Remembering Chet Avery: an Audio Description Pioneer

By Joel Snyder, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Joel Snyder, President, Audio Description Associates, LLC, and author of “The Visual Made Verbal: A Comprehensive Training Manual and Guide to the History and Applications of Audio Description”, remembers a colleague and friend, Chet Avery.

Chester Pike (Spike) Avery, Jr. passed away on Thursday, September 8, 2022, at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 85 years old.

Chet was a dear friend and an important contributor to the development of audio description. His quick wit and easy-going manner are qualities that I admired.

Some of you may not know that in the 1960s, Chet conceived of audio description as a formal process that could convey the visual images of theater performances to people who are blind or have low vision. I interviewed Chet for my book, “The Visual Made Verbal”, published by the American Council of the Blind (ACB).  By the age of 17, he lost all vision due to a detached retina. He told me that he had some vision as a teenager but once he had lost all vision, he felt a sense of relief—he no longer had to “spend my life concerned about my eyes.” Still he was “really into” movies: it was 1954 and “everyone had great voices and there was a lot more storyline than today’s films … but they’re a visual experience principally.” 

In 1964, he began a grants management position at what was then the United States Office of Education. The area that managed statistical information and grants for “special education” (programs for children with disabilities) was close to his office and he proposed “audio captions” on film for blind people. Here in the Washington, DC area, he helped Arena Stage create an access committee to advise Arena on ways to make theater accessible. Much of the focus was then on an assistive listening system designed to boost sound for people who are hard-of-hearing. Once again Chet wondered aloud if the “audio caption” idea could be employed using the same equipment – except with an individual voicing descriptions during the pauses between lines of dialogue and critical sound elements. A fellow committee member was Margaret Rockwell, a blind woman with a PhD in Education. Margaret (later Margaret Pfanstiehl) founded The Metropolitan Washington Ear, a closed-circuit radio reading service for people who are blind or for those who don’t otherwise have access to print; Chet served on its original board of directors. The Ear went on to build the world’s first audio description service.

Chet’s “audio caption” idea became a reality, first in the performing arts and now audio description accompanies almost all feature films produced in the United States, a wide range of television broadcasts, and increasingly in museums. Worldwide, audio description has taken root in over 70 countries.

Chet’s granddaughter, Kate, is a graduate of ACB’s Audio Description Project (ADP) Audio Description Institute. She remembers loving grandpa’s copy of “The Wizard of Oz” because it had audio description!

Chet is very much missed – but his inspiration and his wise counsel remains with me. For that, I will always be grateful.

Read more about Chet Avery here.

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