fact, Ear enables the retired social worker to keep others up to date. And she certainly can tell her husband and her children that "I want to go to A, B, C, D. . . or I think we would enjoy thus and so. . .", since as a result of listening to Ear she knows what goes on in the community. Also, as she points out, "as a result of listening as intently and regularly as I do, I don't feel that I'm sitting on the sidelines. . . ." Mrs. Marcus listens to the Washington Post every day, she likes Psychology Today and regularly listens to a program called "Black Life," featuring a variety of magazine articles especially of interest to black people.
But whoever they are and whatever they listen to, there is never enough time to listen, never enough time for all the things they wish Ear could read. They cannot imagine that there are blind people in the metropolitan area who do not listen to Ear, and they feel bad for those who cannot get such a service in the community where they live.
In the greater Washington area there are many visually impaired people or others who cannot read for a variety of reasons who could benefit from the radio reading service the Ear provides, but who do not presently receive it. Dr. Rockwell estimates that there are between two and four thousand people in the area who would be eligible for the use of Ear's receivers. Some, particularly the aging, don't want to admit to themselves or their families or friends that they are losing their sight. Some postpone getting the service by saying "well, maybe when I am not so busy". But most simply do not know about the service, especially perhaps those who are not able to read for other reasons than visual impairment. To reach a still wider listenership is one of the plans that Ear no doubt will pursue in the coming years.
The Washington Ear, Inc., as it enters its second decade, seems to be running on an even keel. A newly hired executive director has enabled Dr. Rockwell to detach herself somewhat from the day-to-day routine and especially the fund raising activities involved with Ear. It is not question of retiring for her, however. A new idea has begun to percolate.
In January of 1983, Dr. Rockwell married Cody Pfanstiehl. Now both she and her husband are very excited about a new Audio Description service. This service visually impaired people are using now at local theaters in order to enhance their enjoyment of a play. Specially trained volunteers give short descriptions of setting, costumes, and characters for the upcoming play and provide short commentary during scenes with action but without dialogue, scenes that could well leave a blind person mystified, especially when sight gags make everyone else laugh. Introduction and live commentaries can be heard by an attending blind person via a small FM short range transmitter and tiny ear phones. This free service was started in October of 1981 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and is now also offered at the Kennedy Center and the newly refurbished National Theater. And Audio Description has been added to television. Since early 1982, specially chosen experienced volunteers have been adding an Audio Description sound track to the "American Playhouse" television series of dramas on Public Broadcasting Service. During the winter and spring of 1983, the drama narration and also the NOVA series commentaries were relayed to some eighteen cities via satellite and broadcast simultaneously with the TV program by the local radio reading services. This enabled the visually impaired to understand better the programs along with their sighted friends and families and represented an electronic extension, on a national level, of the live theater Audio Description technique. Unfortunately, the grant paying for transmission charges was not renewed. Today only "American Playhouse" Audio Narration is produced and broadcast locally as a radio show to keep the idea alive.
Most recently Dr. Pfanstiehl and her husband Cody have been involved in producing the first ever raised map and Braille atlas of an entire state, Maryland. This pioneering project is in conjunction with the 350th anniversary celebration of that state. The 21 maps, plus 23 pages of index, will be accompanied by three voice-indexed cassettes with instructions and geographic, demographic, and historical information. As was the case with the earlier atlas of Washington, D.C., a large print edition will also be available for visually impaired people who still can read such print.
Continuing involvement with Ear and interest in radio reading services nationwide, the production of the unique Atlas of Maryland, the Audio Description service--these are projects which keep Dr. Rockwell Pfanstiehl far from contemplating retirement. Both she and her husband Cody believe strongly in the viability of Audio Description for television on a national level and are ready for more work to transform yet another new idea into reality. After all, it worked for the Ear . . . . As for The Washington Ear, Inc--that organization is preparing for its second decade by quietly continuing to do what it has done during its first decade: giving a valued community service within the greater Washington Metropolitan area. And that should make the almost 2,000 listeners as well as the volunteers and the staff of Ear feel good.
The first Executive Board meeting of Washington Ear Incorporated was held on August 13, 1973
at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. Present were the following:
William F. DuBois, Jr.
President, Contact Lens & Artificial Eye Service, Inc.
Gladys Clark, Washington, D.C.
Dr. Faton Gashi, Department of Physical Medicine,
Dr. Jean R. Hebeler, Chairman, Department of Special Education,
University of Maryland, College Park
Brother Hilary Mettes, S.T., Secretary General
Holy Trinity House, Washington, D.C.
Rabbi Tzvi Porath, Ohr Kodosh Congregation, Chevy Chase, Maryland
Colonel Horace G. Reeder, II, U.S. Air Force (ret.)
Dr. Margaret W. Rockwell, The Washington Ear, Inc.
President and Director
Dr. Winifred Scharles, Chevy Chase, Maryland
Dr. J. Thomas Schnebly, Opthamologist, Silver Spring, Maryland
During the same meeting three new members were accepted:
Raymond Shaheen, Pastor St Luke Lutheran Church
David Shaheen, Youth Minister of St Luke Lutheran Church Mr. Morris Bortnick, Vice President, Special Services, Giant Foods; Mr. Albert Hutchinson,
President of Suburban Trust Company, and Mrs. Freddie Peaco, Coordinator of Student Services,
Library of Congress.
Jurisdictions in which Washington Ear, Inc. has listeners and which contribute to its funding:
Anne Arundel County, Maryland
Arlington County, Virginia
Calvert County, Maryland
District of Columbia
Fairfax County, Virginia
Frederick County, Maryland
Loudon County, Virginia
Montgomery County, Maryland
Prince George's County, Maryland
Prince William County, Virginia
In addition to locations in these jurisdictions, Washington Ear services can be received in a small
number of other locations.
the Metropolitan Washington Ear studios on November 7, 1994, the day began in
one respect much as it had 20 years before when the service first went on the
air. Two volunteers arrived early
that morning to prepare for the 7 a.m. live newspaper reading that starts the
day for many of the visually handicapped Ear listeners in the greater
Washington, D.C. area.
many other ways, however, the day was very different from Ear's beginning 20
years before. Original Ear
listeners tuned in for a few hours on weekdays to hear live and taped readings
from The Washington Post and The Evening Star. But in 1994 their Ear receiver delivered 24 hours of
programming from more than 200 current publications -- national and local
newspapers, magazines and best-selling books -- and special interest
information on topics ranging from sports to gardening.
addition, in 1994, users of the Ear's Dial-In service did some of their
newspaper and magazine "reading" very selectively.
