What is Visual Description? As events evolve, greater accessibility for the disability community emerges

Our commitment to accessibility runs deep at Microsoft. Over the years, we’ve systematically worked to embed accessibility and disability inclusive thinking into everything we do in response to feedback and requests from our customers, employees, and the community. At Microsoft we believe that disability is a strength. By including and empowering people with disabilities, we make better products that help tackle the “disability divide,” the social inequity that exists for people with disabilities around the world. This focus includes our events. There have been some questions from Microsoft Ignite around hosts providing visual descriptions, so we wanted to provide more information about what they are and why they were included.

Each year Microsoft hosts hundreds of internal and external events across the company. We actively listen, learn, and engage on best practices to our largest events to ensure that all voices are heard. Over the years, we’ve learned disability inclusive and accessible best practices from the disability and accessibility communities as they hold their events. We’ve implemented learnings into events such as the Microsoft Ability Summit, an annual conference started 12 years ago that brings together people with disabilities and accessibility experts to talk about how we can work together to make the world more inclusive.

Over the years, the Microsoft events team has added captions and American Sign Language (ASL), audio descriptions for the blind and low vision communities and based on the feedback from Ability Summit last year – we added visual descriptions. The standard for these was created in partnership with blind and low vision community organizations, as well as employee and customer requests.

Visual descriptions are a new practice that grew out of the increase in virtual events. They build on the principles of audio descriptions, which verbally describe the visual environment and become essential accommodation for moving images like films and TV programs. Visual descriptions are a layer on top of that: speakers sharing short, personal descriptions of themselves that provides contextual information. People who are blind or have low vision benefit from visual descriptions, as well as those who are sighted but not able to watch the video, and those with cognitive limitations who have difficulty interpreting visually what is happening benefit from audio description of visual information.

Visual descriptions are voluntary. If presenters choose to include visual descriptions, we recommend giving short concise descriptions delivered at the start of the session that include brief details about themselves such as distinguishing characteristics like hair color, race/ethnicity, gender, clothing, and background details to avoid unconscious bias.

“Visual description provides a constructive way to disclose visual information that others can obtain but we can’t and that we may want or need without us having to experience discomfort and ask directly or make a mistake,” says Sassy Outwater-Wright, Executive Director of Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI). “I’ve used a wrong pronoun by accident just going on voice. I’ve mis-identified someone’s ethnicity, race or disability when they offer that status visually versus vocally.” Haben Girma, a deaf-blind human rights lawyer advancing disability justice, put together this beautifully clear video to explain why it is so important to utilize visual and audio descriptions to empower those who need them. It’s a simple way to be inclusive of those with disabilities.

Microsoft is committed to continuing the prioritization of accessibility, to advance this discipline and learn by doing. Accessibility is a journey, and we’ve come this far by listening to the community and to each other. Every event is an opportunity to learn and evolve. Every event is an opportunity to empower every person on the planet to achieve more.

If you need assistance on anything related to Microsoft, please contact our Disability Answer Desk.  For more on accessibility initiatives at Microsoft, visit microsoft.com/en-us/accessibility – and follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter. For more information: