News

Washington Ear Helps Blind ‘Hear’ the Newspaper

Holly Stein (right) a volunteer at Metropolitan Washington Ear, explains how the free listening service works to Catherine Connolly from Annandale. (Photo: Patricia Leslie)

Freddie Peaco’s blindness keeps her out of touch with the news she values most.

“I want to know what’s going on,” Peaco said. “If it’s something big, I want to see what’s happening.”

That’s why she tunes in to the Metropolitan Washington Ear’s free listening service everyday to catch up on her favorite newspapers, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. The Washington Ear enlists help from 400 volunteers to read periodicals either over the phone or live on the airwaves to the D.C. area’s residents with visual or physical impairments. A subscriber ever since Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl founded it in 1974, Peaco now serves as the organization’s president of their executive committee and adamantly advocates for the service’s use.

“The ‘Ear’ has made a whole difference in my life. It’s really made life just so, so great,” Peaco said. “They work miracles.”

Earlier this month, volunteer Holly Stein gave a presentation about the organization, its programs and its goals at the Falls Church Senior Center and at Sunrise Senior Living of Falls Church.

Washington Ear is planning to install its free radios on four floors at Sunrise, with the option of allowing residents to have radios placed in their rooms. There are 150 publications and books are at the disposal of listeners via a dial-in service on their telephone. A reference service, descriptions of D.C. protests and marches and the signs, election guides, meeting notices and other information and events are also accessible to subscribers.

Although Neely Oplinger has been Washington Ear’s executive director for seven years, her enthusiasm for the program radiates from the telephone as she can hardly contain her passion for her job.

“We want to bring people into the mainstream. Some call us a lifeline,” Oplinger said. “Our goal is to try and serve as many people as possible so they can keep their independence.”

Volunteer coordinator Rene Schecker writes in a letter, “Our services reduce isolation and depression and help people maintain their dignity and independence.”

Peaco and others feel empowered using the dial-in service over the phone. After calling in, users are prompted to enter in digits in order to hear different publications, sections and even specific articles. It’s just as if subscribers are skimming the pages themselves as they can stop, go back and re-listen to the latest news any hour of the day, seven days a week.

“I can read the paper like I want to. I think of it, really, as a newspaper,” Peaco added. “I love to get the ads. You can go right to the discount ads, the grocery ads and all the stores which have ads”.

Falls Church has 27 residents who listen to Washington Ear by radio (9) and the telephone dial-in service (18).

Tom Sowers is a Falls Church resident who reads the Post every Tuesday morning for Washington Ear subscribers. While working at GEICO, Sowers saw a posting for Washington Ear and decided it would make good use of his college broadcasting experiences and skills when he retired. In 2005, he started volunteering and has never stopped. Like Stein, he’s a member of the group’s speakers bureau.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the number of aging “baby boomers” will double by 2050 to nearly 84 million persons or about one of every five people in the U.S.

That means the demand for aging services will increase – a forecast Washington Ear welcomes.

Funding comes from foundations, individuals and about half of expenses are paid by area governments and municipalities, including Falls Church.
When Washington Ear started, WETA-FM donated a low frequency channel to enable the service and, like a great marriage, the relationship has endured.

To join the 5,100 listeners, persons must submit a simple application and a half-page medical form. To learn more, contact Metropolitan Washington Ear at 301-681-6636 or washingtonear.org.