With Dial-In, they heard only those sections and articles in The
Washington Post and Time magazine that were of most interest to
them and at a time that was most convenient -- just by pressing the
appropriate buttons on a touch-tone telephone keypad.
could call to arrange for an Ear volunteer theatre escort to drive them to the
Kennedy Center for a performance of "The Marriage of Figaro."
They could enjoy Mozart's opera enhanced by audio descriptions of the
colorful costumes, the stage settings and the performers' actions.
Those visual aspects of the performance were transmitted to the
opera-goers' ear receivers from a volunteer audio describer sitting elsewhere
in the theatre.
users of Ear services in November, 1994, listened to taped program notes for
the Schumann piano concerto they later would be hearing performed by the
National Symphony Orchestra. If
relaxation before the television set beckoned, there were audio described
programs such as "Nature" and "Mystery!" in the week's
public broadcasting TV listings.
whose interest lay in visiting some of the famous and historical sites of
Washington could have done some fingertip exploring of a model of the U.S.
capitol at the National Building Museum.
There they could touch the dome, statues and doorway decorations
detailed in the audio description tape playing in their headset receivers.
At the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, they could experience the
sweep of airplanes soaring across a five-story-high screen, thanks to the
audio description for the IMAX film "To Fly."
planning a trip might have checked on audio described IMAX films and live
theatre performances across the USA, as well as AD theater performances in a
number of other countries. Tourists
in New York City could have mentally grasped the size of the Statue of Liberty
as they physically grasped a four-foot replica of her nose and listened to a
taped introduction to the famous French lady of New York Harbor.
Others could have walked the streets of historic Harper's Ferry, West
Virginia, transported back to 1859 with a National Park Service taped
description of the "grapefruit-sized cobblestones and high grey slate
the Ear's 20th anniversary arrived, its basic reading service continued.
But across the Washington metropolitan region, across the country and,
indeed, in many other countries, the influence of the Ear -- especially
through the outreach work of its
founder and president Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl and her husband, Cody --
had opened or enhanced many pathways to news, information and entertainment
for people who are blind or visually impaired.
history of the Ear's second decade details those developments.
It follows an earlier publication, The Washington Ear, Inc.,
1974-1984, A History, by Washington Ear volunteer Anneli M. Levy.
Metropolitan Washington Ear, Inc., is a nonprofit organization providing
reading and information services for blind, visually impaired and physically
disabled people who cannot effectively read print, see plays, watch television
programs and films or view museum exhibits.
"Metropolitan" was added to the organization's original name
in 1988 to recognize that the Ear's service extends to the entire national
capital area and not just to Washington, D.C. alone.
services strive as much as possible to substitute hearing for seeing,
improving the lives of people with limited or no vision by enabling them to be
well-informed, fully productive members of their families, their communities
and the working world. The Ear's
services are available to anyone certified as unable effectively to read
ordinary print because of visual or physical limitations.
This covers everyone from
the totally blind to one sighted user who has a severe allergy to the
formaldehyde in newsprint that prevents her from holding a newspaper.
founder Dr. Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl doesn't like to use the term
"blind" because she
considers it too restrictive. There
are many people with poor vision who do not live in a completely blank world,
she notes, and they can be quite self-sufficient.
Dr. Pfanstiehl herself was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic
progressive eye disease that limits peripheral vision and, generally in young
adulthood, leads to severe visual impairment.
Despite having lost the ability to read print, she earned both a
master's degree and a doctorate in counseling and human development.
the beginning, the Ear radio reading service audience has represented all
segments of the community. Half
are older persons, since visual impairment occurs more frequently within this
age group. Ear listeners include
students, homemakers, those working outside the home in a variety of fields
and professions, retired persons, individuals in nursing homes and
institutions and recovering patients in hospitals who can't hold newspapers or
special receiver looking much like a portable radio delivers broadcasts that
originate in the Ear's third-floor rented studios at the Marvin Memorial
United Methodist Church in Silver Spring, MD.
The receivers are pretuned to a subcarrier channel of WETA-FM, a
Washington area public radio station that makes this channel available to the
The transmission radius is 35 miles.
receivers can be used with timers and tape recorders. Many listeners with cassette playback equipment also use
either compressed speech or variable speed regulators to enable them to
achieve reading rates of up to 400 words per minute.
Studio readers average from 175 to 200 words per minute.
October, 1994, there were an estimated 1,457 radio reading service listeners.
The cost of receivers had risen from an initial $63 in 1974 to $80 in
1984 and to $85 in 1994. The
Ear's operating budget is supported in part by pro-rata allocations from 13
county and municipal governments in the region and from one state -- Virginia.
From time to time, there have been
contributions from the state of Maryland also. Jurisdictions giving financial support include:
the District of Columbia, through the DC Council of Governments; in
Virginia, the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Frederick, Loudoun and Prince
William and the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Winchester, and the
State Department of Technology; and in Maryland, the counties of Calvert,
Montgomery, and Prince George's and the city of Greenbelt.
jurisdictions provided 70 to 75 per cent of the funds needed for day-to-day
expenses in the Ear's early years. More
recently, that has dropped to 57 percent.
The rest of the needed funds must be raised from private sources.
Individuals, civic groups, foundations and business organizations have
been crucial to the development and growth of the Ear over the years.
the Ear's listeners, the more than 300 volunteers contributing their time to
the various services also represent all segments of the community.
Many are retired but there are other men and women who find time at the
beginning or end of their working day -- or on weekends -- to keep these
volunteer commitments that have become an important part of their lives.
Nine of these dedicated persons and three members of the board have
been with the organization since its beginning.
(See appendix 1.)
The Ear began with only six hours of daily weekday programming -- four
hours of live newspaper reading and two hours of rebroadcasting of the Post
and Star programs. By the
end of the first decade, however, the on-air time had increased to 117 hours
per week. The radio reading
service became an around-the-clock seven-day operation on November 1, 1989,
when WETA's move to 24-hour programming made the Ear expansion possible.
Ear's mission is unique, Dr. Pfanstiehl believes. "We were established and funded to provide comprehensive
readings from a representative array of local and current print publications.
