Chet Avery dies at 85

Chet Avery dies at 85
Chet Avery was a prominent advocate for people with disabilities in Alexandria. (Photo/Everly Wheatley Funeral Home)

By Kassidy McDonald

Chester “Chet” Pike Avery Jr., a Living Legend of Alexandria and an advocate for people with disabilities, died on Sept. 8. He was 85. For more than 50 years, the longtime resident worked to make Alexandria a more accessible and inclusive place for everyone.

Avery was born in Sanford, Maine, on Aug. 1, 1937, to Chester, Sr. and Gladys Avery. At age 16, he began to lose vision in his left eye, and a year later at 17, he became fully blind. He graduated from Harvard University in 1960 with his B.A. in history, and remained at Harvard to complete his M.A. in counseling and education. Avery met his wife, fellow Harvard graduate Sabra Allen, in graduate school. They married and had a son, Bradford B. Avery, in 1964.

Avery began his career working as a teacher. In 1967, the Averys moved to Alexandria, to a home on Linden Street. Avery worked for the federal government, first at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and then at the Department of Education, until his retirement in 1996. While working for the federal government, Avery oversaw the development of a handbook on federal student financial aid; served in the Office of Special Education monitoring the implementation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first disability civil rights law enacted in the United States, which protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability; and then in the Secretary’s Office of Disability Concerns, according to his Living Legends of Alexandria profile.

He served on more than 25 boards and commissions, including the Special Education Advisory Committee for the Alexandria Public Schools, the Alexandria Human Rights Commission, the Virginia State Rehabilitation Council, the Virginia Assistive Technology System Advisory Council and the Washington Ear.

He served on the Alexandria Commission on Persons with Disabilities for 36 years. For more than 25 years, Avery worked on the Alexandria Human Rights Commission.

Matt Harris, longtime chair of the Human Rights Commission and a fellow New Englander, often drove Avery to and from their meetings. He said that Avery was a pillar of knowledge in both the city and in all areas of human rights.

“Although he was Harvard-educated no one was above or beneath him – he was the epitome of a compassionate human being. He had a disability, but was not limited or defined by it. He gave me insights and views that I never before contemplated. He was an exceedingly fair and enlightened person, but most of all he had the courage to stand up for what was right,” Harris said in a statement. “He was also a great family person and spouse to Sabra. It was among my greatest honors to speak at the Room 2000 dedication ceremony on his and Sabra’s behalf.”

According to Harris, one particular story from years ago best exemplifies Avery’s modest character.

“On the eve of Election Day in 2006, a large rally took place on Market Square. Chet was with his granddaughter and wife, and they needed to go into city hall for something. Chet’s young granddaughter was sitting on his lap and reading a book to him. Another person saw this and asked the granddaughter what she was reading, asked her how old she was and if she liked to read. He then walked away. Sabra saw the tail-end of the conversation and asked Chet if he knew who the man was. Chet did not; it was Bill Clinton,” Harris said.

Some specific areas of the city that Avery had improved include advocating for accessible courtrooms for people with disabilities and having voting machines in Alexandria that people with disabilities can easily use independently to participate in elections.

Joel Snyder, PhD and president of Audio Description Associates, LLC, was a friend of Avery and interviewed him for his book, “The Visual Made Verbal.”

“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,” Snyder said in a tribute to Avery.

Avery served as a member of the Board of Directors of The Washington Ear and played a major role in developing the first descriptive videos in theaters.

“[Avery] 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 individual voicing descriptions during the pauses between lines of dialogue and critical sound elements.” Snyder said.

Avery also served on the original board of directors for the Metropolitan Washington Ear.

“[They are] a closed-circuit radio reading service for people who are blind or for those who don’t otherwise have access to print. The Ear went on to build the world’s first audio description service,” Snyder detailed.

Avery has won many accolades and recognition for his dedication to accessibility. He won Alexandrian of the Year, John Duty Collins Outstanding Advocate for Persons with Disabilities, Sanford (Maine) High School Hall of Fame, Outstanding Leadership, Employee of the Year, a Living Legend of Alexandria and he was named as one of the 200 community leaders who has shaped the life of the City of Alexandria, according to a 2010 proclamation.

In the proclamation, former Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille officially made Oct. 26 “Chet and Sabra Avery Day,” to recognize the couple’s effort to enhance the lives of people with disabilities in the community and beyond.

Jean Kelleher, director of Alexandria’s Office of Human Rights, knew Avery well for many years.

“Chet Avery was a brilliant, tenacious and politically savvy advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities. He challenged all of us in city government to do more and be better,” Kelleher said in a statement. “Chet and Sabra used to walk down King Street in Old Town every morning, and they were stopped by many for conversation along the way. He will be missed.”

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

“Chet is a great loss for the entire community,” Harris said. “ I will miss him and always aspire to be a fraction of the person he was.”

Avery is survived by his wife Sabra, his son Bradford and two granddaughters. No funeral or memorial service is planned at this time.