The following guidance was developed by VocalEyes with the Inclusive AD forum set up as part of the IDEA project, a collaboration of Royal Holloway University of London with VocalEyes. Download the guidance as a Word document.
At the start of meetings, presentations and panel discussions, people introduce themselves. People who are not blind in these situations take in a lot of visual information about each other without having to define or consent to it.
Giving a description of yourself for the benefit of blind or visually impaired people – when meeting a group of people for the first time; when speaking at a conference or seminar – is good practice, and part of your professional responsibilities.
This document provides some brief guidance on how to ensure your meetings are more inclusive for blind and visually impaired people, covering self-description of visual characteristics and self-identification.
The aim of this document is to provide information that helps people to take a planned and considered approach to chairing and organising meetings, speaking at conferences, thus creating a more equitable experience for blind and visually impaired people, while also respecting the privacy and rights of everyone and creating a supportive, inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone.
Why is self-description important?
- Access to information about people who are present in a room means an equitable experience for everyone.
- For a visually impaired person who has some level of sight, having descriptions of physical characteristics can help them recall individuals and identify them on a second meeting.
- Self-description provides information about the individual that non-blind people take in visually, and when done by everyone at a meeting or conference, gives the blind or visually impaired people present a sense of the diversity or lack of diversity of those speaking, on a panel or in the room generally. Depending on the context, and the subject of the meeting or conference, representation in general, and an individual’s connection to the subject may be important.
When should I self-describe?
A meeting or conference organiser should know in advance of the access needs of any attendee. All conference websites or booking process should include a list of the access services provided, and a free-text field on the form with the open question “Do you have any access needs? please describe here”. On an event invitation via email or printed material, the same question should be asked, with email address and phone number both available for someone. The enquiry may be about the event space, accessible parking, public transport, access services or access to materials before the event, for example.
If a blind or visually impaired person has requested audio description prior to the meeting, or has specifically requested that speakers describe themselves, then the organiser should contact attendees and conference speakers, to make this request. Send this document as well.
At the start, the conference chair or meeting organiser should model good practice and repeat the request. However, it is important that this is done without naming, singling out, or in any other way making a point about the blind or visually impaired person or people who have requested this access service.
Some blind or visually impaired people prefer not to have self-descriptions. However, if one person requests them, they should be provided. The chair or organiser may wish to discuss with the person or people requesting self-description, what level of description they prefer.
Each speaker should preface their talk with their name, organisation and a brief self-description. At a meeting, it might also help people if you provide a brief explanation of why you are there or what connection you have to the subject, if not obvious.
How should I self-describe?
Have it written down already and stick to what you have written. People who self-describe off the cuff tend to take their lead (in terms of which aspects they describe) from the people before them. This can often result in successive people’s descriptions getting longer and longer.
Name yourself, and repeat your name every time you speak
Always start with your name, and organisation if relevant. With multiple speakers, a blind or visually impaired person will not be able to remember everyone’s voice the second time that they speak, so repeat your name every time that you speak. The more people at the meeting, the more important this is. Adding your organisation, or role can also help. For example, “Matthew, VocalEyes” or “Andrew, audio describer”; A meeting or conference chair should reinforce and prompt this when calling on people to speak.
Be concise and brief in your self-description
The amount of detail you describe yourself with in part depends on how many people are in the meeting. A blind person will get information overload if 35 people all go into huge detail about their hair, skin, height, clothes and Zoom background. Keep it to one or two sentences at most, and to important information. It’s a thumbnail sketch, not an oil portrait. A blind or VI person will not be able to retain all the details, and it will take up too much of everyone’s time.
What should I include in my self-description?
You must decide what you are comfortable saying at a particular time, and what is important to you at that particular meeting, in front of that group of people. It is also worth considering that what you say may have an impact on others in the meeting. Your choice of words can contribute to an inclusive and welcoming environment.