We place great emphasis upon newspapers and shopping information
because it is impossible to provide this type of printed material in Braille
or recorded form and then transport it to the homes of the listeners before
the articles and information have become hopelessly outdated."
an ideal world, she says, all newspapers, magazines and books would be
recorded instantly and sent to listeners on audio cassettes or via a telephone
dial-in service. Then they could
listen to articles of interest at a convenient time and at increased playing
speeds. The Ear's job has been to
come as close to this ideal as possible, broadening the total options for
reading for its listeners.
the initial emphasis on local printed information continued during the Ear's
second decade. Local magazines,
black newspapers and community newspapers from the surrounding areas were
added to the schedule. Listeners
in November, 1994, heard news from The Washington Post and The Washington
Times, as well as information from Barron's, The Christian Science
Monitor, The National Enquirer, The New York Times, USA
Today, and The Wall Street Journal.
Magazines ranged from the local Washingtonian and Smithsonian
to The New Yorker and Ebony.
February 1, 1993, however, not all of the Ear's programming has originated in
the Silver Spring studios. Decreases
in funding from foundations and area governmental jurisdictions led to some
budget cutbacks at the Ear. Office
expenses had been closely watched, with volunteers recruited to help with some
office duties. The costs of
supplies and paperwork were reduced when possible.
To lower staffing costs, the Ear turned to the Minnesota Radio Talking
Book Service for programs of general or national, rather than strictly local,
satellite technology, the Minnesota service sends some of its programs via the
National Public Radio satellite to the satellite dish of Station WAMU in
Washington, DC. The mixture of
live and taped programs from Minnesota travels from WAMU to the Ear by a
telephone tie line. Minnesota-produced
programs, such as the Sunday New York Times, are then part of the
programming package that goes out to Ear listeners primarily in afternoon,
evening and overnight time slots. This
change allowed the Ear to cut back on engineering staff in later hours on
weekdays and throughout weekends. (See
Epilogue for programming changes made as the Ear entered its third decade.)
Ear's Consumer Committee meets as needed to discuss programming and
scheduling. The aim is to provide
materials from all intellectual levels -- a representative sampling of printed
matter that listeners might select if they could read for themselves.
an effort to carry that selection option a major step forward, the Ear
inaugurated its Dial-In service in September, 1991. Dial-In callers use the buttons on their touch-tone telephone
keypad to get directly to the sections and articles in various publications
that are of most interest to them. Dial-In
began with The Washington Post and Time magazine was added in
the fall of 1993.
services were in place in Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico when the Ear's
service began; California, New Jersey and eastern Kansas have since added
dial-in systems and Texas and Ohio reading services were actively working on
the project in 1994. (See
Epilogue for listing of active dial-in services as of June, 1995.)
Ear's move in this direction began with a Spring, 1990, survey of listeners
that indicated sufficient interest. After
Dr. Pfanstiehl visited Minnesota's dial-in operation, plans were set in motion
to raise an estimated $70,000 for start-up costs from area foundations.
Dial-In added about $45,000 a year to the Ear's operating budget.
there was space on the basement level of the Marvin Memorial United Methodist
Church for the new operation, which required renovations to provide reading
carrels for eight volunteers, storage space, office space for the Dial-In
manager and room for computer equipment.
Telephone lines were installed to give 12 callers and eight readers
access to the system simultaneously. Later,
four more caller lines were added.
who had been recruited earlier in 1991 kept busy recording books and emergency
program tapes for the reading service until they were needed for Dial-In.
The Dial-In readers record every article in its entirety, unlike radio
reading service volunteers, who may edit selections due to the time
constraints of an hour or half-hour program.
But the basic assignment "upstairs" and
"downstairs" is the same: to be clear, expressive and non-judgmental
as one reads.
Pfanstiehl listed the sections of the Post for the Dial-In --
everything except the fine-print sports statistics, stock market figures and
classified advertising. Brian
Wilson of Telephone Computer Systems Inc. wrote the appropriate computer
program and visited the Ear for a weekend to help with its installation and
staff training and a "dry run" for the Consumer Committee, Dial-In
began on September 26, 1991. The
service continues to operate daily around the clock. Volunteers begin to arrive at 6 a.m. and, over the next four
or five hours, read assigned sections of newspapers or magazines into headset
telephones that send their articles into storage in the Dial-In computer.
volunteers have worked at their homes since Dial-In began.
Using headset telephones, they record their articles just as the
readers in the Ear carrels do. Several dozen people work each day to get the various
publications into the computer's message bank.
Each Dial-In publication is available to callers until the next issue
of that particular newspaper or magazine is entered into the computer.
can telephone the Ear, push the appropriate identification and security
numbers on their telephone keypads, then touch other numbers to move forward
and back through the articles in the recorded publications or to increase the
speed of the reading. Some
callers use telephone headsets at their end of the line to avoid the slight
distortion of readers' voices emitted from the telephone speakerphone.
were about 250 Dial-In users when the service started in the Fall of 1991.
By the Ear's 20th anniversary three years later, that number had grown
to 787. The articles in the Post
that they dialed up most consistently during the initial years were in the
sports, obituary, editorial and front sections.
The columnists also were popular.
refinements have made the system less vulnerable to power problems than it was
initially. A surge protector was
installed to decrease the threat of computer failure due to power fluxuations.
Another improvement to the computer permits the Dial-In manager to
re-start it from a distant location.
the snowstorm-plagued winter of 1994, Dial-In's remote recording and computer
start-up capabilities ensured the uninterrupted delivery of the daily paper to
those using the service. "Day
after day in the latter part of January, I would pick up my phone, incredulous
to find a complete edition of the Post ... without fail,"
wrote a Bethesda resident. "It
was impressive, it was wonderful, and I...can't thank you and (the volunteers)
the equipment to let volunteers work from their homes also led to the Ear's
Look-Up Ad Service, begun in November, 1993.
Each evening from 7 to 9 p.m. an Ear volunteer receives calls forwarded
to his or her home from those who need information from the classified
advertising in The Washington Post or from the telephone directory
Ear was declared on an "even keel" at the conclusion of the history
written about its first decade. But
there were other seas to cross -- quite literally for the Pfanstiehls -- as
the organization sailed through its second decade.
