A Local Life: Margaret Pfanstiehl, 76

A Local Life: Margaret Pfanstiehl, 76, Blind Activist

Margaret Pfanstiehl, shown with her Seeing Eye dog, Gracie, founded the Metropolitan Washington Ear reading service for the blind.
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)
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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."

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