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Do We Need Self-Description? Is it Good Disability Etiquette?

Do We Need Self-Description? Is it Good Disability Etiquette?

A journalist contacted me a few months ago. “I’m working on a story about restaurants and accessibility,” she said. “Would you be willing to meet me for an interview?”

Maybe it has something to do with all the Zoom meetings people have been on lately

We met at a local restaurant and after introducing herself, she asked, “Do you want me to tell you what I look like?”

“I don’t know,” she said with a nervous chuckle. “I just read on the internet that I should describe my physical appearance when I introduce myself to someone who can’t see.”

I hated hearing this. I have no idea where this declaration started, but it sure has sprouted up on a lot of “disability etiquette” lists lately. In the past year or so, I’ve attended more and more events (live and virtual) where the speakers or participants are told to “self-describe” themselves before starting their presentations. You know, for the “benefit of people in the audience who have a visual impairment.”

For me? I’d rather not know. Asking people to describe what they look like is awkward. And let’s be real – can I trust anyone’s self-assessment, anyway?

A dear friend of mine died a few weeks ago. A tenured professor in urban planning, she traveled all over the world researching and lecturing on affordable housing (including significant work in housing for people with disabilities). Her husband worked with her staff and graduate students for an entire week to set up and present a virtual celebration of her life, and more than 300 colleagues, students, family and friends zoomed in. It being virtual and all, people living everywhere from Beirut to Hamburg, Miami to Walla Walla Washington could celebrate her with us, too.

Something about this new emphasis on having people self-describe themselves seems counter-intuitive to efforts to become more diverse

I felt honored to be one of the dozen attendees asked to give a short presentation at the event. Knowing my friend’s co-workers and grad students were responsible for the technology assured me it’d all be accessible. I’d be able to “mute” and “unmute” using my screen software.

When I sent an email their way the next day to thank them for their technology prowess, one of them responded with an apology. “I am glad you felt the event was accessible,” they wrote. “I was a little concerned about that. I wondered if we should have had all the speakers describe themselves first.”

Argh! I’m sorry they felt this way. Self-describing takes time and I was much more interested in hearing what people at the celebration had to say about our friend who had died than hearing what the people telling the stories think they look like.

During my short presentation, I mentioned that one advantage of being blind is that you get to walk arm-in-arm with friends a lot. This friend and I walked arm-in-arm everywhere – to the Chicago River, the Chicago Lakefront, Printers Row Park, Millennium Park, nearby restaurants, concerts, and our local wine shop. Walking arm-in-arm makes it easier to hear each other, and the conversations we had –especially in these past two years while she was battling ovarian cancer – are a gift from her to me.

Another advantage of being blind? Not knowing what people look like. I’m left to judge others by what they say and what they do.

Do I need to know what people look like to judge what it is they are saying? I’d rather have them introduce themselves by saying their name and what it is about them that prompted the event to invite them as a presenter.

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