One of these relatively uncharted areas was the service of audio
description (AD), which Ear had launched at Arena Stage in Washington in
October, 1981. By the time the
Ear marked its 10th anniversary, the Kennedy Center, the National Theatre, the
Tawes Theater at the University of Maryland and the Round House Theatre in
Montgomery County also offered AD
service to their patrons. By the
time the 20th anniversary rolled around, audio description had spread not only
in the District of Columbia, Prince George's County, MD, and Balitimore, but
to many other states, to other countries, to television, home videos, IMAX
films and to historic sites, museums and nature centers.
all began with a call to Dr. Pfanstiehl (then Rockwell) from Wayne White, then
the house manager for Washington's Arena Stage. The theatre had a grant to make its productions more
accessible and wanted to do something for the visually handicapped.
White thought that the Phonic Ear sound amplifying equipment for the
deaf might be useful to deliver descriptive information to those with vision
1976 the Ear's "Saturday Evening at the Theatre" program had
broadcast some plays with adaptations to make them suitable for radio, where
words and sounds have to substitute for vision. But revised copyright laws had made that illegal and the
series ended. Dr. Pfanstiehl told
White that she would organize and develop a way to provide description
services -- "the art of talking pictorially."
description is "as old as sighted people trying to tell blind people what
things look like," notes Dr. Pfanstiehl.
"But doing it in a prepared, scheduled way is quite another
Pfanstiehls were the first to develop a practical and workable approach to and
essential training methods for audio description. The volunteers have to work "live" because the
delivery, timing and details of theatre performances vary.
There also are unscripted incidents like the bomb scare during a Carol
Channing performance in Washington or the appearance of a dog on an outdoor
stage in Ohio that evoked unexpected audience laughter.
Volunteers learn to use pictorially descriptive language about
characters, sets, costumes, action, lighting, dancing and the visual details
of a play that determine its impact on a viewer.
clenched fist, the rolled eyes, the slouching walk, the slumped shoulders --
the body language that lets a theatre-goer determine an actor's
physical or emotional state -- must be detailed without the audio describer's
own interpretation. It's
important for describers to include colors, says Dr. Pfanstiehl:
"Even if you have been blind from the beginning of your life, you
have an intellectual understanding of colors."
These pertinent details must be inserted during pauses in the dialogue
when it will be most helpful and least distracting to the listener.
good audio describer is a "faithful color camera lens," she says.
"What comes in the eye goes out the mouth.
It takes a good cultural background, good ad-libbing language skills, a
pleasing, clear voice, an ability to analyze and prioritize and an ability to
select succinct, clear and very descriptive words."
Pfanstiehls are convinced that top-notch audio describers are born, not made.
Training can sharpen the sensitivity and skills of those who have the
basic ability but not everyone can be taught.
One of the best they've encountered is a geological engineer.
One early trainee who didn't make the cut was a dance critic who
commented during a movie ballet scene, "That was a lousy plie."
During a passionate bedroom scene in the film, his audition tape was
silent, ending with the words "Holy smoke."
half of those who audition as audio describers are accepted. The Ear began
with a group of 17 volunteers, whose auditions and training sessions have
remained the model that is largely unchanged over the years. Would-be describers first hear a program soundtrack without
seeing the video and without hearing the audio description.
Next they hear the same scenes with AD but again without seeing the
video. Then they get all three:
sight, show sound and audio description.
auditioners' challenge is to ad lib their own descriptions for selected scenes
from "The African Queen" and "The Turning Point."
Two preview sessions with the film clips are permitted, as is
individual note-taking. Those who
are chosen then attend intensive three- or four-day training workshops,
followed by supervised practice -- and more practice.
Cody Pfanstiehl described the Ear's first AD performance, George Bernard
Shaw's "Major Barbara," at Arena Stage, he sat on a folding chair
off the main aisle talking into what looked like a small feedbag over his
mouth. The "feedbag"
was a stenographer's mask with a microphone linked to a small transmitter. People heard his description through tiny earphones wired to
an FM receiver the size of a cigarette pack.
equipment has remained essentially the same over the years, although its cost
has decreased considerably. Arena's
initial investment in 1981 was $13,000. But
a theatre could purchase Phonic Ear equipment in the 1990's for $2,000 to
theatres where describers sit in soundproof booths, they speak into a regular
microphone instead of the Stenomask. In
1986, the National Theatre was the first anywhere to provide a soundproof
booth for AD volunteers. At the
Kennedy Center, where the audio describers sat next to the Presidential Box,
volunteers had to do some initial explaining to the Secret Service agents
"next door." The agents
were polite but inquisitive about the AD equipment.
volunteers go to work well ahead of any AD performance. Both
prepare by previewing the play although, barring sickness or some other
problem, the main describer will handle the AD duties.
The alternate makes a 10-minute pre-performance tape and an
intermission tape of about six minutes for the theatre-goers. These
tapes include biographical information about the cast and playwright,
descriptions of characters, costumes and settings and any other information --
short of plot revelations -- that enhances the theatre experience. The AD volunteers are given free theatre tickets for
themselves and an additional ticket for a guest at one of the preview
performances. Parking costs are
the Washington, DC, area each theatre with AD has its own equipment, which
usually ensures sufficient numbers of headsets for those who need them at a
particular performance. The AD
audience record was set at a March, 1985, Hexagon Club revue when Cody
Pfanstiehl illuminated the evening for 110 visually handicapped theatre-goers
attending a free invitational preview.
in the Washington area, attendance by visually impaired theatre-goers usually
ranges from one to three or four. Unlike
other cities that may offer only one or two theatres with AD, the Washington
area has a number of theatres competing for the time, attention and
pocketbooks of this prospective audience.
And some of the "smaller" productions are less likely to draw
people than the big shows like "Cats" or "Les Miserables."
Attendance at these popular shows may rise to 20; there were 26 AD
patrons at a performance of "Carmen."
no matter how many listeners you have," Cody says, "you're never talking to a group.
You are talking to only one person, a friend, seated next to
theatre usually earmarks (and Ear-marks) one matinee and one evening show for
audio description in each play's run. A
particularly long run, such as that for "The Phantom of the Opera"
at the Kennedy Center, may include more AD performances.
the initial offerings at the Arena and Kreeger theatres at Arena Stage, the
Washington area organizations offering audio description grew to include the
Eisenhower, Opera House and Terrace at the Kennedy Center, the National, and
the Folger/Shakespeare, Hexagon and Ford's, all in the District.
