Ever try to watch a television program or a play with your eyes shut, relying only on the dialogue to give you a sense of the action? It's a frustrating experience, and one that Margaret Pfanstiehl knows firsthand.
"I've often felt that my problem is that I've wanted to live a 20/20 existence without 20/20 vision," said Pfanstiehl, laughing. Pfanstiehl's vision is very poor -- she can distinguish shapes and dark and light areas -- due to retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive, inherited eye condition.
Last month, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded the Silver Spring resident an Emmy for helping to make television more accessible to the blind and visually impaired.
Since 1981, she has worked with her husband, former Metro public affairs director Cody Pfanstiehl, to develop the art of audio description. Through that process, visually impaired people can hear a description of various aspects of a television program -- action, scenery, costumes, body language -- in between the dialogue.
"The adventitiously blind person, who's had better vision and has lost all or most of it, is acutely aware of what he or she is missing" on television or at the theater, Margaret Pfanstiehl said. "They sit there in frustration, knowing that all sorts of meaningful things are happening, but not knowing what."
For those who have never had sight, the process introduces concepts that sighted people take for granted, such as how people express feelings through body language, Pfanstiehl said.
Four Public Broadcasting Service series -- "American Playhouse," "Mystery," "Wonderworks" and "DeGrassi High" -- carry audio descriptions that can be heard on the separate audio program channel on stereo televisions and on specially adapted regular televisions. PBS also was awarded an Emmy for its contribution to the project.
Locally, the programs are carried on Maryland Public Television's WMPB (Channel 67) in Baltimore and on Washington's WETA (Channel 26).
Judy Dixon, of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, said she never had enjoyed so much television until the introduction of the audio service. The descriptions have freed her from having to piece together plots with clues picked up during the course of a program, she said.
Pfanstiehl's work is not limited to television. In 1974, she founded the Washington Ear, a Silver Spring-based radio reading service that reaches an estimated 2,200 visually impaired people in the Washington area.
The Pfanstiehls began their work nine years ago by describing an Arena Stage performance of George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara" to visually impaired people in the audience. The following year, they worked with producers of PBS's "American Playhouse" to produce the first audio descriptions of a television program. The descriptions were broadcast on the closed radio system of the Washington Ear in sync with the televised program. But it was not until the advent in 1984 of stereo television, and its separate audio track, that a practical delivery system for the audio descriptions became available.
The Pfanstiehls also have trained volunteers to describe theater and television performances and museum exhibits across the country and in Australia.
"We could die in a plane crash tomorrow, and this would go on. It's now a part of American civilization," Cody Pfanstiehl said.
They project that audio descriptions will be available on home videos and motion pictures in the next few years when a delivery system, such as an additional audio track on tapes, becomes available.
Audio description is offered at selected performances at Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center, National Theatre, Olney Playhouse Theatre, Round House Theater and the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre.
Two films at the National Air and Space Museum, exhibits at the Statue of Liberty, and historic sights at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and St. Mary's City, Md., can now be "seen" with descriptions.
Describing a video or a theater performance requires that those giving the descriptions be finely attuned to their surroundings, particularly to things that most viewers take for granted. Without that sensitivity, "it might never occur to them that if you didn't see it, you wouldn't know it," explained Margaret Pfanstiehl, a conservatory-trained singer with degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.
Pfanstiehl's next venture will be the "telephone newspaper." Next year, Washington Ear volunteers will begin making oral recordings of daily editions of The Washington Post. The recordings will be accessible to visually impaired patrons via touch-tone telephone.