Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl founded the Metropolitan Washington Ear in 1974 as a nonprofit organization. Initially, the Ear was a radio reading service; listeners are loaned a radio receiver that is pre-tuned to an FM sub-channel of a local public radio station, which then broadcasts the Ear's services. Pfanstiehl notes that the Ear is now available throughout the greater metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, including parts of Maryland and Virginia. It is also available on the Ear's website (www.washear.org) where the radio-reading service is archived for four weeks.
Today, in addition to offering listeners selections from more than 200 publications via the radio-reading service—national and local newspapers, magazines and best-selling books—the Ear provides a dial-in service that enables visually and physically disabled persons to "read" (hear) selected publications (including the Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Afro-American, and Sunday New York Times well as Time, Washingtonian and People magazines) anytime day or night, seven days a week. Using their own touch-tone telephones, listeners can access the available publications whenever they choose. "By using the dial-in, you can control what you want to hear," Phanstiehl says. "It is one of the most comprehensive such services in the country."
Some 1,200-1,300 people use the radio reading service and almost 1,500 others access the dial-in service.
It is the more than 350 volunteers who make the Ear's services possible, Phanstiehl says. They serve, as I did, as readers, and audio describers of television programming, theatrical productions, motion pictures, and at museums and other exhibitions, for people with limited or no vision.
Volunteering is a positive, socially responsible and genuinely rewarding activity. I thoroughly enjoyed my 16 years behind the mike and hope that my reading of the morning's Washington Post was of value for listeners who otherwise did not have access to the newspaper. In retrospect, I wish that my interactions with the hundreds of other volunteer readers hadn't been limited to the organization's annual volunteer appreciation and recognition banquet. At those events, despite the fact that we all wore nametags, we usually identified ourselves to one another as "Monday Washington Post," or "Thursday USA Today" or "Wednesday Christian Science Monitor."
While there was little feedback or reinforcement of an "attaboy" kind, reading stories from the Monday Post into a microphone and knowing that someone "out there" was listening to the broadcast of my voice was a good and satisfying thing.
A directory of nationwide organizations like the Metropolitan Washington Ear is available from the International Association of Audio Information Services at (800) 280-5325 or www.IAAIS.org. Those interested in volunteering or otherwise getting involved with the Washington Ear can call 301-681-6636 or go to washear.org.
Tom Otwell retired from AARP in July 2005 after more than 13 years with its media relations office. His 16-year "career" as a volunteer reader with the Metropolitan Washington Ear ended when, ironically, he developed cataracts. Today, he volunteers as a docent at the National Museum of Natural History's "Insect Zoo" and as a tutor at the University of Maryland-College Park's undergraduate Writing Center.