A visually impaired Black man walks away from a meeting.

The Importance of Self-Description in Meetings for Employees with Impaired Vision

As companies target more inclusive workplace practices, their focus must be on everyday interactions across all employee groups. Among those to consider are individuals with visual impairment. For this population, something like a town hall or meeting can become stressful and confusing, but these types of events are also where culture is created and grown. One of the most important parts of inclusive gatherings comes right at the start and but is often taken for granted: introductions.

A great deal of visual information is taken in during introductions, from a person’s surrounding environment, personal characteristics and the diversity present in the room. Some of these characteristics may be discerned in other ways for individuals with a visual impairment. “Self-description” is a helpful tool visually impaired individuals use to acclimate to any meeting with unfamiliar voices or when groups reach a significant size. Furthermore, descriptive introductions significantly decrease the amount of work attached to this acclimation process. Finally, self-descriptions can help a visually-impaired person recognize their colleagues more easily in future interactions.

When organizing a large gathering, it’s important to consider self-description a part of good event execution, similar to how you would hire a sign-language interpreter. You might be wondering how many visually impaired people need to be present to require self-descriptions. Not all visually impaired people require or enjoy self-descriptions, but the presence of a single person who wants this to be a feature of the event should be enough to require speakers and attendees to provide them.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer at what makes a good self-description.

The Art of Self-Description

Self-description may not come naturally to everyone, but some pretty simple guidelines can make it easier. Although it may take some practice, self-description can eventually seem as natural as saying your name.

If a visually impaired person is in the middle of a multi-person conversation, the sound of overlapping voices can quickly become confusing. Simply repeating your name before you speak is a good way to help them remember you and associate it with your voice. Adding a person’s organization can help provide additional context at large gatherings. For example, before speaking, I might say, “David, DiversityInc.”

Meeting or conference organizers should also reinforce the practice and structure, reminding people as they begin to speak in case they forget.

When making your initial introduction, it’s good to prepare a concise remark that particularizes you. The more people in the room, the harder it is for the visually impaired to remember everything; keeping self-descriptions to no more than two sentences should help prevent cognitive overload. To save everyone some time, limit the self-description to important information for the context of the situation.

Common things to include are names, pronouns, position, company (if attending a large-scale event such as a conference) and perhaps some defining physical features. Your choice of words matters, but they should be descriptors that you are comfortable sharing. You are, in some ways, describing yourself for everyone in attendance. If there are elements of your identity you are not comfortable sharing, that is okay. Self-description is ultimately a personal statement that allows you to choose what to reveal and withhold. Simply limit the description to what you feel the person needs to know.

Luckily, everyone has already had some experience with self-description. For example, if you’ve ever met someone you don’t know and has never seen you in a public place, how would you describe yourself to them so they can find you in a crowd? Typical things include:

  • Gender identity
  • Age
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Appearance details (Hair color, height, skin tone, clothing, etc.)
  • Disability (if desired)

In a world where virtual settings are increasingly common, what you use to describe will be different. For example, your clothing may not be relevant, and your height is indecipherable from everyone else on the call. Consider the environment when formulating your self-description and eliminate unneeded descriptions to save time.

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