Maryland theatres with AD are the Round House, Adventure (children's),
Olney, Tawes at the University of Maryland and the Morris Mechanic in
Baltimore. The Pfanstiehls also
ran audio description workshops for curators, docents and a theatre trainer affiliated with the
Prince George's County Arts Division of the Maryland National Capital Park and
the 1987-88 theatre season, there were more than 150 performances with audio
description in the Washington area. The
following season, the Ear's 22 AD volunteers provided description at 74
performances of 37 different stage productions. The Ear had its AD opera premiere on March 15, 1994, with The
Washington Opera's "Madame Butterfly" at the Kennedy Center.
a related service, Ear volunteers began taping National Symphony Orchestra
program notes in July, 1985. These
tapes and the pre-performance notes for regular plays can be mailed out to
concert patrons who wish to hear them in advance of the performance.
There is no postage cost for their mailing and return, thanks to
"free matter for the blind" postal regulations.
The taped symphony program notes were another "first
anywhere" for the Metropolitan Washington Ear.
what has theatre audio description meant to those who have used it over the
years? The answer is pretty much
a series of rave reviews. "There
were so many details I wouldn't have picked up from just listening, like when
a character flipped up his coattails to sit down," said a Washington
attorney who attended that pioneering AD performance of "Major
don't know what is happening and why they are laughing," commented
10-year-old Rebecca Hart about her usual theatre experience.
After attending the Adventure Theater in Glen Echo, MD, the first
children's theatre in the United States to offer AD, she said that audio
description "makes the play more fun because I know what is
had no idea they turned their little backs and showed their little
rears," exclaimed another theatre-goer after "seeing" "Can
a tool for the blind to get on an equal footing with their sighted
neighbors," Washington radio personality Ed Walker told The New York
Times after attending the hit musical "42nd Street" at the
getting to the theatre often is as great a deterrent to enjoying this
entertainment medium as any other aspect of the experience, the Ear
inaugurated a Theatre Escort Service in 1988.
Sighted volunteers provide door-to-door transportation to and from AD
performances and receive a free ticket in thanks from the theatre.
wasn't long before the Pfanstiehls' work with audio description attracted the
attention of theatres around the country -- and of interested people in
other countries. Early inquiries and requests for training came from the Wilma
Theatre in Philadelphia, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, Hospital
Audiences, Inc. in New York City and from the Ohio Theatre Alliance, as well
as from the Association for the Blind in Australia.
Pfanstiehls' response to these requests was to travel to various cities to
"train the trainers." Their
workshops, usually lasting three days, begin by orienting new volunteers on
the subject of blindness itself. This
is followed by descriptive exercises, the viewing of films and excerpts from
musical shows, the volunteers' attempts to describe three-minute segments of
taped performances, followed by a pre-recorded demonstration by an experienced
describer. Discussions of program
notes, AD equipment and the promotion and administration of an audio
description service conclude the training sessions. The Pfanstiehls leave their original students, now future AD
trainers themselves, to educate other volunteers.
results of the training efforts were gratifying from the start.
In 1988, Philadelphia's Wilma Theatre, the Paper Mill Playhouse in New
Jersey and Broadway's Gershwin Theatre presented audio described performances.
Paper Mill subsequently provided description for its plays, musicals
and children's shows and also invites visually impaired patrons to touch
props, costumes and set pieces during "sensory seminars" before
Paper Mill audio described performance of "Show Boat" launched the
"Great Performances" series on public television in 1989.
By 1993 Paper Mill offered three AD shows in the run of each play, drawing 100
to 125 visually handicapped patrons and 40 AD season subscriptions.
was the first to have AD capabilities statewide, thanks to the cooperation of
the Ohio Theatre Alliance and the Ohio Radio Reading Service, funded by the
Ohio Arts Council. After a
training workshop in June, 1987, these groups set up a system of sharing
equipment and volunteers that grew to involve some 50 theatres across the
state. Shakespeare's "As You
Like It" was the first outdoor AD performance anywhere, produced by the
Actors Summer Theatre in Columbus that month.
Hiland, director of volunteers at the Central Ohio Radio Reading Service, was
one of the visually handicapped theatre-goers who found that the advent of
audio description in her state opened up a whole new world.
"I actually saw a show for the first time in years," said
Mrs. Hiland, who had lost her sight gradually to retinitis pigmentosa.
"Now I know that when you hand me an FM receiver in the theatre,
you give me my ticket to equality with the sighted world," she told
Maturity News Service.
and indirectly, the results of the Pfanstiehls' work led to audio description
services in other countries. They
traveled to Melbourne, Australia, in October, 1988, for a busy round of daily
training sessions, evening talks, meetings and interviews.
After describers were trained at the Association for the Blind, audio
description was inaugurated at the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne.
Pfanstiehl demonstrated la description sonore in Paris at
a gathering of librarians for the blind at the annual meeting of the
Federation of Library Associations and Institutions in August, 1989.
As she addressed 100 people from 11 countries, her opening sentences in
French were simultaneously translated into English and the remainder of her
talk, in English, was translated into French.
their work in theatre audio description had progressed, the Pfanstiehls also
were very involved with the advent of described television programs.
This was another medium in which the blind and visually impaired are
very interested, according to a 1976 study from the American Foundation for
the Blind. The survey determined
that this audience tuned in to television for up to six hours a day, as much
as people who can see.
foray into television AD began in 1982. For
"The American Playhouse" series on public television the Pfanstiehls
created a separate sound track with descriptions to be broadcast on radio
reading service frequencies "in sync" with the televised plays.
Listeners in 18 cities could hear the programs' audio description on
their receivers. Using earphones, they could follow the programs' action while
others nearby were undisturbed by the additional commentary.
The Pfanstiehls and specially selected AD Ear volunteers added the PBS
science show "Nova" to their writing and producing schedule in 1983.
development in television technology led to the next technological advance for
access to TV audio description. WGBH-TV
in Boston, a PBS affiliate that had been one of the pioneers in closed
captioning for the hearing impaired, had been broadcasting in stereo since
1985. Under the direction of Dr.
Barry Cronin, then executive director of marketing and technology, WGBH began
exploring the wider use of a special feature of stereo.
feature is a channel called the separate audio program (SAP) available on
stereo television sets. A
television signal consists of the visual portion and three sound channels.
Two channels carry the twin signals used for stereo sound and the third
is available for other uses. Owners
of stereo TV sets or those having broadcast Multi-Channel Television Sound
stereo video cassette recorders can access SAP with the push of a button.
