At a recent roundtable meeting for disability rights leaders, Kamala Harris described herself as follows: “I am Kamala Harris, my pronouns are she and her, I am a woman sitting at the table wearing a blue suit.”
Harris was put in a no-win predicament. Republicans mocked her for identifying herself as a woman, citing Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s statement during her confirmation that she could not define “a woman” because she is not a biologist. Aside from that political quagmire, Harris’s description conveyed almost nothing. A blue suit? What kind of suit? Pants or skirt? What shade of blue? Meanwhile, nothing about her hair, her ethnic appearance, her smiles, her frowns.
Does describing oneself in a public setting serve any purpose? If yes, exactly what? What do advocates for self-description intend? What, if anything, do visually impaired and blind people lose because they cannot independently observe someone’s visual appearance? When people describe themselves in a public setting, do visually impaired and blind people gain equality?
These questions raise conundrums that go beyond accommodations for disability to the never-ending dichotomies of appearance versus reality, subjectivity versus objectivity, and to imponderables about the nature of beauty.
Self-description at meetings when a visually impaired person is present is the subject of a survey whose results were published last month by its designer, Karen McCall. The survey asked this question: “Do you find it helpful when people describe themselves during meetings or at conferences?”
Judging by hints the anonymous respondents gave about themselves, some had sight but were immersed in the lives of visually impaired and blind people, some were totally blind, and others were visually impaired in varying degrees. 370 people responded, of whom 113 said “Yes,” while the vast majority, 257, said “No.” The rest took no position. Most revealing were the written comments made by 304 participants.
When I first read about McCall’s survey, my initial reaction was more or less captured by this respondent’s comment: “… I end up feeling unnerved by the whole thing! I wonder how it started and wish it would go away!”
For many, describing oneself is uncomfortable and difficult. On the one hand, we don’t want to highlight what we might dislike about our appearance; on the other, we want to be accurate. It can be equally cringe-inducing for the other participants listening in. No, they might think, don’t be so hard on yourself. Or they might resent a participant who speaks flatteringly of themselves. Characterizing the entire process, several survey respondents used such words as “a bit creepy,” “ableist” and “patronizing.”
I’ve been unable to determine the origin of this demand for self-description, but, as these adjectives suggest, many respondents assumed it came from well-intentioned sighted organizers.
Even ostensible beneficiaries of visual descriptions might object precisely because it highlights their disability. This comment echoed several others: “I would prefer not to be singled out as the only reason you are doing this and I honestly tend to side with my sighted coworkers who would almost certainly prefer to just get the meeting over with.”
McCall encapsulates much of this reaction in her admittedly personal preface to her report of the results:
I am not body confident and having to pick parts of my anatomy to describe to others in a public forum feels like body shaming to me. The fact that some organizations are building this into policy and practice disturbs me as it isolates me as non-inclusive if I don’t participate and if I do, I feel uncomfortable and may not be able to focus on what others are saying.
I have never attended a meeting, Zoom or otherwise, where self-description was expected. Comments on the survey and McCall’s own remarks initially backed my instinctive belief that self-description should be entirely voluntary, and probably not even an option. However, the more I read and reflect on the comments, the more complicated my response becomes.
A vivid example of the impact of visual information came from a respondent, evidently a woman (she once wore “a flowered blouse”), whose answer didn’t directly address the self-description question:
One time when I could officially see I was at a tech event. The women at some vendors’ booths were in miniskirts, professional miniskirts but still miniskirts. At other booths every of all genders was in chinos and polo shirts. What messages do you imagine different vendors were sending!
Perhaps it reveals a prejudice to suggest that uniform short skirts at a vendor’s booth signaled a desire to convince potential purchasers to buy for reasons beyond a product’s intrinsic value. But even if it is prejudice, the information is something blind and visually impaired people ought to have so that they can make their own assessment.
A similar point was made by some survey participants commenting more specifically on self-description. Here are two examples:
1. … [T]he descriptions give a person who is VI an insight into the presenter’s character that sighted people get immediately, e.g. someone who likes to wear bright, loud clothes, has a funny Zoom background or someone who has artistic taste in hairstyles, jewelry. It can explain things sometimes when the presenter might make allusions to a situation, e.g. the presenter may have their arm in a sling and make reference indirectly to not being able to use the computer. It allows VI participants to join in any ad hoc visual references that may come up about attendees, e.g. “I like your new hair cut Wendy!”, or “What’s the name of your cat (sitting on their shoulder”.
2. It is also helpful and inclusive when the description provides information that adds context to a comment either by the speaker or someone else in the group. For example, if someone makes a reference to the blue in someone’s hair, I appreciate knowing that the person has black hair with a blue streak rather than having to ask for the context of the comment.
Here, at yet another allusion to blue, is where my ambivalence about self-description surfaces. This respondent is correct that describing a head of hair as “blue” is insufficient. Most of us have cultural associations with visual traits. “Blue hair” calls to my mind women offsetting gray hair, while a blue streak in black hair connotes for me a contemporary young person who takes great care and time to promote a distinctive, off-beat impression. My impression could be an assumption, but I’m confident it’s so widely shared that any person who colors their hair in this way must be conscious of its impact. As such, it’s a visual clue about that person that, volunteered as self-description, could be useful for someone who can’t see.
