by Jack Bernard
From the Editor: Jack Bernard works at a large research university, where he is a lawyer and teaches in its schools of law, education, public policy, and information. The views in this piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of any organizations or individuals with whom he associates or has associated.
As noted in the previous article, the Monitor is open to other perspectives; this is a discussion in which we are glad to hear all points of view. Here is what Jack has to say:
I have noticed a growing trend. Some people are adopting the practice of giving physical descriptions of themselves at the beginning of meetings or presentations. This practice, I am told, is intended to support and welcome people who are blind or visually impaired. While this practice is not yet a dominant norm, it appears to be burgeoning. We should nip this well-meaning effort in the bud because it is unhelpful and begets other problems. In this essay I will unpack for you why I think we should not encourage this practice and, instead, should actively discourage it.
I first encountered this practice about three years ago at the start of a twelve-person meeting. The host asked a participant to begin a round of introductions. The first person offered a three-minute description of herself, including two minutes of details about her face, hair, body, clothing, shoes, jewelry, and tattoos, among other things. Each person, in turn, followed with a similar descriptive introduction. Thirty minutes into our hour-long meeting, it was my turn, and I asked why we were describing ourselves with all these details. I had assumed it was an ice-breaker activity, and I wanted to get a better sense of what I should share. I was told that expressing physical descriptions was “an important courtesy for the visually impaired.” As the only person in that room for whom this “courtesy” was intended, I was perplexed.
Since then, I have witnessed over thirty meetings and presentations where people have introduced themselves with detailed visual descriptions. The trend appears to be increasing in both frequency and diversity of description. For instance, last summer I attended a copyright symposium where the four panelists, after being prompted by the moderator, described their appearance and dress for a couple of minutes each. More recently, I participated in a Zoom meeting where attendees not only added all sorts of information about their looks and clothing but also relayed what the camera was showing behind them. One man debated with himself for twenty seconds about the precise color of the walls in his living room. At another Zoom meeting, people described the coloration, size, and body characteristics of their pets who wandered into view during the meeting. As a newer facet in the practice, some people also take the time to describe the colors and shapes of their masks and facial coverings.
There are many things that could make the meetings and presentations I attend more accessible to me, but none of those things include physical descriptions of the participants. The gesture reminds me of the countless times that well-intentioned people have begun speaking to me loudly and slowly upon learning about my eyesight. Even though they are going to great efforts to be helpful, sluggish shouting doesn’t address real barriers for me. Neither does the practice of introductory physical descriptions.
Because I am confident that my own experiences may not be the experiences of others, I have scoured the literature on accommodations for research, observations, or recommendations that would support this practice. I have found none. I have also reviewed guidance from organizations for people who are blind and/or visually impaired, centers for independent living, the federal government, public goods (such as colleges, universities, libraries, museums, and archives), and organizations that help people learn how to run meetings or make public presentations. I have found no entities recommending this practice. Moreover, throughout my lifetime, I have attended dozens of meetings stewarded by organizations for the blind, and I have never encountered this practice in those settings, nor have I heard people who are blind clamoring for it.
During the past three years, I have also spoken with over 150 people from all over the country and world about this practice, most of whom are people who have limited, low, or no vision. I have not found a person who felt that this practice of self-description meaningfully improved the accessibility of meetings and speeches. Most people did not understand the utility of this practice. Admittedly, a few people told me that they appreciated the idea that accessibility or blindness was being acknowledged. One disability-rights leader told me that a few people had explicitly thanked him for engaging in the practice. My suspicion, I reflected to him, is that, in a world where accessibility is so often an afterthought, people can be grateful when someone is making any effort. But even he did not identify a substantive benefit to the practice.
I am not saying that it is never appropriate for people to describe how they appear at a meeting or presentation. In a meeting about fashion, it may be crucial for people in the room to have a sense of what others are wearing in order to be able to participate equitably in the discussion. If a panel were presenting about beard styles, it would seem highly pertinent to describe the beards on the stage. When appearance or clothing (or walls or pets) are salient to the work or subject at hand, it may be necessary to inspire or require introductions with vivid descriptions. But I contend that this is not most meetings and presentations. So, we should not encourage perfunctory practices, especially when they are unhelpful. And I believe that there are real downsides to promulgating this practice as a rote routine.
It is difficult enough to inspire society to make accommodations that are unequivocally helpful. However, allowing practices like these to take up the little bandwidth we get does a disservice to all the accommodations we need but do not receive. Even people of good will have only so much energy and attention; if we squander it on unhelpful practices, we risk not only opportunities for real progress but also the trust people have in us to ask for what we genuinely need.
People’s time is valuable, and it is disrespectful for us to avert our sensibilities while they are using their time (and ours) under the mistaken impression that we typically need to know how they look and what they are wearing to participate in a meeting. Blind and sighted people alike expressed dismay at how much time this practice takes. Because they felt the practice was not conferring a genuine accommodation, most of the people I spoke with felt it was a waste of everyone’s time to go through the motions of self-description.
Many people with whom I spoke about the practice also felt that it made them or others uncomfortable. I heard perspectives like the following:
“I’ve been blind my whole life. I have never seen any of the colors or what anyone looks like, including myself. I don’t want or need to know this stuff.”
“It must be strange for those people to have to describe themselves like that. It’s just weird.”