Additionally, it is important to recognise that your choice of words may be more – or less – difficult than that of someone else. If you are the only person of colour, or the only trans person at an event, this may be a more difficult and complex moment for you. If you find it uncomfortable in the circumstances, it is perfectly acceptable to choose not to include an aspect of self-description. Your rights are equally important as those of the blind and visually impaired person.
By describing yourself, you are in some way identifying and defining yourself, and it is thus a political and personal act. You may also choose to share your pronouns and name other aspects of your identity, even if they are not visual aspects.
Below we have provided some notes covering different aspects of description. This is not intended as a checklist of what you should include. A good rule of thumb is to restrict yourself to three key elements and one or two sentences.
If you were arranging to meet a non-blind person in a public place who you have not met before, how would you describe yourself so that they could pick you out from the crowd?
Personal characteristics as elements of self-description
Your voice may be interpreted as that of a particular gender, this is an opportunity to say how you identify and you may want to note your pronouns.
Cis / trans
You may wish to add cis or trans to indicate if your gender identity is the same, or not the same as, the sex that you were assigned at birth, if this is something you would typically disclose in this context.
Some cisgender people question the need to self-describe as cis or to share their pronouns, but the use of this language by all can make a room seem less hostile than it might otherwise be for a transgender person.
Use decades – early 20s, mid-50s – rather than a specific number.
Disability / neurodivergence
For the purposes of describing your visual appearance, it may not be necessary to identify as disabled or neurodivergent, but you may wish to if this is something you would typically disclose in this context. Non-disabled people should consider if it is relevant to include that information in their description. Do not use the term ‘able’, or ‘able-bodied’.
Race / ethnicity
You may choose to refer to your ethnicity or race. It is important for an inclusive meeting that this is not solely done by people from minoritised or under-represented groups. Whiteness should not be assumed to be a default.
You may prefer to give a visual description of your skin colour instead of, or in addition to, reference to your race / ethnicity.
You might refer to your hair colour, length and style. This is something that is often over-described. Facial hair, such as a moustache or beard can be a useful visual marker for a blind or visually impaired person.
Build / height
On a video call or online conference, your height is not generally visible, so it is less relevant. However, knowing that someone is very tall can be useful for a blind or visually impaired person at an in-person conference.
Clothes and accessories
What you wear is a part of your identity. Again, don’t over-describe or even feel it necessary to refer to your clothes at all, but a patterned shirt or top, a brightly-coloured scarf or striking jewellery can be a useful visual marker for a blind or visually impaired person. A particularly loud shirt may become a running joke at a meeting: make sure that the blind or visually impaired person is in on it from the beginning.
There is usually no need to describe what is in the background of your Zoom or Teams video call. As with clothing, if this becomes a topic of conversation, then a blind and VI person should be included as soon as possible, but generally this uses up important time and detracts from the importance of the other information.
H. “I am a partially-blind white woman in my late 40s. I have thick purple glasses, a large purple headset and grey-blonde hair tied back in a ponytail.”
M. “I’m a white cis man, in my mid-50s. I’m tall, with greying dark curly hair. My pronouns are he / him.”
N “I use they/them pronouns. I am a nonbinary East Asian person in my 20s. I have long dark hair and facial hair.”
This document is based on principles established as part of the Describing Diversity project, by Royal Holloway University of London and VocalEyes, and was developed with the help of members of the Inclusive AD Forum, established by the IDEA (Inclusive Description for Equality and Access) project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (2021).
With thanks to the forum members for their contribution.
Description Victoria, Guide to Inclusive Meetings (DescriptionVictoria.com.au/guide-to-inclusive-meetings)
VocalEyes, Making your conference presentation more accessible to blind and partially sighted people (VocalEyes.co.uk/services/resources/guidelines-for-making-your-conference-presentation-more-accessible-to-blind-and-partially-sighted-people/)
IDEA Inclusive AD Forum, Royal Holloway University of London and VocalEyes, Self-description for inclusive meetings (May 2021)
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