The following comment makes the case for the equality angle for blind and visually impaired people:
I would like the same information sighted participants receive. … I am a performing arts professional and know the power of appearance. Even if I don’t let it enter into my perceptions, sighted participants inevitably will.
I agree. However, there are equality concerns beyond those for blind and visually impaired people. As one respondent wrote: “We’re not supposed to judge people by how they look, so why are people describing themselves this way?” For one thing, self-description can run up against sexism and ageism. One respondent put the problem rather graphically:
As a woman, I’m sensitive to any description that identifies my appearance and age. Women have traditionally been judged and demeaned by their age, weight, physical appearance, attire, hairstyle, race, ethnicity, the size of their boobs, size of their butt, size of their nose … everything.
In a similar vein, a respondent wrote a comment that at first blush (so to speak) appears ironic:
Telling me what color shirt they have on is a waste of time. I’d rather the person say something like “I’m 50 years old, weigh 245 pounds, am 6 feet tall and physically out of shape.” or “I am described as buxom, with a pretty face and large breasts.” I say all of this in complete seriousness. That’s the kind of thing a sighted person would see.
Another survey respondent not only showed concern about ageism, but also its consequence for her when called on to describe herself:
For me, having to describe my age (I do worry about ageism in the workplace), what I think I look like (body image is difficult). Sometimes I find I am so preoccupied thinking about what I am going to say- that I lose focus on other folks descriptions and even their names…and become even more anxious before my talk begins.
The following poignant comment indicates how self-description can breach a meeting participant’s sense of privacy:
I don’t mind stating some things, like my ethnicity, but I find it harder with others. I consider that I am mostly cisgender but it’s difficult to describe and I don’t necessarily want to say I’m a woman or a cis woman because it’s complicated and I don’t feel I want to explain that to strangers. I’m an abuse survivor and describing my body is really difficult for me… It feels like there’s pressure to do a description, or else people think you’re an asshole who doesn’t care about accessibility. I don’t want to explain to an audience, or to conference organisers, why this is difficult, but also don’t want people to think I’m an asshole.
At least one self-proclaimed inclusive organization that mandates self-description when requested by a blind attendee acknowledges the potential for conflict with other rights. Here’s an excerpt from its recommendations for meeting participants:
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.
I initially believed race has no place in self-description in public meetings. I note Kamala Harris made no mention of race or ethnicity in the self-description attributed to her. However, McCall’s survey elicited several constructive views on the value of including race, ethnicity and other sensitive matters in a self-description:
1. [F]or people from ethnic minorities, it is empowering to know people who look like them are also participating and may be succeeding in a meaningful way.
2. I like the idea of having equal access to information, if only so I can know the gender or race of someone whose voice doesn’t necessarily convey this information clearly…
3. I like to know who is in the room in terms of gender, race, disability. I don’t really care what people look like but I want to know that a meeting or conference is diverse and a range of people are there. I think it is important that people’s visual characteristics are spoken because even when people say they ‘don’t notice race’ etc., non-blind people will have made snap judgements based on appearance and so even if blind people do not judge by appearances, they need to know that others might and this might influence their behaviour.
Also, a short description gives me time to match voice to name and something memorable.
4. Someone who is non-binary, or Indigenous or any other marginalized group can seek support from allies or like-minded people through this exercise.
5. [B]rief description including race, and any distinguishing characteristics, i.e., long beard, very large hoop earrings, etc. This helps to not only get a picture of the person and what others may notice first about them, but provides a way for a blind person to give a visual description to someone in order to connect with that person after they’ve spoken. “I’m looking for the woman wearing the bright orange blouse. I wanted to ask about something she said in her talk.”
These comments suggest at least four ways a visually impaired person might benefit from learning about the race and other visual features of a fellow participant: (1) an indication of a speaker’s background that might inform their point of view, (2) a detail that would enable a sighted person to help a blind or visually impaired person find someone, (3) that as an African-American or in some other way they are not alone, and (4) visually impaired people need to be aware of sighted people’s prejudices even if they don’t share them.
This last point is, of course, tricky. Should it matter that an advocate for nondiscrimination in housing or healthcare is themselves from a racial or ethnic minority? I’d like to say no. However, there have been times when I’ve read a newspaper opinion piece and wondered if the author was, say, ethnically East Asian. Nothing in the article, brief bio or even the name gives it away, but sighted people will see it immediately in the photograph that almost invariably accompanies such pieces. Whether or not it ought to influence how I read the article, it feels unfair that this information is withheld from me.
Ethical issues aside, here’s a comment that starts me thinking about my fundamental misgiving about self-description:
I like when people give details I call “flourishes” like what you might find in a book – for example, a woman described herself on a meeting as having long, chestnut-brown hair in French braids on either side of her head. A man mentioned his salt and pepper goatee. … I appreciate these descriptions, as I see it as an effort to meet us where we are and include us.
