An ear that helps the blind read

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Barbara Ruben

Bob Gallagher and Sharon Palmer-Royston, shown here in a recording booth, are among hundreds of volunteers at the Metropolitan Washington Ear who read selected stories from the Washington Post and other publications aloud, broadcasting over a special radio frequency for those who are unable to read or utilize print publications. A dial-in telephone service is also available.
Photo by Rey Lopez

On a recent Friday, Bob Gallagher and Sharon Palmer-Royston skim the front page of the Washington Post, taking note of tongue-twisting or unfamiliar names and words — from Oded Revivi the mayor of Efrat, an Israeli town in the West Bank, to the Iraqi village of Tiskharab outside of Mosul.

Soon, they will begin reading these stories aloud on a special radio frequency to thousands of listeners who are blind or visually impaired. For a full two hours, they will share selected articles from each section of the Post, also describing each photograph in detail to paint a word picture for their listeners.

Gallagher and Palmer-Royston are two of the 375 volunteers who read from newspapers and magazines — including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Baltimore Sun, as well as Time, Ebony, People and Washingtonian, among others — for a nonprofit service called Metropolitan Washington Ear.

The Ear provides qualified listeners with special radios that are tuned to a frequency that can’t be accessed elsewhere. (It’s a subchannel of WETA.) Selected readings from these and other publications are broadcast either live or prerecorded 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Access by phone, too

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A telephone dial-in service offers an even greater cornucopia of information.

By using a touch-tone phone and a recorded index, callers can skip around in a publication much the way a sighted person does when reading. The phone service also provides readings of almost every word of the publications, right down to the ads and grocery prices.

And from 7 to 9 p.m. each evening, volunteers look up items from the Yellow Pages and the Washington Post classifieds for those who call in.

“It’s a lifeline. That’s what we hear from listeners,” said Neely Oplinger, the executive director of the 45-year-old organization whose studio is in Silver Spring, Md. “For some people, it reduces the feeling of isolation and the frustration of not being able to do everything.”

She cited a State Department official who was visually impaired and would listen early each morning to catch up on the day’s news before beginning work.

“Our founder was blind, and she wanted others who were blind to participate in life like anyone else would,” Oplinger added. “So if someone’s talking about a new book or political news or financial news, she wanted people to be able to participate,” she said.

The late Margaret R. Pfanstiehl founded Metropolitan Washington Ear in 1974 after learning about a similar service in St. Paul, Minn. She garnered support and funding from governments around the Washington, D.C. region, raising over $100,000 in operating funds for the first year.

Local funding remains a large part of the Ear’s budget today, but private donations are critical to keeping both the service and radios free for subscribers.

Pfanstiehl, who was legally blind due to an inherited retinal condition, also is remembered for working with public television officials to create a separate “audio description” soundtrack so those with visual impairments could hear a description of the action during TV programs via radio services nationwide. This earned her a national Emmy Award in 1990.

Describing what’s on stage

Building on that success, more than 30 years ago the Ear began a similar audio description service for live local stage performances to help those with visual impairments more fully enjoy the arts.

Through special headphones provided to these patrons, trained volunteers softly explain the action on stage, and describe the sets and even actors’ facial expressions. The descriptions are given at select performances at nine area theaters, including Arena Stage, Ford’s Theater and Round House.

In addition, audio versions of theater program notes — and concert notes for the National Symphony Orchestra and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore — are available in advance of performances.

“This way if you are taking, say, your uncle who is blind to the theater, you don’t have to whisper descriptions of what’s happening on stage and bother others in the audience,” Oplinger said.

Volunteers needed

The Ear’s 21 theater describers and 350-plus readers are all volunteers. And more are needed to help record the approximately 40 hours of material available each day. Daytime volunteers are typically retired, but those still employed may come in the evening and weekends to record.

Palmer-Royston, a retired State Dept. lawyer, has been a reader for the Ear for 10 years.

“When I saw this opportunity, I thought, ‘Wow, this is something I’d love to do.’

She felt a little intimidated, though, when she heard there would be an audition, which starts with reading a list of vocabulary words — like “ubiquitous” and “esprit de corps ” — to make sure volunteers can pronounce them. Then they read news stories aloud for about half an hour.

Palmer-Royston, who is 73 and lives in Potomac, Md., passed with flying colors.

But Gallagher admits that the “audition is very exacting. Some people are very well intentioned and want to help, but there’s something missing in their skill set. But in many cases, they’re just fine. They need a little training and practice.”

Gallagher, a retired English and drama teacher and Discovery Channel employee, has been volunteering at the Ear for 28 years and has honed his skills along the way.

The Ear’s office has a state-of-the-art recording studio with 16 individual booths. While in the booths, readers find it can be a challenge getting into the right mental framework for reading aloud.

“We try to read it as if it’s a conversation with a listener. We want to sound like we’re a normal person, not a robotic monotone. It’s always a struggle. You have to imagine you’re with another person instead of a microphone,” said Gallagher, who is 77 and lives in Silver Spring, Md.

As technology evolves, computers and digital devices increasingly have the capacity to read text to users, even in various voices.

But Metropolitan Washington Ear board member Paul Schroeder, who is blind, thinks people will always need a more personal service like theirs.

“It’s nice to hear a human voice as opposed to a synthetic voice, a text-to-speech voice program on a computer,” he said.

Also, he added, having the radio-based live broadcasts and telephone-accessible recordings is valuable “for the people who don’t have the technical skills or patience” to utilize computers or digital devices. The Ear “still plays a very important role, to fill in the gaps,” Schroeder said.

Oplinger agrees. “I don’t think a computer would ever replace what we do,” she said. “We’re like a friend to some of our listeners. It’s more than news; it’s also companionship.”

The Ear’s services are available only to those certified as unable effectively to read ordinary print because of visual or physical limitations. This includes visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with correction; blurred or double vision after normal correction; the physical inability to hold a book or turn pages; or extreme weakness or excessive fatigue that prevents reading of printed matter.

Applicants for the service, which is completely free but accepts donations, must get a certificate signed by a doctor, optometrist, social worker or other authority verifying their need.

Learn more about Metropolitan Washington Ear at http://washear.org or call (301) 681-6636.

Additional publications, including the Beacon, are expected to be added to the Ear’s roster by the end of the year, in conjunction with a system upgrade. If you are interested in volunteering to read the Beacon aloud, contact volunteer manager Rene Schecker at the number above.