At many of the recent events I have attended, I’ve noticed that the speakers have been including visual descriptions of themselves when introducing themselves, to be more inclusive of visually impaired audiences. While I know some people don’t believe visual descriptions are necessary, I personally find them extremely helpful, and plan to incorporate this practice at my next event. Here are my tips for how to create helpful visual descriptions for visually impaired audiences, from the perspective of a person with low vision.
What is a visual description?
In this context, a visual description is a way for presenters or people at an event to describe their physical appearance and provide helpful contextual information. These descriptions are voluntary but can help with eliminating unconscious bias and with navigating social situations, since people may feel uncomfortable asking for details on what a person looks like. Visual descriptions specifically benefit people who are blind, that have low vision, or that otherwise have vision loss.
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Why are visual descriptions helpful for people with vision loss?
As a person with low vision, I often have trouble seeing what people look like or distinguishing between two different speakers, so having a visual description can help me to identify who is speaking. It is also helpful for if I want to talk to the person later, as I have an idea of what they look like and what they are wearing, which is helpful information to relay to a human guide. Even though I might be able to pick out some limited details about what a person looks like with my usable vision alone, it’s tremendously helpful to hear people describe themselves in their own words. Plus, I really like fashion, so hearing people describe what they are wearing can be interesting!
I acknowledge that there are people living with vision loss that do not care for visual descriptions or believe that visual descriptions are part of a broader social or political agenda. However, I find them personally helpful, and so do many other people with vision loss, and I encourage speakers to provide this information whenever possible to help make events and conversations even more inclusive.
How to provide a visual description
So how should someone go about providing a visual description? There are a few different options that come to mind:
- Mention it during a verbal introduction. For example, I might greet the audience by sharing my name, provide a visual description, and then deliver the rest of my introduction
- Include it in a caption. If I was not standing in front of an audience but had my photo included in a presentation, I would add a visual description (or image description) to the photo and mention the description when discussing visual content on the screen.
- Mention it in a program or guide. If photos of speakers are included in a program or guide, mention the visual descriptions as well so people can have a visual reference.
- Add it to audio description. For events that are pre-recorded, narrators can give a visual description of the speaker as part of the additional narration track.
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Things to mention in a visual description of a person
Helpful details to mention in a visual description for the blind include:
- Hairstyle and hair color
- Age or age range (optional)
- Clothing description
- Any additional distinctive accessories, i.e glasses or large jewelry
- Mobility aids, i.e a guide dog, wheelchair, blindness cane, hearing aids, etc
I recognize that some people may not feel comfortable disclosing their mobility aids or if they have a disability, though this can help with eliminating unconscious bias. People can also choose to disclose their pronouns in their visual description, though most people I know disclose this in their introduction anyway.
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Things that shouldn’t be mentioned in a visual description
Things to avoid mentioning in a visual description include:
- Comments related to attractiveness, or commentary on appearance, i.e statements like “I am ugly” or “I am an attractive person”
- Eye color- not particularly helpful here, since the other audience members would not be able to see this
- Body measurements and clothing sizes
- Small visual details such as a zit
- Information about clothing brands, unless it is a distinctive style- for example, the word Crocs can be used to describe shoes made by the brand, but there’s no need to mention that a sweater came from Target
- Any visual details that would not be obvious to sighted audience members
- Making the description longer than about 30 seconds
I did receive a question from someone who was wondering if it was okay for them to disclose that they are pregnant in their visual description, and I said that was up to them, but fine to include if they wanted. They chose to share how far along they were, but “pregnant” would have been enough if they did not want to go into detail.
What about body type?
I wrote more about my decision to list body measurements as something to not include in visual descriptions below.
Some example visual descriptions
Here are some example visual descriptions I have created, or that I have reprinted with permission from others:
- I am a white 24-year-old woman with short brown hair, and I have large, tinted glasses with purple frames. I am wearing a black and white geometric patterned dress with a rose-pink infinity scarf, a denim jacket, and black flat shoes. I also have a blindness cane that has a bright pink handle and pink segment near the tip of the cane.
- I am a Filipino man with short black hair, and am wearing sunglasses along with a black shirt, blue jeans, and black dress shoes. My guide dog Lola is a German Shepherd and is currently sitting under the table for the presentation.
- I am nonbinary and have olive skin with curly brown hair that is in a ponytail. I am wearing a black suit with a purple tie, and have gauged ears with purple earrings, as well as a septum piercing.
- I am a black woman in her mid 30s with long blonde and black locs that go down my back. I am wearing a t-shirt that says “Accessibility Matters” along with black skinny jeans, and purple Converse high-tops. The frames of my glasses are bright red and have round lenses inside.
- I am a biracial (Japanese/white) college freshman and have an androgynous appearance. I am wearing a blue button-down top, dark gray pants, and black and white checkered shoes. I have shoulder length wavy black hair with a purple stripe towards the front and have multiple silver rings on each of my hands.
Summary of how to create helpful visual descriptions for visually impaired audiences
- A visual description allows presenters to provide a physical description of what they look like for the benefit of audience members with vision loss
- Visual descriptions are a great inclusive practice, and can help people to avoid unconscious bias as well as help with understanding who is talking during a presentation
- Visual descriptions are typically included as part of a verbal introduction
- Helpful things to mention in a visual description include hair color/hairstyle, race/ethnicity, gender, clothing description, or other distinctive visual details. People can also choose to mention their age or age range
- People should avoid including details such as commentary on appearance, eye color (since it is a small detail), body measurements or clothing sizes, or details that would go unnoticed by sighted audience members.