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She Was a Woman With a Mission

October 11th, 2009 (11:32 pm)

This article that ran recently in the Washington Post pays tribute to Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl, the Emmy-Award-winning founder of the Metropolitan Washington Ear, a radio station that is a reading service for listeners with visual impairments. I co-hosted a live magazine show there for many years (though it's currently on haitus due to budget cuts).
I knew Dr. Pfanstiehl only slightly, but she was a remarkable and tenacious woman whose work enriched the lives of thousands.

A Local Life: Margaret Pfanstiehl, 76

For Blind Activist, a Mission to Share Simple Joys

Margaret Pfanstiehl, shown with her Seeing Eye dog, Gracie, founded the Metropolitan Washington Ear reading service for the blind. (1974 Photo By Bob Burchette -- The Washington Post)

By Adam Bernstein

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

After an inherited retinal disorder left her legally blind in her 30s, Margaret Pfanstiehl spent the rest of her life working to help the visually impaired read the newspaper, watch TV and enjoy theater more fully.

Dr. Pfanstiehl, who died Sept. 28 at 76 in a Rockville nursing facility, founded the Metropolitan Washington Ear reading service for the blind in 1974. A few years later, at the request of local theater companies, she helped promote an audio description technology that, through a transmitter, allows blind and visually impaired audience members to hear live descriptions of action, scenery, lights and costumes between the dialogue.

Working with public TV officials, she helped advance a similar technology that created a separate soundtrack for TV viewers that was broadcast on radio reading services nationwide. These efforts, which helped make television accessible to those with vision problems, earned her a national Emmy Award in 1990. Mitch Pomerantz, president of American Council of the Blind, called her "one of the pioneers in audio description arena."

A conservatory-trained singer, Dr. Pfanstiehl (pronounced FAN-steel) said her goal was to enable the sight-deprived to "live a 20/20 existence without 20/20 vision."

She had little tolerance for self-pity, although she recognized life could be hard for the visually impaired. After all, she said, they are more apt to "get stuck listening to a bore at a cocktail party if they are unable to see him or her approaching."

She dedicated herself to making the lives of those with bad or failed eyesight a little more joyful.

The blind were often at a disadvantage by not being able to read the newspaper and know what's behind the headlines, Dr. Pfanstiehl said, and so she started Metropolitan Washington Ear.

The Silver Spring-based agency is a volunteer organization that reads newspaper and magazine articles over a closed-circuit radio. Several thousand blind and physically disabled people use the service, which expanded to include a dial-in service that allows listeners to scan major publications through pre-recorded readings.

A lover of the fine arts, Mrs. Pfanstiehl said the blind missed a lot of important descriptive action when watching a play or TV show. "I always wanted a little voice to tell me whether it was a gunshot or a slamming door onstage, if the villain was walking across the stage with a dagger, and whether or not the lovers were facing each other," she said.

She trained readers how to record for the audio description service without seeming condescending to visually impaired audience members.

"I remember once going with a novice describer to a performance of 'The Caine Mutiny,' " she told Reuters. As she recalled, a describer spoke into the earphone, "He's leading the witness on."

Dr. Pfanstiehl was annoyed. "I said, 'You don't do that. Blind people can hear, the problem is that they can't see.' Most blind people that come to the theater are fairly sophisticated. If you can come to the conclusion that he's leading the witness on, so can a blind person. You're there to be the eyes, the color camera lens -- what comes in the eye goes out the mouth."

Margaret Gillian was born Oct. 10, 1932, near Norfolk to a naval architect who moved the family to New York and then Maryland. She graduated from the old Academy of the Holy Names in Silver Spring. As a young woman, she showed a talent for operatic singing and received a music degree from Baltimore's Peabody conservatory in 1960.

Her early marriage, to Justin Rockwell, ended in divorce. In 1983, she married Cody Pfanstiehl, a longtime spokesman for Metro who liked to joke that Washington's mouth married Washington's ear.

Survivors include a son from her first marriage, Justin Rockwell Jr. of Silver Spring; three stepchildren, Carla Knepper of Glen Burnie, Julie Hamre of Bethesda and Eliot Pfanstiehl of Silver Spring; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.

Dr. Pfanstiehl entered graduate school at the University of Maryland in the mid-1960s, just as her vision began to fail. She had suffered since birth from retinitis pigmentosa, which gradually destroys the nerve fibers in the retina, and her condition allowed her only to distinguish shapes and dark and light areas.

Not long after she received a doctorate in education in 1971, she heard about a closed-circuit radio reading service for the blind in Minnesota. She spent a year lobbying local governments and foundations for the money to start Metropolitan Washington Ear as well as lining up volunteers and getting the technical equipment for her nonprofit business. Its first program was broadcast on a subchannel of WETA in November 1974, with an audience of 63.

In 1981, she was approached by an Arena Stage official to make its performances accessible to the visually impaired. She was one of the earliest people to create and refine a system of audio description, which she called "verbal descriptions of essential visual elements." Working with her husband, Cody, and other volunteers, they helped train describers for theaters in many states and as far away as Australia. They developed audio descriptions for museums and national parks and developed an expertise in opera description.

Bill Patterson, a retired theater professor who volunteered for Metropolitan Washington Ear before starting his own audio description business, said audio description for opera can be difficult.

"It's a delicate balance," he said, "between providing the visual information of the action, scenery and costumes and so forth as well as the translation provided by the surtitles, and then knowing when to shut up so people can hear the most important thing, the singing."

The sweeping Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which broadened civil rights protected in earlier legislation, did not include a provision for descriptive services, and Dr. Pfanstiehl became part of an effort to lobby the Federal Communications Commission to require broadcasters to provide video description via a secondary audio channel.

Although the FCC agreed to the mandate in 2000 in some TV programming, the victory was short-lived. In 2002, the FCC decision was overturned by a federal appeals court in Washington, finding that Congress had given the commission authority to investigate the need for video description but had not specifically authorized the body to mandate it.

Dr. Pfanstiehl, a Silver Spring resident, died at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington of lung disease. She was the recipient of many community honors and in August received a Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability award for lifetime contributions to the visually impaired.

"It's no great honor to be blind," she once told The Washington Post, "but it's more than a nuisance and less than a disaster. Either you're going to fight like hell when your sight fails or you're going to stand on the sidelines for the rest of your life."