Corporations and sighted people are being criticized, by Blind and visually impaired people, for a practice many Blind and visually impaired people frown upon because they consider the information provided to them as useless fluff. Blind and visually impaired people are criticizing the practice known as self-description.
Self-description isn’t universal, but it is enough of a mainstream practice to have Blind and visually impaired people figuratively foaming at the mouth and rebelling against the practice of self-description in meetings and at events. Self-description isn’t a new practice. Every time you describe yourself to someone over a telephone call without video, you are embarking on self-description. Self-description is making its way into corporate environments, and even online videos, such as the Accessibility series created by Laura Kate Dale on YouTube.
This practice has received a wide array of criticism, especially in the Blind and visually impaired community. The Braille Monitor has published articles decrying the practice. I’d like to explain why I am in favor of self-description, for reasons that go beyond the individuals saying it’s a useless gesture that doesn’t advance anything, and wastes time, and, moreover, actually diminishes information in their eyes.
The objections arise for corporate meetings and entertainment events. The common argument is, if your meeting is about rocket fuel, why does any Blind or visually impaired person care what you look like when there are more pressing matters to get to. The opposition comes from the belief that it’s a complete waste of time, and just useless information anyway. The final position is something that, quite honestly, baffles me to this day, that it’s diminishing and devaluing actual, useful, visual information that we could be obtaining if the person in question wouldn’t be filling our ears with junk self-descriptions. A third party, they reason, would give us more useful information because they are objective and can better choose what description gets spoken.
Self-descriptions can serve a wide array of needs, in and out of corporate meetings. For example, if someone is putting on an awards ceremony, and they don’t have enough space or money to hire a full audio description treatment, self-descriptions can fill in some of those gaps while making the event more inclusive for folks listening to the event via the radio or an audio only podcast feed.
In corporate meetings, self-descriptions can serve a greater purpose than just how someone looks. When people ask to give self-descriptions, the person giving the self-description has to think about how they would present themselves to others. This could help them learn how to synthesize information and it allows them to work on their public presentation skills.
Self-descriptions can give people more information than just how a person is dressed, as well. For the people listening to the self-description, there’s a lot more information given than just how one describes themselves. Attentive listeners can pick up a lot of clues from self-description. For example, an employee might use vocabulary to show they have a multitude of ways of expressing themselves, which can be a good indicator of their writing and or public speaking ability. The employee would know facts about themselves that a third party wouldn’t know. Someone might see a dark skinned person sitting in a plush office, but they’d never know that that same person is French, which would be good to know upon first meeting the person or first interacting with them.
When one is describing themselves, they have to assess what’s important to describe in a short span of time. It gives people practice in shortening information, which goes along with the practice of distilling a lot of bits of information into a short sentence. Most importantly, though, having employees supply self-descriptions before meetings saves the company money on expensive writing seminars. Having employees provide self-descriptions before meetings also gives Blind and visually impaired hiring managers an idea of how their employees dress from one meeting to the next.
Of course, there are events and scenarios where it isn’t practical to do self-description, but these are very fringe cases, like a test taking session at a school. At awards ceremonies, a short, one sentence, self-description allows Blind and visually impaired people to participate in conversations regarding diversity and representation and doesn’t detract from the event. If the event is pressed for time, then self-descriptions could be provided at the end of presentations or via a written transcript later.
Self-description has a lot of benefits for Blind and visually impaired employees as well as sighted employees. Self-description isn’t ideal for all events, but it’s an inclusive way to build skills and save money while incorporating inclusive practices. Lastly, it gets sighted people pondering about access and information long after the event is over. I think it’s worth encouraging self-description for that reason alone.