A Taste of Full Inclusion: My Experience Using an Audio Describer

by Roqayah Ajaj

In 2019, I planned to attend my first significant conference as a PhD student. It was the biggest conference that I had ever been to – over 3,000 people attended, and it went from 8am to 8pm for about four days in a row.

As a person who is blind, when preparing to go to conferences, I have always had to schedule my assistants and make sure I had coverage for each full day. Planning ahead for any event I attend is a part of my everyday life and is necessary in order for me to have the most experience and enjoyment. I generally coordinate assistants for conferences through the disability office at my university.

Image of a crowded hall during a networking session at a professional conference, as seen from above.

Two weeks prior to this conference, however, I received an email from the disability office informing me that they could not find an assistant to help me during the conference. They suggested I ask people in my cohort if they could assist me instead. It’s never a good idea to be tied to a colleague during a professional conference, as each person has their own interests and may want to attend different lectures. I was frustrated that the disability office had dropped the ball at the last minute and had, in their suggestion to simply ask a colleague to help, implicitly questioned my need for a dedicated assistant in the first place.

I started asking around. People in my cohort scrambled to try to help me, but they were not going to fully meet my needs, and it was asking too much from them regardless. Luckily, three days before the conference, the disability office told me that they had found a professional audio describer to attend the full conference with me. I was grateful but had no idea what a professional audio describer was. I imagined that they might be one of the people who record audiobooks! I knew I needed someone to help me navigate the conference, though, so I accepted the offer.

On the first morning of the conference, I met up with this new audio describer, Laura. I started by explaining the things I usually needed from my assistants (reading the conference session information, helping me look for specific locations and people, reading PowerPoints and non-accessible documents, etc.). I asked her what an audio describer was.

Laura explained to me, “Primarily, I work in movie theaters and describe silent moments of films to blind and visually impaired viewers through headphones. Other audio describers go on outings with people who are blind and visually impaired and describe the surroundings. At this conference, I can do more than just tell you about the session materials. I can also tell you how many people are in the room and describe those people and their facial expressions. I can sit in the back of the room and read handouts to you over this headset so that I am not disturbing others by whispering to you.” She offered me several device options; the one I chose to use was a small headset that only went in one ear so that I could hear the conference speaker with the other ear. Laura sat in the back of the room and read to me clearly over a small microphone, her mouth covered by a mask-like cloth so that others nearby wouldn’t hear her talking.

As the day went on, Laura described everything, even the design of each conference building. She described the PowerPoints in detail, including colors, font, and what was on each slide. In one session, she described exactly what the speaker looked like: a white woman in her fifties with a streak of purple in her blond hair. From Laura’s descriptions, I could vividly envision the speaker’s red blazer, her large gold necklace with leaves on it, and her gold watch and bracelets. Laura said, “She looks professional and stylish.” In each session, Laura also described the layout and size of the room. She estimated how many people were in attendance and gave a summary of the people who were there. When an attendee shared something I liked during a session, I asked Laura via text message to help me approach them when the session was over. (I had to text her right when they were speaking so she knew who I was talking about, because sighted people aren’t in the habit of automatically sharing their names when they participate.) Laura gave me so much more information than I was used to receiving that I actually began to get distracted as I tried to imagine the visual details!

Image of person touching an ear bud in their ear, facing upward with their eyes closed and a smile on their face.

Between sessions, Laura described the people we met. For example, at one point a man approached me during a networking session. After we spoke, Laura said, “He was a middle-aged man. White with black hair. Wearing a brown business suit. He looks professional and looks like a businessman. He smiled when he was talking with you.”

When the first day was over, I went home and reflected. I had a bad headache that evening – not because of the long day itself but because of the amount of information I had received. I realized that sighted people have a lot of information to use and sort through at any given moment. I felt like I had been missing so much detail, but at the same time, Laura’s descriptions gave me access to information I hadn’t had before.

My positive experience at this conference lies in stark contrast to the experiences of people who are blind or visually impaired who attend such events without assistants or audio describers. For example, at a special education conference a few months prior, I noticed that the keynote speaker did not have an assistant, despite being blind. Instead, conference organizers took turns helping him navigate from room to room. When an organizer brought him to sit at my table during the gala dinner, he left without giving the speaker any information about who was nearby, and he never offered to help him fill his plate. Though this was definitely surprising at a special education conference, this experience is not unusual. My assistant ended up offering to help him get dinner. The organizers were doing their best, but they had plenty of other responsibilities. What the speaker needed instead was a dedicated assistant to help him become fully immersed in the conference experience.

Image of several people wearing professional clothes and talking to each other, seen through colorful shapes that are out of focus.

It is unfair to expect people who are blind or visually impaired to navigate new places like conferences by themselves and then call this “independence.” When we operate without an assistant or audio describer, we miss a lot of information that could allow us to connect with the event we are attending, and it increases the anxiety we already feel when navigating. Without the audio describer or a trained assistant at this conference, I would have experienced more loneliness and disconnection from my surroundings, as I’m sure the keynote speaker at the special education conference did.

Just as deaf people need interpreters in many settings to communicate efficiently with others, people who are blind need someone to describe visuals to them instead of relying only on white canes or guide dogs to navigate unknown places. I want to advocate for affordable and readily accessible audio describers for blind and visually impaired individuals in any setting. There are commonly opportunities to request interpreters for those who are deaf, yet I rarely see explicit offers to provide audio describers or trained, reliable assistants to people who are blind and visually impaired. White canes and guide dogs are tools that give a person information about where to walk, which is important, but fully experiencing a place goes beyond just being able to move around safely.

What new things have you tried that opened your eyes to a wider range of experiences? Please share in the comments below. And as always, please like and share this post on social media to widen the impact it can have!

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