Those without stereo equipment can purchase a radio tuner to receive
the SAP channel. With such
equipment, listeners no longer had to tune into a radio reading service
frequency to hear audio description.
improve production of the audio description for television and film,
in 1986 WGBH began developing the technology for writing, pre-recording
and mixing descriptions for a soundtrack to be fed to other PBS stations via
satellite. This Descriptive Video
Service (DVS) was tested over the next several years with visually impaired
audiences in Boston and other cities. The
Metropolitan Washington Ear provided and recorded the audio description and
later trained the WGBH describers. When
it was time for the national test for DVS in the winter of 1988, the 26
"American Playhouse" soundtracks were recorded in the Ear studios
under contract to WGBH.
worked with very precise time segments interspersed among portions of
dialogue. AD script writers
worked at a computer connected to a video cassette recorder.
They viewed a television program video with a time code on it that gave
the exact number of seconds for each piece of narration.
Speech cues could be timed down to 1/30 of a second, with equipment
that speeded up, slowed down, froze or reversed the television program tape.
was a challenge," recalls Dr. Pfanstiehl.
"The program was on every week during that season and we didn't
miss a deadline in our own studios. We
really were the first to start producing TV AD."
major funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, DVS debuted as a
continuing service in major PBS markets with the stereo broadcast of
"American Playhouse" in the winter of 1990. By 1994 DVS was available for the PBS productions of
"American Playhouse," "Mystery!," "Wonderworks,"
"Nova" and "Degrassi High." The service was broadcast by 96 PBS stations, reaching 64
percent of all TV households. DVS
Home Video, started in 1991 with funding from the U.S. Department of
Education, offers for sale by direct mail nearly 100 titles that are closed
captioned and audio described.
quote from one DVS user is eloquent testimony to its importance to those with
limited vision. "My first
experience with DVS was very emotional. I
found myself pacing the floor in tearful disbelief," she said.
"It was like somebody had opened a door into a new world in which
I was able to see with my ears what most people see with their eyes.
The new world I describe is that of body language.
To a person who has never seen, body language does not exist.
I hope DVS will be able to continue on television permanently."
New Yorker wrote to Dr. Pfanstiehl after he experienced audio description with
"Cat on A Hot Tin Roof" on "The American Playhouse."
He said he could not describe the ecstasy "I felt in joining, for
the first time, with millions of sighted people who have watched this play
over the years...I hunger for more and hope you will be able to offer more of
these audio described productions..."
the field of film, Ear staff and volunteers wrote and narrated descriptive
soundtracks for four IMAX films, "To Fly," "The Dream Is
Alive," "Blue Planet" and "Antarctica."
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Chicago Museum of
Science and Industry and the Boston Museum of Science provide audio
description for these motion pictures that are shown on viewing screens five
audio described IMAX films were premiered at a gala at the Air and Space
Museum in August, 1990. The
International Space Theatre Consortium Conference showed excerpts from the AD
versions to a meeting of IMAX film directors at its gathering at The Hague in
Holland the next month.
such a service is not inexpensive, although the actual cost of the audio
description -- originally about $900 for an IMAX film soundtrack tape -- can
be shared by several museums. Theatre
equipment is costly; the Boston Museum of Science received a grant to finance
its $30,670 purchase of the basic hardware, eight-track recorder/producer,
channels and extra headsets for the Mugar Omni Theater there.
the equipment in place, however, extra channels on the eight-track player can
be used for simultaneous translation in several languages.
And accommodating the disabled at public facilities -- in the spirit of
the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 -- has brought theatres and
museums other benefits.
people using audio description have given very positive reports of the
experience," notes The Big Frame, a quarterly publication of the
Space Theater Consortium. "Older
people who aren't necessarily legally disabled receive a little extra help
from the resources. The small but
significant new audience of disabled people draws, in turn, more friends and
colleagues to theaters, and, in general, being able to promote services for
the disabled is a positive marketing tool."
and video AD has spread from television sets and movie screens to museums,
nature centers and historic sites around the country. The Metropolitan Washington Ear has produced film or video AD
for the National Park Service (at Yellowstone National Park among other
places), for the Ellis Island Museum and for the Johnstown (PA) Flood Memorial
Visitor Center. People with low
or no vision seated anywhere in the audience hear the description through
small radio earphones.
and historic sites have benefitted from the Ear's expertise when they wished
to produce guided tours on tapes for visitors who cannot see -- or see well --
the various exhibits and items on display.
With the Pfanstiehls' help, for example, the National Park Service
created an AD tape cassette tour of some of the many picturesque features of
historic Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. The
tape describes the confluence of the rivers there by asking the listener to
think of "the back of your left hand with the Shenandoah flowing along
the edge of your thumb and the Potomac washing along the edge of your index
taped introduction to the visual and tactile exhibits at the Statue of Liberty
was produced in the Ear studios in 1986.
During that experience of describing such exhibits as the life-size
replicas of the statue's face and foot, Dr. Pfanstiehl posed for the couple's
Christmas card photo reaching up to touch the four-foot-high model of the
far the largest, longest museum AD tapes we have ever produced are for Ellis
Island," the Pfanstiehls have noted.
"Three big floors, thousands of items, caption texts filling a
451-page book. All boiled
down...to three hours of AD -- three cassettes, six sides. With writer/describer Bill Patterson we rode the National
Park Service launch through gray dawn drizzle across New York Harbor to the
island. For a memorable two hours
each day we had the whole museum to ourselves before the multitudes flooded in
from the ferry. We photographed,
videotaped, audio taped, wrote notes, listened to accented recorded voices and
immersed ourselves in the echoes, hopes and despairs of our
antecedents..." they wrote in the Summer, 1993, audio description
photographs, documents and touchable models of buildings such as the White
House and the Washington Monument are described in a guided tour tape they
prepared for the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.
The tape also gives directions for walking from one part of the exhibit
another Washington site, Dr. Pfanstiehl had the thrill of touching a million
dollars when the couple met with personnel at the Bureau of Engraving and
Printing to produce a tape tour. Eventually
visitors will be able to hold an enlarged dollar bill and feel its raised line
features while hearing a description of the printing process.
events of great significance for the sighted public have become meaningful for
the visually handicapped, thanks to audio description.
