Fight for mandatory video description begins in Silver Spring, ends with FCC
Local couple credited with making TV more accessible to visually impaired
by Sahely Mukerji
Staff Writer, Gazette Newspapers
Visually disabled people and the blind soon will enjoy audio descriptions of television programs thanks, for the most part, to Margaret and Cody Pfanstiehl of Silver Spring.
The Federal Communications Commission recently passed rules to make audio descriptions mandatory.
The Pfanstiehls, who worked for almost six years to make the so-called
video description for TV shows mandatory, saw
their dream come to fruition July 21.
According to the rules adopted by the FCC, beginning in the spring of
2002, broadcasters affiliated with the four major
networks in the top 25 television markets will be required to provide video description services. Cable and satellite providers with 50,000 subscribers or more will have to
provide video descriptions for any of the networks rated in the top five that they carry. The broadcasters also will have to enhance accessibility of emergency information. The video description will be provided for television programs,videotapes and motion pictures through a separate audio channel, called SAP or secondary audio
The channel will allow TV viewers to hear descriptions of essential
visual elements, such as actions, appearance of characters, body language, costumes,
lighting. The descriptions will be inserted between dialogues and during natural pauses.
The only other country that has mandatory video description is England, and Germany is working on issuing it, said Margaret Pfanstiehl, founder of The Metropolitan Washington Ear Inc., a nonprofit organization in Silver Spring that provides reading and information services for the blind.
"We are thrilled with the FCC rule," she said. "Twelve
million Americans' lives will now improve. It will also help senior citizens [who have
poor eye sight] and children and
adults with learning disabilities."
"My husband and I began the video description movement in this country," Margaret Pfanstiehl said. "In October 1981, for the first time anywhere, a regularly scheduled audio description service provided access for theatergoers with little or no vision. At Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Cody was the first volunteer describer."
The technique was developed by Metropolitan Washington Ear, she said,
and in 1982, in cooperation with the Public
Broadcasting Service, the Ear added descriptions to PBS "American Playhouse" and "Nova" TV programs.
Since this was before a SAP channel was available for TV, descriptions
were distributed via radio reading services in 18
cities using the subcarrier channels of National Public Radio stations. The descriptions were aired in synch with the
PBS television broadcasts, Margaret
Pfanstiehl said. "Currently there are two stations that do video descriptions," she said. "The WGBH of Boston and the Narrative Television Network, or NTN, of Oklahoma. And we
trained the WGBH."
The Pfanstiehls and WGBH formed a partnership in 1984 to inaugurate
description for television, Margaret
Pfanstiehl said. By this time the SAP channel was available, she said.
In January 1990, regularly scheduled descriptive video service
began nationwide, she said. "The same year, National Academy of Television
Arts and Sciences awarded
Margaret an Emmy 'for leadership and persistence in making television accessible for visually impaired people,'" Cody
In 1994, the Pfanstiehls began working with Congress to promote
mandating of video descriptions. They established the National Television Access Coalition
of 17 national
organizations concerned with blindness, low vision and aging. American Council of the Blind and American Foundation for the Blind became particularly active, Margaret
The FCC announced its intentions of issuing a rule to mandate video
descriptions last November, she said. And at the
commission's meeting July 21, Margaret
Pfanstiehl was asked to present a brief
history of audio/video description and to
demonstrate the service with a very short
described clip from Disney's "Lady and the
The order passed 3-2, and the order on
emergency information passed 5-0.
"It's a culmination of 15 years of work to go
see a movie," said Charlie Crawford,
executive director of American Council of
the Blind. "It provides people with an equal
opportunity to hate the same show or think
it's great. It puts a blind person and a
sighted person on the same page."
Crawford began to work on the issue in
1984, he said, when he was the
commissioner of Massachusetts
Commission of the Blind.
"Needless to say, we are very happy with
the rule," said Alan Dinsmore, senior
governmental relations representative of
American Foundation for the Blind. "As TV
has moved along as a visual medium, a lot
of what was explained before has been
dropped," he said. "... it has become less
For example, Dinsmore said, in a science
interview the shifts of the earth's tectonic
plates would be explained by a scientist
before. But now, computer generated
graphics do the job.
"Also, it's hard for a visually impaired
person to read the scrolling emergency
broadcasts on TV," he said. "An interruption
with spoken words would be more suitable.
"And, for better or for worse, we take a
tremendous amount of our culture from
TV," Dinsmore said. "It is only fair to let the
blind people decide for themselves whether
it is for better or worse."
Jim Stovall, founder and president of NTN,
who began descriptions for movies on
cable channels in 1988, agreed.
"As a blind person who has dedicated the
last 12 years of my life to this, I feel it's one
of the most significant things to have
happened to the blind people," he said. "A
lot of our culture comes to us through TV,
and to not have video description is to
disconnect 12 million people from their
main source of socialization."
The mandating would not happen without
Margaret Pfanstiehl, Stovall said.
"She took it on herself and formed the
coalition which made this possible," he said.
"She challenges those of us with disabilities
to be the best we can be. We need more
role models like her."
Crawford expressed a similar opinion.
"She was the voice crying in the wilderness
long before anyone else was involved," he
said. "Through her leadership people
gained the credibility and courage to make
their own argument."
Margaret Pfanstiehl is "both the king and
the queen of this issue," said Larry
Goldberg, director of the Media Access
Group at WGBH.
"She has been a tough advocate for video
description," he said. "She formulated the
art form and then fought tirelessly to
mandate it.Without her this would be fairly
"WGBH has been providing video
description for 10 years now, and I think it's
a great leap forward for everyone,
especially the blind people in this country,"