Absolutely, but there needs to be a balance between the right amount of data and Too Much Information (TMI).
Once, I was on a panel with a moderator and four other individuals scheduled to last 45 minutes. The moderator for the talk and a couple of the other panelists happened to be in Canada, where it is common to do indigenous land acknowledgments at the beginning of presentations.
Author’s note: I am not Indigenous but have lived on land in two countries with a robust Indigenous presence and history, which is essential to honor.
My perspective is purely that of a White person, and I may not have everything correct. I continue to learn and grow in this area and welcome feedback from individuals who identify as Indigenous.
The panel’s topic would have filled an entire day, so the time allotted already felt quite compressed. Also, we wanted to leave time for Q&A at the end. Each panelist plus the moderator providing detailed visual descriptions and their land acknowledgments took up almost 20 minutes of the allotted presentation time. After accounting for 10 minutes for Q&A at the end, we only had about 15 minutes for the main panel discussion, which worked out to one short question for each panelist.
Given how rushed the core presentation was, I had to ask myself two questions:
- How much of a visual description of panel members is necessary for an audience member with vision loss to participate equally? It is important to remember that providing a visual description at the beginning of a talk is not just about basic disability inclusion, it is about the ability to equally participate. If something about how you look influences what you say, people with vision loss need to know that. Most vision loss is acquired; therefore, most legally blind people haven’t been blind their entire lives — they can use the visual information you provide them. Furthermore, legally blind doesn’t mean zero vision. Some people who are legally blind have some residual sight.
- Is there a more efficient way to do land acknowledgments and visual descriptions without shortchanging or gutting them?
Applying alt-text principles to visual descriptions
The first of those two questions brought me back to an article that I wrote about a year-and-a-half ago titled “Context is the most critical aspect of alt-text everyone seems to miss.”
What are visual descriptions, other than alt-text for individuals whose features can’t be perceived by somebody with significant levels of vision loss?
Using myself as the example:
Is it helpful to the audience to know that I’m a wheelchair user? Absolutely. I also sometimes highlight my insulin pump, hearing aids, and bifocals because they provide credibility to my lived experience as an individual with several disabilities, some congenital and some acquired.
Is it helpful to the audience to know that I’m a middle-aged woman? Age, absolutely. My age helps reinforce the experience I have in the industry. Gender, it depends. Being a woman doesn’t impact my accessibility worldview. However, being a woman impacts my general tech and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) worldview.
Is it helpful to the audience to know that I’m 6 feet tall? Surprisingly, yes. Have you ever engaged with someone remotely on Zoom for a year and then been shocked when you met them in person because they weren’t the height you expected them to be? This is even more important in my case because my wheelchair use disguises my height. As a six-foot-tall woman with a congenital visible disability, I have never been able to hide from anything. I’ve been told I have a “tall personality,” which has been implied as projecting self-confidence and assertiveness and that I don’t hide from either demanding questions or tough answers. Therefore, I like to mention height in my visual descriptions because that personal feature influences what I say and how I say it.
Is it helpful to the audience to know other physical attributes such as brown shoulder-length hair or what type of jewelry I am wearing? If it doesn’t factor into anything that I’m going to be saying. I usually leave that information out.
Is it helpful to the audience to know what I’m wearing? If I’ve got a statement piece on, sure. I have a sweatshirt that I like to wear to certain conferences that says, “Your Presence Here Matters.” When I wear that, I want the participants to use that statement as a lens through which they should view everything I say. Therefore, it’s essential to have that representation in my visual description. If my t-shirt has a corporate logo, I might mention it quickly, especially if that organization is sponsoring the event. To me, anything else related to clothing is not worth mentioning.
TL;DR — if your broken nose that set crooked (or anything else about how you look or what you are wearing) is relevant to what you are speaking about, definitely include that as part of your visual description. Otherwise, keep it as short and sweet as possible.
What about land acknowledgments?
Land acknowledgments are a powerful way of showing respect and honoring the Indigenous Peoples who originally inhabited the land where we now work and live. Land acknowledgments resist the erasure of Indigenous histories and work towards transparency and truth.
