An apparent effort by Vice President Kamala Harris to accommodate the visually impaired and the LGBTQ community at an event commemorating the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act was widely mocked by Republicans and conservatives on Tuesday.
On the 32nd anniversary of the landmark civil rights law, Harris hosted a roundtable with disability rights leaders Tuesday to discuss access to reproductive health care. At that event, Harris began by noting, “I am Kamala Harris, my pronouns are she and her, and I am a woman sitting at the table wearing a blue suit."
The use of visual descriptors is for the benefit of the visually impaired. Giving one’s pronouns in order to ensure that no one is referred to by the wrong gender is an increasingly common practice in progressive circles, endorsed by authorities such as the National Institutes of Health.
But conservative Twitter erupted in ridicule and condemnation, deriding Harris’s words as excessive political correctness.
An account belonging to the Republican National Committee’s research team simply quoted it, in what a spokesperson later confirmed was an attempt to mock it — although, the RNC said, it was mocking only the gender pronouns.
"I am Kamala Harris, my pronouns are she and her, and I am a woman sitting at the table wearing a blue suit." pic.twitter.com/kz7tx712wK
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) July 26, 2022
Many conservatives pundits criticized the vice president. Christina Sommers, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, referred to Harris’s comments as “woke inanities.”
If she would repudiate woke inanities and move towards a
commonsensical centrism, she would be embraced by a majority of Americans. Instead, she just digs in. https://t.co/jEXwzOkBC6
— Christina Sommers (@CHSommers) July 26, 2022
And they wonder why ordinary Americans think these people have lost their grip. https://t.co/TWwCSWNafl
— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) July 26, 2022
This is why the rest of the world laughs at us.
— Beth Baumann (@eb454) July 26, 2022
Many disability rights advocates and experts, however, said such visual descriptions are necessary for blind and low-vision people.
“Visual descriptions are an accessibility practice for blind and low-vision people,” the American Association for People with Disabilities (AAPD) tweeted. “We do them to ensure that everyone can have context that sighted people may take in visually.”
We're hearing some folks may have questions about visual descriptions. Here's how and why to give one:
Visual descriptions are an accessibility practice for blind and low-vision people. We do them to ensure that everyone can have context that sighted people may take in visually.
— AAPD (@AAPD) July 27, 2022
“A good example of a visual self-description is: ‘I am a woman sitting at a table wearing a blue suit,’” said the AAPD wrote in its Twitter thread. “We are glad to see this accessibility practice expanded in government, and hope to see more government leaders give visual self-descriptions in the future!”
Some Democrats argued that the RNC’s mockery of Harris demonstrated that the GOP is hostile to people with disabilities.
“As an author of the ADA, this is proof Republicans are not a party of inclusivity,” wrote Tony Coelho, a former member of Congress who serves as chair of the Disability Council of the Democratic National Committee. “If they paid attn to people with disabilities they’d know VPOTUS was addressing people on the anniversary of the ADA that includes people who cannot see.”
As an author of the ADA, this is proof Republicans are not a party of inclusivity. If they paid attn to people with disabilities they’d know VPOTUS was addressing people on the anniversary of the ADA that includes people who cannot see. A gross & ignorant attack. #PWDvote https://t.co/Uqu6uK1ROg
— Tony Coelho (@HonTonyCoelho) July 27, 2022
In an email to Yahoo News, AAPD president and CEO Maria Town said that Republicans should support disability rights, as many in their party once did.
“The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) condemns the online mockery of the Vice President’s use of a visual self-description at yesterday’s meeting with disability advocates,” Town said. She noted that AAPD is a nonpartisan organization that would say the same about any party or politician, and that voters with disabilities are roughly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
“It is especially disappointing that this is seemingly the only way the RNC engaged with the 32nd anniversary of the ADA, which was signed into law by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, on July 26, 1990,” she added.
When CNN reported that the RNC was mocking Harris’s visual description, RNC spokesperson Zach Parkinson responded on Twitter, “We’re actually mocking the fact that Harris — who everyone, including the blind and visually impaired, knows is a woman — chooses to infantilize the people she’s talking with by announcing her pronouns.”
We're actually mocking the fact that Harris - who everyone, including the blind and visually impaired, knows is a woman - chooses to infantilize the people she's talking with by announcing her pronouns https://t.co/BcX6pRr7am
— Zach Parkinson (@AZachParkinson) July 26, 2022
“If she wants to announce her clothes, that’s fine!” Parkinson added. “But everyone knows Harris is a woman. The blind and visually impaired aren’t stupid.”
Some observers went further and contended that blind people do not need to know facts such as the color of Harris’s outfit.
“It’s not important for the visually impaired to know the color of her hair or clothing,” said Seth Dillon, CEO of the Babylon Bee, a satirical conservative website.
It’s not important for the visually impaired to know the color of her hair or clothing. These are pointless details. She—and the others present who did this—only offered comical, partial descriptions of themselves so they would have an excuse to share their pronouns. https://t.co/nYjheovZnR
— Seth Dillon (@SethDillon) July 27, 2022
Asked by a Yahoo News reporter how he knows what the blind do or don’t need to know, Dillon stated that colors are “irrelevant details, especially for those born blind who’ve never seen color.”
Hair and suit color aren't important for anyone to know. They're irrelevant details, especially for those born blind who've never seen color. This is shameless and silly virtue-signaling.
— Seth Dillon (@SethDillon) July 27, 2022
However, organizations that work with the visually impaired note that many people who are legally blind or have low vision do see some color and many people who have become blind as they age were not blind since birth.
In any case, the meaning of color can be understood without being seen.
“Like sighted people, those who are totally blind learn about color in many ways — in the classroom, through the context of everyday conversation, through reading and through experiencing other media including television, radio, and films,” writes the Described and Captioned Media Program, which provides premium media designed for students with disabilities, in an online explainer. “In other words, references to color appear everywhere in our daily experiences and daily language. One does not have to see color with his or her eyes in order to know what color is.”
“If I hear a description of a girl having dark hair and dark skin, I can form an image of the girl in my mind and project that image into the movie or TV show,” explains Julia Hales, a sixth-grader in Virginia, in the DCMP guide.
Town of the AAPD disagreed with Dillon’s claim that Harris giving a visual description “is shameless and silly virtue-signaling.”
“A critique that calls an accessibility practice ‘mere virtue signaling’ is a critique that tells on itself,” Town told Yahoo News. “By using a visual self-description, what the vice president is ‘signaling’ is that she respects blind and low-vision people. Frankly, that is a virtue that I wish more of our nation’s leaders would signal.”
When contacted by Yahoo News, the RNC referred back to Parkinson’s statement.
The National Federation of the Blind endorses the use of visual descriptions on webpages, noting that “blind users are reliant on textual description of most electronic content.” However, the NFB does not have a position on the use of visual descriptions in live meetings, and it said in a tweet on Wednesday that “blind people have differing opinions” on the subject.
NFB spokesperson Chris Danielsen told Yahoo News that commentators should listen to the community rather than criticizing accommodations out of ignorance.
“We feel that mockery and attacks are inappropriate,” Danielsen wrote in an email. “Whatever other points can be made, the vice president acted out of a laudable intent to include everyone, and at least some members of the audience who are blind probably found her description helpful or useful. We invite everyone of all political persuasions to engage directly with blind Americans, on this and other issues, rather than making judgments based solely on their own assumptions and preferences.”