Describing Judy Dixey

Monday, 23 June 2014 09:52am

Judy Dixey is the Executive Director of VocalEyes, the United Kingdom’s premier audio description company for performing arts. After ten very productive years at the helm Judy is retiring at the end of July, but we couldn’t let her go without a final interview. Media Access Australia project manager Ally Woodford chatted with Judy, exploring her achievements and what she’s doing next.

1. How long have you been with VocalEyes?

The post of Executive Director was advertised in summer of 2004 and I was appointed in September, so it’s jolly nearly ten years.

2. Your background/training in audio description?

When I saw the advertisement, I am ashamed to say I had never even heard of audio description, either in theatre, or visual arts and heritage. And I was – still am – a theatre groupie, love it, go frequently. It just shows you what an invisible service it is, and suggests how much there is still to do!

3. Was there a catalyst for an acceleration point in the adoption of AD in UK arts, and if so, what was that catalyst?

Audio description has been around in the UK, probably since the technology was available to provide it. Certainly there are some describers who have been providing great access to the arts for blind and partially sighted people for more than 25 years. The great thing is that it is now widely available in cinemas and on TV – and that is partly down to regulation. Additionally, of course, there have been some really courageous, feisty individuals who have campaigned for equal access for years – so we had the Disability Discrimination Act and now the Equality Act. The legislation is anticipatory i.e. you are expected to provide equal access and therefore make adjustments, whether people ask for them or not; but case law is necessary to clarify what adjustments are reasonable. No cases have come to court in the arts and culture. However, the arts has always been ahead of the game in accepting that access is important. A problem is that it has to take its place along with all the other imperatives which arts organisations face; in particular, money, and the lack of it, is a major issue.

So it’s several steps forward and some steps back; there is much to play for, loads more work to do.

4. What’s your biggest achievement in your role at VocalEyes?

No personal achievements other than learning so much more about disability issues and gaining a whole load of new and inspirational friends.

But as a team, we’ve done fantastically:

  • during my time, we’ve recruited a blind chair and a registered blind member of staff
  • the Jodi Awards last year, winning one of two awards made, for our London Beyond Sight project
  • the London Beyond Sight project itself, with 40 significant Londoners, choosing their favourite London landmark and narrating the audio descriptions.
  • audio describing the first Olympic event (ever) – the HandOver in The Mall in 2008
  • reaching over 1,500 audio described performances, since the foundation of VocalEyes
  • gaining Sir Derek Jacobi as our patron
  • raising £90,000 to set up and put into effect a program of work in visual arts and heritage

5. What has been the biggest hurdle?

I think the biggest hurdle is getting across the importance of the holistic service – the fact that if you are going to provide anything, you must involve many people in the organisation, inspire them to take it seriously and not just assume that it’s the responsibility of the provider of the service. And of course, finances! Disability access is so much more than the capital cost of ramps! No, if you are going to make a theatre performance or an exhibition accessible, there are ongoing revenue and resource costs to put into the mix.

6. Did you have any audio description heroes/role models that helped you along the way?

In ten years, of course, loads of people have participated in the journey we’re all on. My heroes are our describers whose skills and creativity are peerless; and though I hesitate to name individuals, Andrew Holland, Louise Fryer and Roz Chalmers who lead the describer team, have a truly inspiring approach to the needs of the audience, and take the artistic side of VocalEyes work and audio description to new heights; and my colleagues, working tirelessly and looking for imaginative solutions to every issue.

Internationally, one must mention Betty Siegel of the Kennedy Centre and of course Alex Varley!! And while not a hero in the field of audio description, Tabitha Allum of STAGETEXT, with whom I have shared most of the last 10 years, as together we have advocated for more and better access to the arts and culture.

7. What might your legacy at VocalEyes be?

Ask my colleagues in a year’s time!

I think we have made waves, made more people aware, created more of a buzz around access and audio description; so the ten years have had a substantial impact – more theatres doing it, more museums galleries and heritage sites beginning to address the issues with greater enthusiasm and willingness – but there is still much to do.

8. In retiring, will you still be involved in accessible arts in some way?

Just on the sidelines I expect, though I do hope to keep in touch with the friends I made across the sector and of course, many of the blind and partially sighted people I got to know and to join them at arts events.

And, ultimately, I may need to use the service. Then I’ll be both grateful for it, but also a thorn in everyone’s side, looking for the quality of experience which VocalEyes makes available and has championed, since its foundation and into the future.

The team at Media Access Australia wish Judy Dixey all the best in her retirement. She has provided insight and advice over many years to us here in Australia and we know that the status of audio description in the arts worldwide is all the more richer for her tenure at VocalEyes.


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