Last April, I traded in spinal cancer for a spinal cord injury. It’s the type of upgrade you get on something that already sucks — sort of like getting bumped up a class on Spirit Airlines.
Even in the nine months since I’ve had my cane, I’ve experienced firsthand the choices made to erase people with disabilities from public life. This is more than parking spaces, elevators and those automatic door buttons I press on days when I want to feel like I have magical powers. I’m talking about the stuff that happens after overcoming the building entry challenges. There’s all that stuff that happens after you’re already inside, like checkout counters, limited seating and self-service pastry cupboards, that makes going anywhere and doing anything a bigger feat than it needs to be. Where do I rest my cane when digging for my credit card in my wallet? Why can’t I just sit while I pick out a salad dressing? How about you try working tongs to pick up a bagel while holding a fiberglass door open and balancing to stand? Not fun.
Also not fun are networking events. And this is coming from one person who only sometimes uses a cane. The fact that I often walk with it draped on my forearm like a purse causes people to question whether I even need it at all (which is a whole different post entirely). If I’m having challenges at networking events, I can only imagine what others may experience.
The networking events I’ve gone to post-op have been unnecessarily difficult simply because we chose for them to be. I use the language of choice intentionally. It’s about time we graduate from the unconscious bias paradigm and admit what we know. Everyone knows differently abled human beings exist. Their absence in event logistics planning is an intentional deprioritization of their needs and interests. This is the point where you fight the instinct to become defensive. You are not a bad person. And if you are, this probably isn’t why. Choices that marginalize people living with disabilities in public spaces are just that — choices, which means there are opportunities to go another way.
Here’s my short list of eight ways to help make your next networking event more inclusive:
Expect us there. I recently read online someone’s recommendation that handicap parking spaces should be opened after 5pm, as if folks who need them don’t go out at night. It’s an offensive, outrageous, yet understandable sentiment. When considering public space, it sometimes feels like people don’t expect folks with disabilities to ever leave our beds. This also seems to hold true with networking events. When planning logistics for your next networking event, expect people with disabilities to attend. This small shift in perspective can help nudge inclusive choices in the structure, format and activities.
Provide spaces to sit. Being “on” at networking events often require a lot of prolonged, motionless standing. Sitting, if there are any places to sit at all, often signals to others a lack of interest in networking or that conversations between people who are sitting are private. Integrating sitting options into the flow and energy of the room— and not off to the sides like gym bleachers at your middle school dance, promotes inclusivity and normalizes sitting for those who need or prefer it.
Staff multiple escorts. Many companies require visitor badges and escorts to ensure security in their buildings. For those requiring escorts, be sure you have options for people who need or prefer to take the elevators. Expressly offer that option to all your escort groups. Can people just ask to use the elevator instead? Sure. But there is a psychological cost for constantly telling people what you cannot do. Don’t expect people want to pay you that day.
Have both self-service and full-service options. Remember those gas stations where you could choose whether to pump your own gas or have an attendant do it for you? Do that. For everything you provide for someone to do themselves, provide an easy alternative. This helps meet the diversity of needs and interests for attendees without burdening one group for another. For example, attendees can write their own name tags and you offer to write it for them. They can grab their own food and you can staff servers.
Provide non-alcoholic drinks that look the part. Style water, juice, ginger ale and other non-alcoholic beverages as you would with a cocktail. While not everyone with a disability is on medication, those who are, should be able to engage socially without the added pressures of drinking alcohol. Plus, I want a lemon and fancy straw in my drink too!
Provide conversation prompts. I’ve been to a handful of networking events with my cane and at each one, someone I did not know opened with one of the following:
- Geez, what happened to you?
- What did you do to yourself?!
- What’s the cane for?
- Did you get into a martial arts accident or something?
When people are unsure of what to say they typically say something stupid or boring. While boring is better than stupid— that weather, am I right, you really don’t want either at your event. Offering conversation prompt cards can help center discussions on the theme of your evening.
Include. Don’t accommodate. The problem with trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is that we forget those aren’t the only two shapes. We must design events through the lens of “inclusion” not “accommodation” which requires understanding and prioritizing the needs of even just a few. Do not leave folks with varying disabilities as an afterthought, expecting them to figure out how to fit in. Design their needs into your event logistics from the start. One helpful tip can be an event accessibility checklist like this one.
Think beyond physical disabilities. There’s so much diversity in ability, including and beyond how people move their bodies. Hopefully this helps spark more questions and more change of how to help people show up and engage at your events.
Why does this matter?
Inclusivity benefits everyone. There are multiples of groups whose experiences at networking events would improve with these small recommendations.
- People on medication aren’t the only ones who would feel comfortable drinking similarly styled non-alcoholic beverages. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, recovering alcoholics, folks who drive and many others who may choose to abstain may also want to drink publicly without having explain why they aren’t partaking.
- The over 85% of the population who suffer from lower back pain, folks with uncomfortable shoes, older adults, and even that weekend skier with the blister that refuses to heal may also want to sit intermittently to network, instead of standing for an hour.
- Full-service options can help the greater majority of attendees likely carrying a laptop bag as well as those using a walking aid.
- Conversation prompts may be a bit corny and require additional planning, but they can help people who socially struggle with networking events. Conversation prompts also help protect those whose marker of difference becomes the conversation hook, leading to microaggressions that sour networking experiences. [Insert story here about people sharing, without invitation, that they are 4% “from Africa” based on their ancestry DNA results. Insert eyeroll emoji here.]
Being inclusive is not an altruistic endeavor. Being inclusive doesn’t make you a “good person.” It holds you accountable to your stated goals. If your goal is to provide networking opportunities for local professionals, then inherent in your goal is to be inclusive of professionals of all abilities. Being “diverse,” “equitable,” or “inclusive” shouldn’t get you any extra credit. It should be part of how you do your work. From that approach you can make your events better, for everyone.