Since 1999, 63-year-old Celia Hughes has served as executive director of VSA Texas, a statewide program dedicated to making the arts accessible to people with disabilities. She is also a cofounder of the Audio Description Coalition and trains people in the art of audio description—descriptions of action, characters, costumes, scenery and other visual information inserted into natural pauses in the dialogue or narration of film, theater, opera and jazz concerts for the benefit of blind attendees.
“I started working with people with disabilities when I was 11 in my Girl Scout troop. We were asked to help a boy with cerebral palsy, and at that time ‘patterning’ was the new thing. The idea was [that] if you could put the child through the motions of crawling, you could reprogram the brain and give that child some increased abilities. So the child had to be on the floor for hours at a time with you moving the arms and the legs in a crawling pattern.
“When I went to college, I had originally thought I was going to go into physical therapy, but as the fates have it they didn’t have a physical therapy program. They had a speech therapy program, so my focus was language acquisition, and of course all my free time was spent in the theater and music programs. When I got out of school I worked as a speech therapist for a few years. One day I was at this party and, it seems ridiculous, but I couldn’t make small talk. I couldn’t talk to the people who were my own age because I had spent so much time working with kids with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, and that was my life. I had lived in really small towns, and I thought, ‘Is this what I really want? That my whole life is just revolving around this?’ So I thought, ‘It’s now or never.’ I moved to New York City and devoted the next 10 years to the arts. It was really important for me to explore my artistic vision and see where I could fit in.
“I learned pretty early on that I wasn’t going to be in front of the camera or on the stage, but I could be behind the camera producing and directing and making that kind of magic happen.
“At one point I ended up being asked to work with kids with dyslexia at a school in Queens. I was helping them find out who they were as young people, helping them learn how to express themselves through film and television, and giving them a skill. You don’t have to know how to read to be a camera operator.
“I met and married a guy from Argentina who really wanted to live in Texas. And then I was the random victim of a violent assault while walking to work one morning and I almost died. So with that, my husband was like, ‘We’re leaving now,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not leaving until I get my strength back,’ because it had really robbed me of my will. So when I was able to feel my strength coming back, I said, ‘OK, we’ll go.’ That’s how I ended up in Austin in 1985.
“I’ve done audio description in a theater where people would come up to me and say, ‘What does it matter? They’re blind!’ But people who are blind deserve to have high quality. My job is not to tell them what they’re supposed to think. They’re blind, they’re not stupid. They can make their own judgments. A person who’s blind can come to a concert. Sure, they can hear the music, but that’s it. Maybe they’re jostled around a little bit, but they don’t know about the massive speakers, and all the lights and all of that, and it’s part of the experience. It’s bringing something that I love very much to somebody else.”
Interview has been edited and condensed.