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. I have really enjoyed listening to these visual descriptions and find them helpful, however there are many others who have spoken out about visual descriptions or asked why some details were included and not others. I recognize that people have differing opinions about visual descriptions and wanted to share my own thoughts on visual descriptions as a person with low vision while acknowledging my own biases and thought process for creating visual descriptions of my own, and have written this post as a companion to my previous post on visual descriptions to go more into detail on these things.
First, what are visual descriptions?
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.
For the purposes of this post, visual descriptions are different from the types of descriptions provided for images (referred to as alt text or image description) or descriptions provided for movies, plays, or other visual media (referred to as audio description).
- How To Create Helpful Visual Descriptions For Visually Impaired Audiences
- Seven Myths About Alt Text
- 8 Myths About Audio Description
Some background on me and my eye condition
Several people have pointed out to me that there seem to be informal correlations between gender, level of usable sight, and other demographics, so I thought it might be helpful to share some information about myself, so that I can share where I might be biased.
I am a white woman in her 20s who was diagnosed with low vision at the age of three. My vision has gotten worse over time, and I started using a blindness cane when I started college at eighteen years old. If I had to describe my vision, I would say that it’s like an out of focus camera- I have monocular double vision (meaning I constantly have double vision, even if one eye is closed), my vision is blurry with visual static, and I have trouble seeing objects that are more than about five feet ahead of me. I also have limited peripheral vision, no depth perception, wear tinted glasses due to light sensitivity, and cannot read anything smaller than size 36-point font. My official diagnosis is decompensated strabismus, and I have both an eye and a brain condition that play a role in my low vision.
One of the things I rely on most when it comes to processing visual information is the color/colors of something, and I have a natural interest in things that are very colorful- this includes art, fashion, and several other topics related to design. I’m also interested in knowing what people look like, since being able to identify people has become more difficult as my vision has gotten worse. I would rather receive a lot of visual detail than ask for more details later.
What I like to hear in a visual description
Many events have requested that speakers provide visual descriptions for themselves- some events consider descriptions voluntary, while others tell speakers that they have to provide more detailed descriptions. If someone were asked to provide a detailed description, I would recommend they include some or all of the following information:
- 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 curated this information based on visual descriptions that I have used for myself, descriptions I have seen other people and organizations use, and guidance from creating other forms of descriptions of visual content (including audio and image descriptions).
What about body size?
When I originally put together these recommendations, I recommended that people avoid mentioning details such as body measurements or clothing sizes. I had an experience where a person made a point to mention they were very thin and went as far as to mention their height, weight, and clothing size. I later was told that this was triggering for people who live with feelings of body dysmorphia and felt that the information was inappropriate for that presentation.
Since then, I have had people reach out to me through email and social media asking if it would be ok to mention if a person was fat in their visual description. If a person feels comfortable doing this, they are welcome to mention that in their own visual description and I would find this detail to be personally helpful, but I did not include it in the list because mentioning weight or size can be a source of anxiety for many people or can cause them to feel uncomfortable giving any form of visual description.
Acknowledging the other side
Are there people who believe that visual descriptions are completely unnecessary? Absolutely.
There is a common assumption that people who find visual descriptions pointless have no usable vision, were born with vision loss, or identify as male. On the other hand, there is a common assumption that people who find visual descriptions helpful have some usable vision, were born without vision loss, or identify as female. However, these assumptions are not always accurate, and the use of visual descriptions has been a topic that has been talked about frequently in the visual impairment community, especially within the last year.
Some common criticisms of visual descriptions are that they take too much time, they don’t provide helpful information, or they are seen as being part of a broader social or political agenda. Others may appreciate visual descriptions, but do not think they need to be at the level of detail that I mentioned above. Conflicting access needs are absolutely a thing, and what is helpful and relevant for one person may not be for another.
Should people provide visual descriptions?
If you ask me, yes!
Visual descriptions are helpful for me because I don’t have to ask for details about what a person looks like or worry about unconscious bias, and I appreciate hearing people describe themselves in their own words. It is helpful for me to know what a person looks like if I want to talk to them at a later event, or if I want to identify who is speaking.
I recognize that people may feel uncomfortable or believe it is unnecessary to provide detailed visual descriptions, and I encourage them to choose a few items from the list I shared to include in their visual description, or to add other details that they feel comfortable sharing. In most cases, visual descriptions are voluntary, so people can structure their description however they see fit.
To be considerate of people who do not want to listen to visual descriptions, I recommend keeping visual descriptions under thirty seconds, and ideally closer to ten or fifteen seconds. Chances are, there is another person who benefits from visual descriptions who will appreciate listening to yours.
Summary of my thoughts on visual descriptions
- A visual description allows presenters to provide a physical description of what they look like for the benefit of audience members with vision loss
- I personally find visual descriptions interesting and helpful, because I have low vision and an interest in getting visual information
- 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
- I do not list body size as one of the items to mention in a visual description because this information can be triggering for the presenter to include, and because of its potential association with body dysmorphia
- Some people with vision loss dislike visual descriptions because they take too much time, they don’t provide helpful information, or they are seen as being part of a broader social or political agenda. Alternatively, they may like visual descriptions, but don’t want a lot of detail
- People should include whatever details that they feel comfortable including in their visual description and keep the descriptions short to be considerate of people who may not want to listen to them.