“I have no idea what to say about myself. Am I supposed to talk about my shoes, or do I only do that if the person in front of me did? Is there a list of dos and don’ts?”
“I know that I don’t have to describe myself, but I worry that if I don’t that people will think that I am a mean person or that I don’t care about my colleagues who have disabilities.”
“My wife picks out my clothes for me, but she doesn’t usually tell me about what they look like. So, when it’s my turn, I don’t give much of a description because I really can’t. It’s awkward to say, ‘I’m wearing regular clothes and have a white cane’ and leaving it at that.”
“I had no idea that panelists were going to have to describe themselves. I kept wishing I’d dressed better.”
“I feel a little ashamed that people think what they are doing is helping me, when it isn’t.”
“I’m overweight; am I supposed to announce that? It feels so awkward because I know that that is the first thing that many people notice about me. Is everyone else in the room just thinking ‘It’s funny how she isn’t saying the most obvious thing about herself?’ I feel embarrassed every time I’ve been asked to describe myself.”
“The one time I had to do this, I kept obsessing about what the men in the room were thinking as the women described themselves.”
“I am blind, and at this point in my life I don’t usually care what other people look like, and I definitely don’t care about their fashion choices.”
“It feels ridiculous for me to tell a bunch of sighted people at the meeting what they can see for themselves.”
“The last thing I want to do in a meeting is talk; but describing myself with everyone looking at me is even worse.”
“I really hope this doesn’t become a thing. I can’t imagine anything sillier than a bunch of blind people starting our meetings by describing what we think we look like to each other.”
To be clear, sometimes, to provide accommodations or to make society more equitable, people may have to endure some discomfort or inconvenience. But it does not help us to make people, including our own constituency, uncomfortable for no measurable benefit. Asking people to make sacrifices is perfectly acceptable to make meetings and presentations more accessible. But taxing people's time, energy, and attention for empty accommodations is self-defeating. Because most people do not really know what we need, they count on us to point the way.
First, it is important to remember that most people endorsing or engaging in this practice are simply trying to make meetings or presentations more equitable and accessible. They are striving to be inclusive. At the very least, they are going with the flow, after having noticed someone else model the practice. These are our allies, and we should work hard not to alienate them. Therefore, we should go out of our way to be appreciative of the gesture and good intentions, while at the same time shepherding them toward more productive efforts.
I encourage you to speak out when you encounter this physical description practice. Depending upon the context, I have discouraged the practice just as it commenced, when it came my turn to introduce myself, after the meeting to the speaker or chair, or even later in writing to an individual or group. Sincere, noncombative engagement goes a long way. For instance, I have said things like this, "I know that others have been giving detailed descriptions of how they appear in order to make the meeting more accessible for legally blind people like me. And I really appreciate the effort to put accessibility front and center; it makes meetings like this especially welcoming. If we are doing these descriptions to make the meetings more accessible, it's only fair for me to say that these descriptions are less helpful to me than they might appear. But there are some things we could do that would save time and really make a difference for my participation...."
There are many better, more useful alternatives we can encourage that will actually make meetings and presentations more meaningfully accessible. Most people do want to promote a more equitable environment and appreciate knowing how they can effectively remove barriers and promote access. Here are some alternatives that I recommend offering in place of asking people to give physical descriptions. Of course, these are important steps regardless of whether a community has been using the physical descriptions practice.
When scheduling a meeting or announcing an event, prominently describe the accommodations that are already in place, and invite attendees to apprise organizers of accommodations they may need. For instance, here is language I used for a recent meeting: "We have accessible seating and parking on-site. We have ASL interpreters on-call; please let us know if it would help you to have them available to sign at the meeting. If you have questions or if there are other accommodations we can provide to facilitate your full participation, please contact us at…" This kind of language welcomes people to come forward and underscores that the event organizers want to prioritize equitable participation and access.
In preparation for a meeting or event, make sure participants can access and/or remediate materials ahead of time. For most blind people, handouts and on-screen presentations are largely inaccessible. For myself, I have found this to be the most common barrier to my full participation. I often ask meeting organizers to send materials in advance. This accommodation not only helps me participate, but it also helps everyone prepare, which, typically, improves the meeting for all.
At the beginning of a meeting or event, invite participants to let organizers know, now or at any time during or after the activity, if there is anything that can be done to make the activity more accessible. This kind of short announcement will not only inspire people who need accommodations to come forward, but it will put all participants in mind of the notion that people who have disabilities and accessibility are a part of society. This kind of announcement addresses the acknowledgement of what some people want, and it does so more efficiently than the mechanical practice of self-description.
Encourage speakers to use narrative rather than demonstrative approaches to presenting. For instance, presenters who gesture at their slides with laser pointers and say things like, "we are trying to do this and not that" are being demonstrative for only those who can see what the presenters are doing. If the same presenters used a narrative style and said, "We are trying to present narratively and not demonstratively," it would be more accessible for people who can't see the slides and/or the laser pointer.
There are doubtless many other approaches, both general and more targeted, that people and institutions can take to make meetings and presentations more accessible. We should have no compunction about letting people know what we need to be able to equitably participate. At the same time, we should not sit idly by, letting people go through a performative process that they think we need or want. There are better approaches than the unhelpful, box-checking practice of self-description; let's inspire people to use those that actually serve us.