Networking with a disability

Networking can be daunting for people with disabilities, but can be rewarding for when approached positively.

Networking is a scary word. The prospect of entering a room full of strangers and having to make conversation can make anyone feel apprehensive.

But for people with disabilities networking can be an even more daunting prospect – especially as it’s important for jobseekers to focus on how they sell and present themselves. Reports indicate that disabled people are more likely to be unemployed, so it’s more important than ever to try to overcome the challenges of networking.

I used to attend networking events and always assumed that people saw my disfigurement and didn’t want to, or know how to, approach me. Overcoming this anxiety took a lot of confidence-building, patience and time.

My experience led me to consider other disabled people’s fears of networking. I interviewed three graduates who said that their main worry was having their disability misunderstood and people not knowing how to react. They worried that they would feel embarrassed by their disability and that potential employers might not see them as employable. 

One marketing graduate, Rachel, knows too well the feeling of not being worthy. She has scarring from burns covering her right arm and neck, and is aware of the impact that her aesthetic disability might have in image-conscious industries such as advertising and PR.

Rachel says: “Marketing is all about selling a brand or product, so you have to present yourself as you would the brand or product. At networking events I worry about whether the person I’m trying to make conversation with would want to buy into me. We’re always told that you have to make a great first impression. What impression do scars make?”

Michael, an economics graduate, has a similar experience, but describes his disability – a mild form of dyspraxia – as “hidden”. The fact it isn’t immediately obvious makes it harder to manage, he says. Although he is very self-assured, he worries whether employers would want to offer him a job once they realised he has dyspraxia because the condition can be misunderstood.

“If you think of networking like speed dating, then it’s very hard to disclose the fact you have dyspraxia in a short space of time. It’s misunderstood anyway – I’ve had people label me as clumsy – so explaining it would take five minutes itself. At networking events I constantly ask myself whether I should reveal the disability when I’m meant to be selling myself as much as possible. Some people with disabilities such as dyspraxia just shy away from social situations because they don’t want to feel awkward.”

Feeling awkward or embarrassed is something Caroline, a graphic design graduate, who is partially deaf, experiences a lot. “The arty networking events I attend are usually very noisy, and it can be a pain to ask people to speak up when I have difficulty hearing them,” she says. “Comprehending deep voices can be a struggle at the best of times, so in a situation like networking the problem is only exacerbated. Of course, I could ask people to speak up, and I sometimes do, but it can be easier to be quiet and let it pass, than to ask and be embarrassed.”

She has also experienced people trying to give her advice, which she says was ill-informed and irrelevant. “People have advised me that I should seek out quieter networking events which would be ‘kinder to my ears’. But I know that the type of people I want to network with, to develop my career as a freelancer, don’t usually attend quiet, formal events.”

Misunderstanding and mismanagement of disability is a big problem throughout the world of work. Neil McClanahan, an HR manager and a leg amputee, explains that this mismanagement has translated to a lack of specific advice available to disabled graduates and jobseekers. He says that, because non-disabled people don’t always know how to react when faced with someone who has a disability, this can have adverse effect on how disabled people believe they are being perceived.

“There will always be people who may avoid speaking to you – maybe not because they can’t stand being around your disability, but because maybe they don’t know how to deal with it,” he says. “But disabled people should try not to take it personally when someone avoids speaking to them. I’m sure it happens to non-disabled people, too. And you shouldn’t feel obliged to tell people about your disability either.”

Sometimes disclosing your disability can be an advantage when networking, however: “I’ve found that being candid about my disability and how it has developed me as a person can be a real ice-breaker,” explains Neil. 

From my own experience, being open about my disfigurement has not only helped me feel more relaxed around other networkers, but also shows them that I am articulate. Whether a disability is mentioned bluntly or in context is entirely up to how comfortable an individual feels. Rather than seeing the disability as something that simply needs explaining, it can be used to highlight a person’s positives and the skills that non-disabled people might not have.

Networking might be a daunting prospect, but approach it positively and it can be fun and rewarding.

Rich McEachran, Thursday 31 January 2013 09.30 GMT

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