Land acknowledgments are relatively straightforward when it is a physical meeting. When the people who own the physical gathering desire to include a land acknowledgment in their event, it is usually done at the event kickoff and acknowledges the land on which the physical event is being held.
But most events these days are virtual or hybrid, and so there are many, many lands involved, not just the land of the organizers, which is where it can get complicated and lengthy.
My land acknowledgment generally consists of four parts:
- The Present
Doesn’t need to be complicated. The opening component to my land acknowledgment when I am in California is:
Today, I am giving this presentation on the traditional unceded land of the Muwekma and Ohlone.
and when I am at my home in Canada
Today, I am giving this presentation on the traditional unceded territory of the Bouctouche Mi’kmaq people.
Author’s note — the fact that Medium
’s dictionary is flagging the word unceded in my draft as a typo is another example of implicit colonialism that exists everywhere in the world we live in.
Don’t know whose land you are occupying? Visit this Indigenous land map site and figure that out.
It is *critical* that the Indigenous names be pronounced carefully and correctly. In American English, the simplest pronunciation of Mi’kmaq is meeg-maw. Any failure to investigate authentic Indigenous language pronunciation sources is a key sign that the land acknowledgment is performative, at best. Authentic pronunciations are not difficult to find. Practicing till you get it right is also a trivial investment.
2. The Past
This one is the hard part. I break it into two pieces, one focusing on history, the other focusing on oppression.
The Mi’kmaq people were the first People to inhabit Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, large parts of New Brunswick and Newfoundland, the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, and parts of Maine. They have done so for many thousands of years.
The example below is a generic phrase that can be used as a starting point for just about any land acknowledgment.
For many years, Indigenous Peoples have been marginalized, pushed to the corners of society, and prevented from engaging in their own traditions.
The generic phrase should be augmented to include issues specific to the area’s Indigenous Peoples, such as residential schooling or the Trail of Tears.
Until the late 1960s, many Mi’kmaq children were separated from their families and forced to attend the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, located sometimes several hundred miles away from the people who loved them. There, White people involuntarily indoctrinated Mi’kmaq children living at this school in a non-Indigenous way of thinking and living.
It 100 % does not matter if the oppression occurred before you were born or that you were not involved. Oppression must be acknowledged before the aftermath can be healed, and that’s what land acknowledgments are all about.
3. The Future
In my land acknowledgment’s “future” component, I include a statement of empowerment/allyship. The strongest land acknowledgments are the ones with a commitment to action followed up by action. Some examples of a “future” component to my land acknowledgment statement that I have used include.
- Today, I commit to supporting the creation of screen readers that announce Indigenous languages.
- Today, I commit to reaching out to the Mi’kmaq community to offer mentorship and training.
What do you do if you are a speaker and aren’t experienced with physical descriptions or land acknowledgments?
- Use the principles of writing an elevator pitch for your visual description and land acknowledgment. Every word in both of them needs to be there for a reason.
- Try to make your physical description/land acknowledgment sound natural, but reading it off a script is better than not doing it at all.
- Remember to do them! Even I forget sometimes, so keep a post-it note on the corner of my computer as a reminder.
If you are moderating an event:
- Encourage your speakers/panelists to do a visual description and land acknowledgment, and help them prepare one, if necessary.
- At your dry run-through, include practicing these statements to get the timings down and make suggestions. Things tend to go off the rails timing-wise when speakers adlib these statements and include a level of detail that takes away from the overall presentation time.
- When running an all-virtual or hybrid event, either take the lengths of these opening remarks into account for determining event length.
- Consider a combined land acknowledgment that takes elements from each participant’s location.
Most importantly, don’t opt-out of this exercise because of discomfort or because “there isn’t anyone on this call who cares/needs this information.”
- Discomfort for speakers, panelists, and moderators is a necessary factor for growth.
- Speakers, panelists, and event organizers will never know for a fact that there there isn’t anyone on the call who cares/needs this information.
- Finally, the more people that hear visual descriptions and land acknowledgments on calls, the more they will become part of the ordinary course of work.