by Mark Lasser
From the Editor: A topic that has gained a lot of currency in the last few months is whether people who are speaking should give visual descriptions of themselves before their presentations. The articles that have been written and submitted to the Monitor argue that it is unfair to expect people to describe themselves, that it takes time away from more meaningful information that can be exchanged, and that blind people are probably better served by relying on a third party for any descriptions that they want. Obviously, there is another side to this argument, and the Braille Monitor is interested in covering that side as well.
Mark lives in New York City and is a member of the New York City Chapter. He also founded the American Association of Blind Theatergoers. He has degrees aplenty and is able to articulate very well changes he believes we should make in society and in organizations that work with the blind. In his six years as a blind person, he has made a tremendous transition. His résumé includes working for Starbucks and other high-profile companies. Mark currently works as a senior accessibility consultant for Deque Systems. Here is what he has to say:
Hello. I’m Barbara. I’m a White woman in my forties with brown hair and eyes. I’m wearing a green shirt and jeans.
I’m Tony. I’m a twenty-year-old African American man with a shaved head and long beard. I’m wearing a black suit, and there’s a poster of Star Wars in the background behind me.
I’m Brenda. I’m a very overweight woman. I’m wearing a leather vest that is barely concealing my body, and I have numerous piercings in my eyes, eyebrows, and nose.
I’m Chris. I’m a trans person and have an androgenous appearance. My hair is cut high and tight. I’m Asian and am in a home office. I have posters for Picasso on my walls behind me, and I’m not wearing any clothing.
I’m Henry. I’m wearing a MAGA hat, and I’m a Hispanic male in my forties. I have severe acne, and there is a general mess of food wrappers on my desk.
Increasingly, we are all likely running into meetings where participants, understanding that there are blind folks on the call, are opting for a moment of visual description. There has been debate around this practice, and it seems to me that most of the consensus has been positive. I’d like to offer another view as to why this practice is a bad idea with potentially worse outcomes.
The examples above are, of course, meant to be provocative. Typically, people offering to describe themselves to us, including at NFB meetings here in New York City, describe themselves by age, race, gender, and some elements of clothing and maybe their background if visible or virtual. It can take up considerable time if twenty people each take a minute to describe themselves. I have been in a two-hour meeting where almost thirty minutes was taken up by this practice. And what exactly was the benefit? I still don’t know. Had we all been on a conference call, no one would have done this, and I don’t think we’d have been any worse off.
The first conclusion for ending this practice is that it is inefficient and time consuming, with minimal benefit to anyone. However, there are more reasons for discontinuing this practice. We are creating messages that some visual information is more important than other information. Why do we describe gender and age and skin color but not physical fitness, weight, or skin condition? A sighted person would know that a participant has a large mole on their cheek while blind people would not? Would a person who has a large visible scar be likely to describe it to us? Should a particularly attractive man or woman be appropriate in telling us that they are often found to be the subject of attention for people with sexual interests? Is it dishonest or excluding in nature to not describe a rainbow flag in the background? What about describing the book titles on a shelf behind a participant? Don’t these tell sighted people a lot about how the participant wants to be seen since these books are essential set dressing? It is not viable to really describe ourselves to each other in every Zoom or Teams meeting, so we are elevating race, gender, and age, and ignoring what sighted folks often notice such as physical attractiveness, unusual or unconventional surroundings or clothing, blemishes, weight, or things that might be paramount to a sighted user and pointedly avoided in someone providing self-description.
My point is that the exercise is actually depriving us of information while creating a false sense of inclusion. It’s not entirely honest to describe ourselves by the color of our clothes, the amount of pigment in our skin, and our age. Therefore, we are not getting the equivalent descriptions that sighted people get. We don’t know if someone on the call has pancaked makeup on their face, if they are breathtakingly handsome, or if there are visible clues to their sexual orientation. Instead we accept the most superficial and arguably useless details while what we might really want to know is excluded from the visual description.
If we are told someone is fifty, is that a visual description if they happen to look thirty? What if they look eighty? Is the color of one’s hair important or only if it is green or purple? Should we be told if someone has a wart on their eyebrow or a sore on their lip? What if someone is not obviously of a certain race? Are we pressuring people to disclose their race if it is not visually apparent? Should it be required that a meeting participant disclose their religion if it is apparent from visual indicators like a cross necklace or a Star of David?
To be clear, I am a serious advocate for audio description in film, television, and theater. The description is usually created by trained professionals who take many factors into consideration, and this too is an evolving art form. It is an important distinction that audio description is generally written and spoken by objective third-party professionals, which makes it a very different situation from self-describing visual descriptions.
As blind people, we depend on audio description in media to understand context that is otherwise not obvious. Do we really need this in our meetings or in our day-to-day personal encounters? I don’t think so. There is room for disagreement on this subject, and I hope to, at least, provoke some introspection and questions about these practices before they become so standardized that we cannot go back to a time where they did not exist.