When the gigantic AIDS quilt, the size of nine football fields, was
displayed on the Ellipse across from the White House in 1989, Ear audio
describers organized by Bill Patterson led
walk and touch tours. "Now
and then a visitor...knelt to touch stitched appliques, sequins, furry teddy
bears, rope braided fabrics or the raised paint letters of the
names...names...names," related the October, 1989, audio description
newsletter. At one point an Ear
volunteer described the scene to a signer for the deaf who, in turn, signed
into the hand of a deaf and blind woman visiting the site.
the Ear's 20th birthday rolled around, audio description was available at
theatres in 22 states and the District of Columbia. AD abroad included developments for theatre or television in
England, Scotland, Wales, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Japan,
Sweden, Finland, Canada and Australia. The
audio description newsletter begun in 1981 for a handful of Ear volunteers was
going to nearly 600 addresses around the world.
"audio description enables blind and visually impaired persons to enjoy
aspects of our popular culture as never before, it has been hailed by many as
one of the greatest breakthroughs in access to mainstream life since the
advent of Braille and talking books," according to A Picture Is Worth
A Thousand Words For Blind and Visually Impaired Persons Too!:
An Introduction to Audio Description published by the American
Foundation for the Blind.
time was right, the equipment was there and the need was there," says Dr.
Pfanstiehl of the contributions she and her husband have made to this field.
"It just so happens we were the ones."
have viewed their accomplishments with great appreciation and respect.
Dr. Pfanstiehl received the first Humanitarian Award at the inaugural
presentation of the Helen Hayes Awards at the National Theatre in Washington
on May 13, 1985. The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences gave a
special "Emmy" in 1990 to four organizations that brought audio
description to television. Dr.
Pfanstiehl shared that honor with James Stovall of the Narrative Television
Network, Gregory Frazier of the AudioVision Institute and Dr. Barry Cronin and
Laurie Everett, who accepted for PBS and public television's WGBH.
acquainted with the Pfanstiehls and the Metropolitan Washington Ear knows that
the first 20 years of accomplishments are only the beginning.
The couple's November, 1994, calendar -- after the celebratory
anniversary luncheon to honor Ear volunteers -- included a trip to the Great
Smokey Mountains to train National Park Service staff.
Plans were underway to begin to offer AD at a Washington movie theatre,
with hopes this might develop further in the future. (See Epilogue.)
original sessions of "training the trainers" continue to bear fruit
everywhere. Someone trained in
the Midwest moves to Phoenix and spreads the word about AD in the Southwest.
Having attended a 1988 workshop with the Pfanstiehls, volunteers from
Special Audiences in Atlanta prepare to offer audio description for the 1996
if Dr. Pfanstiehl just had the time, she would greatly enjoy producing atlases
of the United States and the world for the visually handicapped.
In 1985 she worked with members from the Department of Geography at the
University of Maryland to design The Tactile and Large Print Atlas of the
State of Maryland. It uses Braille, raised lines, large print and voice-indexed
cassettes to convey geographic, historical and demographic information.
Maryland is the only state to have such an educational tool. Dr.
Pfanstiehl wrote the copy for the atlas on her talking word processor.
The narration describes boundaries, mileages between various points,
populations of cities and towns and directions for orienting oneself on the
future possibilities for described television programs and motion pictures are
as limitless as their numbers. During
the 1994 Congressional session, there was much hope among supporters of audio
description that this service might become as widespread as closed captioning
for the deaf, which is provided for most prime time television programs.
Legislation introduced in the House and Senate as part of the 1995
Communications Act would have required audio description for certain
programming available through video, cable and telephone line transmissions.
This would have been welcome legislation for the blind and visually
impaired as AD was not mandated in the Americans with Disabilities Act of
Pfanstiehl was one of those testifying before the Senate Committee on
Commerce, Science and Transportation on May 24, 1994.
"Description services are not completely parallel to closed
captioning," she pointed out in her prepared statement.
"Newscasts, sportscasts, MTV, emergency announcements, concerts
and the like are difficult or unnecessary to describe."
noted that "turnaround time and costs for producing descriptions are
roughly analogous to those for closed captioning" and that those costs
would be spread among producers or carriers with no cost to taxpayers.
descriptions are mandated and phased in over a period of time, the numbers (of
described films, television programs and videos) never will even begin to be
adequate," she stressed in her statement.
efforts to support the mandating of audio description continued throughout the
legislative session, particularly when the provision was threatened by
rewritten language that authorized only further study of the subject.
However, the bill never was brought to the floor of either house in
1994. The authorization of audio
description for television programs and motion pictures remained a legislative
challenge for a future day. (See Epilogue.)
challenges are nothing new to the staff and volunteers at the Metropolitan
Washington Ear. They greeted
their third decade with anticipation and excitement, sharing with others
around the country and around the world the sense of many jobs well done.
number of developments that have occurred as the Metropolitan Washington Ear
began its third decade should be noted as this history
goes to press.
late 1994, Washingtonian magazine was added to the Dial-In Service. A
program of selected articles from The Wall Street Journal was added in
April, 1995. Also in April, due
to cutbacks in funding from the District of Columbia, Prince George's County
and other sources, the Ear had to decrease the staff time allotted to the
radio reading service. The
Post and Washington Times broadcast time was reduced and
some other local publications, such as area weekly newspapers, were
dropped from the reading service
were exciting developments in regard to the availability of the Dial-In
service, however. In June, 1995,
MCI announced an offer of a year of free Dial-In access to all Maryland and
Virginia residents. That
availability was expected to begin in early fall, 1995.
As of June, 1995, the Ear's Dial-In was one of 10 such services around
the country. Others were located
in Baltimore, MD; Santa Fe, NM; Lawrence, KS; Flint, MI; Cheyenne, WY; St.
Paul, MN; Baton Rouge, LA; South Orange, NJ, and Albuquerque, NM.
Another was being run by the Australian Association for the Blind in
June, 1995, the Ear started its first audio description service at a local
motion picture theatre when the Cineplex Odeon at Mazza Gallerie in the
District showed "The Little Princess." Using the same equipment and techniques as in live theatre
performances, Ear volunteers provide AD the first Sunday of each month with 17
headset receivers available. There
is no description of cartoons or film previews but brief program notes are
provided for movie-goers.
people met June 16 and 17 at the Kennedy Center for a conference on audio
description sponsored by the center and by the National Endowment for the
Arts. Dr. Pfanstiehl was one of
seven chosen for a steering committee for an international audio description
George's County informed the Ear, after the organization had begun its 1995-96
year, that the county was not going to contribute the expected funding.
