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More Than Just a “Reading” Service

Expanding the reading service through nontraditional roles

Maryfrances Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Radio Reading Information Service. Commentaries by the International Association of Audio Information Services and affiliates are featured regularly at

Radio reading services are committed to providing equal access to all kinds of information, sometimes in situations not normally part of the traditional “reading” service.

Recently, Neely Oplinger, executive director for the Metropolitan Washington Ear, attended the Women’s March in January in Washington as part of her official job. She provided us with this recount.

I was overwhelmed, honored and humbled that the Accessibility Coordinator for the Women’s March asked Metropolitan Washington Ear to provide audio description for the march and rally. I contacted three of our most experienced describers — two women and one man — who share a combined 65 years’ of experience providing audio description for the Washington Ear. They were thrilled to participate. We all felt that we were part of something historic, very big, and very important.

We set up in a fenced area at Independence Ave. and 4th S. SW, not far from the Capitol. We were between the National Museum of the American Indian and the Voice of America building, which had many people watching from the offices and even on the rooftops.

We distributed headsets and began to describe everything around us, including the crowd that had gathered. We also described the massive crowds passing by as they moved toward the Ellipse with their multitude of signs that people were carrying — many were extraordinarily creative.

Neely Oplinger (near right), her daughter and Washington Ear volunteers provide audio description at the Women’s March.

My only fear was that I would be arrested for trying to carry our suspicious-looking cases on the Metro and through the streets. But everyone I met was absolutely terrific and friendly. The crowd included women, men, children and families. People climbed trees for a better view and huge throngs soon filled the streets all around us — the sidewalks, the grass and every inch of space that could be found. People literally could not move, but managed to do so somehow. By the time the speeches were winding down, Independence Ave. was wall-to-wall humanity.

My daughter accompanied me to help me carry the cases of equipment. In addition to being pleased that our organization was part of an extraordinary and history-making event, I was overwhelmed that on a personal level it gave me an opportunity to do something that would make my daughter and granddaughter proud of me. We shared that amazing experience that we will remember forever.

I was planning to attend the march before I received the invitation to provide audio description, but being there to make the march and rally accessible made the whole experience so much more meaningful. I know we made a difference for those who used our service that day.

Afterwards we received kind words of thanks we received from Ted Jackson, the Accessibility Coordinator for the Women’s March.

He said, “Plays are complicated enough with action, movement and costumes, etc. But plays take place on a stage. What the describers had to do for us during the Women’s March was to essentially describe as much as they could of signs, apparel and movement of as many of [the] 500,000 attendees as they could see. In addition, they had to see the stage and tell us what was happening there. I don’t know how they did it!”

And he added, “But I do know that my understanding of and ability to participate in the Women’s March was significantly enhanced because of what they did. Thank you for making this possible.”