I, too, enjoy learning such details. But doesn’t self-description invariably miss the point? To say that someone has chestnut-brown hair or a salt-and-pepper goatee doesn’t get at the judgment that sighted people, whether they mean to or not, immediately jump to: Is this woman pretty? That man handsome?
No question, this assertion about the power of attractiveness is objectionable. First, as several respondents wrote, we like to think we judge by character, not by appearance. Well, we might like to, and many try, but do we succeed?
Second, attractiveness is arguably a cultural judgment and, as such, prone to bias. If someone can’t see, are they freed from such prejudices? A survey respondent wrote that one of “the advantages I believe that blind people have is that we don’t have any misguided assumptions of what a person is.” Others commented in a similar vein in the context of race. It’s a tempting claim. After all, if African-Americans were as white as the Irish, they might well have long ago assimilated into the general population.
Regrettably, it can be useful to know that a woman is considered pretty because, unfair though it may be, it affects how she’s treated and, sometimes as a result, how she carries herself. It can be equally helpful to know that in some traditional way, a woman is considered plain. It could explain why she comes across as insecure and self-deprecating, allowing for the possibility that encouragement and positive reinforcement might bring out the favorable qualities detected by nonvisual senses. Similar considerations apply to men, if in different forms.
Self-description is inherently flawed because the data, such as French braids and salt-and-pepper goatees, are unreliable indicators. However, if not told about broad visual value judgments, blind and visually impaired people are denied access to this irrational, unfair but almost universal way of judging others. A fundamental question about self-description might be less whether it is appropriate for serving the cause of equality than whether it serves equality at all.
I sometimes miss the ability I once had to see people and respond in my own idiosyncratic ways. Girls whose appearance did nothing for other boys sometimes intrigued me, while I might have seen little of the charms in girls over whom other boys went gaga. Some grown men looked kind even before they spoke, while others wore a fierce expression that their sense of humor overcame.
However, the question is whether what I’m missing about people’s appearances is essential to a blind or visually impaired person’s participation in meetings and conferences. My experience argues against it. I’ve found that details tend to emerge informally. A joke might be made in reference to someone’s appearance, such as about a man’s hair, or lack of it, which seems to be safe fare for humor. Almost always, one of the participants will alert me to what and whom the joke is about. True, it singles me out, but I’m glad to know and, on balance, it helps make me feel engaged.
I did a lot of hiring at the law office where I used to work. I usually had my trusted deputy join me at interviews, in part so that we could compare notes, but also so that I could get his visual observations. A candidate who turned up for an interview in short shorts wasn’t going to meet office dress standards. Ditto certain tattoos and facial piercings. In reality, such people rarely reached the interview stage because either they knew better than to apply for a job at an office like ours or because I could surmise those aspects of them from their resumes and cover letters. Otherwise, I could ascertain just about everything I needed to know from their voices. Only occasionally did my deputy alert me to a visual attitude at odds with the candidate’s manner of expression. But yes, even for just one such case, I needed the information to ensure we hired people best fit for our program.
I’m tempted to express agreement with this comment from a survey participant: “The only person who I would like a good description of is some one who I was going to date or have a physical relationship with.” In reality, I am curious about people’s appearances and I’m glad when someone passes along details. Still, the fact remains that other people’s descriptions won’t always accord with how I would have described them if I still had vision.
Nevertheless, although I believe participants at a meeting should not be put in a position where they feel obliged to describe themselves, there’s something to be learned from McCall’s survey question: “Do you find it helpful when people describe themselves during meetings or at conferences?”
A survey respondent wrote: “Most people give you the blandest descriptions. They’re not likely to tell you that they have a beautiful smile or a bad comb-over.” No matter how detailed or scathingly honest we might be, we can’t do ourselves justice. Recognizing that, consciously or otherwise, we resort to details that convey practically nothing. In this regard, Kamala Harris’s self-description speaks volumes. Again, what exactly is a blue suit, and what might it signify? Was anyone surprised that she’s a woman?
Almost all of what we need, or even want, to know about a person is conveyed by what they say and how their voices express it. In that case, the equality some of the survey respondents felt they gain by physical descriptions essentially exists already. To the extent it may not, either the omissions are insignificant or readily overcome by asking questions, listening to how others react to each other, and so on.
I found cause for much optimism in the comments that McCall compiled with her survey results. The world really would be a better place if we put less emphasis on appearance, if we stopped glorifying “movie looks,” if we trusted to our ability to judge people by the content of their character. Awareness of the limits of our judgments based on appearance might make us more willing to treat our colleagues, friends and strangers with greater respect for who they are, whatever that “who” may be. If asked, the respondents to McCall’s survey might be willing to show the way.
Note: To avoid inadvertently altering a respondent’s meaning, when quoting from the survey’s comments, I’ve corrected spelling to spare readers unnecessary distraction but rarely grammar and other errors.