Because of that lack of support, the Ear had to institute a charge for
Prince George's reading service and Dial-In users.
the fall of 1995, telecommunications legislation was pending in the House and
Senate. Its provisions mandated a
Federal Communications Commission study on various aspects of audio
description as it applies to the television broadcast industry. There was no date set for completion of the study and no
mention of developments that would follow its completion.
on the audio description front, the Pfanstiehls began work on an AD training
guide, with a target publication date of late '95 or early '96.
Written by Barbara Cire, it will be prepared with cooperation from WGBH,
James Stovall of Narrative Television Network and from Ear volunteers Bill
Correy, Janet Dickson and Bill Patterson.
and Original Board Members and Volunteers
the Metropolitan Washington Ear marked its 20th anniversary at a luncheon in
November, 1994, three of the board members and nine volunteers who attended
could date their Ear affiliation to its beginning. These included Dr. Pfanstiehl, president; Bro. Hilary Mettes,
S.T., chairman, and board member Freddie L. Peaco. The 20-year volunteers who were honored were Janice Bass,
Shirley Hardis, Peggy Netzer, Anne Sustrick, Vivian Schnebly, Raymond
Stromberg, Rosario Scibilia, Raymond Swan and Marjorie Wise.
directors during Ear's second decade included David Felzenberg, Kathy Kielich
and Roberta Douglas. In 1991,
because of the start-up of Dial-In and due to the need for more intensive
fund-raising, the duties of the executive director's office were divided.
Volunteer coordinator Nancy Knauss became administrative director and
Janet Dickson became a separate part-time development officer.
In July, 1995, Thomas Finegan succeeded Janet upon her move to New
volunteer coordinators were Sarah Marsh and Patricia Nicholas.
Long-time Ear volunteer Joey Potter moved to the staff as a part-time
coordinator of receivers in January, 1988.
Kathy Rosensatler was the initial Dial-In manager, followed by Bonnie
Spinola, Mike Garvey and Stuart Liberthson-Brown. Full-time engineers during the second decade were Andrew
Lipinski, Doreen Williams and Darrin Armstrong.
That Have Received
Audio Description Training
describers have been trained for theatres and museums in the following areas.
(See also the film and video list.)
Many of these organizations now provide AD service for more than one
theatre or museum or park -- as many as 52 in the Ohio Theatre Alliance.
Birmingham Museum of Art
: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
: Association for the Blind,
: AudioVision Institute, San
: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
: Winterthur Museum
of Columbia :
Smithsonian National Museum of American Art
: Asolo Theatre, Sarasota
: CRIS Radio and Remains Theatre,
: University of Iowa, Iowa City
: Accessible Arts, Inc., Kansas
: Kentucky Center for the Arts,
: Publick Playhouse, Hyattsville;
Harmony Hall Regional Center, Fort Washington; Maryland-National Capital Park
and Planning Commission and M-NCPPC Arts Division of Prince George's County,
Riverdale; Montpelier Mansion, Laurel; Patuxent River Park and Watkins Nature
Center, Upper Marlboro; Clearwater Nature Center and Surratt House Museum,
Clinton; 30th Street Nature Center, Mt. Rainer; College Park Airport Museum,
Chevy Chase; History Division M-NCPPC, Bladensburg
: Jeff Kennedy Associates,
Somerville and John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston
: Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis;
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bloomington
Jersey : Paper
Mill Playhouse, Millburn
Mexico : U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, Albuquerque
York : Hospital
Carolina : City
Arts Commission and North Carolina State University Center Stage, Raleigh
: Ohio Theatre Alliance, Columbus
: Point Pelee National Park,
: Annenberg Center, Philadelphia
: Houston Taping for the Blind
: ARTREACH Milwaukee
Description Prepared by Ear for Films, Videos, Museums and Exhibits
films at the Smithsonian at the National Air and Space Museum
Fly," "The Dream Is Alive" and "Blue Planet"
and OMNIMAX film at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry
film at the Boston Museum of Science
of the National Park Service
Friday," "Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears," "Dreams of
Equality," "Allegheny Portage Railroad," "Where Past Is
Present" and "The Challenge of Yellowstone"
for the National Park Service
Island Museum, Statue of Liberty Museum and Castle Clinton
for United States Department of Agriculture Visitor Center Museum Exhibit
tapes for Rockville (MD) Barrier Free Access
Department of Agriculture Forest Service film
"Voices From the Ice"
State University film
"Power of Independence"
WETA's signal, like all FM signals, has
different parts. A regular radio picks up only the main carrier frequency,
90.9 kHz. Ear's radios receive
the subcarrier channel of 67 kHz, with the exception of some older model
Ear radios that also pick up the main channel.
its first 20 years -- with only one exception -- Ear's radio receivers were
loaned to listeners at no charge in all area jurisdictions.
During the 1994-95 fiscal year, Arlington County, VA, became the
first area government that did not contribute toward the Ear's costs of
service for its residents. With
hopes that this would be only a temporary decision, the Ear had to
inaugurate its first charge to listeners, going against its basic principle
of being free to the visually handicapped just as libraries are free to the
sighted. Financial support was restored for the following fiscal year and
Arlington listeners once again had the use of their receivers at no charge.
(See Epilogue for a later development regarding Prince George's County.)
One of the first persons she contacted was Cody
Pfanstiehl, then community relations director and spokesman for the
Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro).
The two had met when Margaret interviewed him about the safety of
visually impaired Metro passengers. The
two continued working on a map of the Metro system that was included in a
raised line atlas of the District of Columbia.
Romance bloomed while they inaugurated the audio description project
and, when the couple married on January 1, 1983, Cody became a
self-described "ultimate volunteer."
Several quotations in this history give an idea
of the appeal this newsletter has for its readers.
The Pfanstiehls' sense of humor pervades its pages.
"For a historic site," they query in one issue,
"is audio description 20/20 hindsight?"
Stovall, a former Tulsa, Oklahoma, stockbroker
who is blind, founded the Narrative Television Network (NTN).
NTN provides audio description for classic television programs and
films that are shown on 1,200 cable outlets on the Nostalgia channel.
Frazier was instrumental in starting the former AudioVision Institute
at San Francisco State University to provide AD for film, theatres and
tourist attractions in that area. The
Pfanstiehls ran a training workshop at SFSU in Spring, 1988.
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