As a teen and young adult, I was extremely self-conscious about my disability. I felt like I was different, and everyone knew it – like, despite my best efforts to “pass” as able-bodied, I had a neon sign above my head that everyone but me could see that said, “BLIND GIRL.”
I spent the first 30 years of my life wishing that sign would go away and I could just be “like everybody else.”
Now, with a little over 40 years on this planet, all of which I’ve spent blind in one eye, 13 of which I’ve spent working in healthcare and life sciences communications, marketing and public relations, and four months of which I’ve spent launching and growing my own healthcare PR agency—I kind of wish I actually had that sign.
Because it might help people at networking and business events understand my seemingly awkward behavior. It might help staff and strangers in airports be more willing to offer me assistance or grace while I navigate a new space. It might help other professionals be mindful of how professional spaces are experienced by people with disabilities.
It might remind people that we exist. We are part of the professional community. We are here.
Recently, I was at a gathering with more than 100 people, and one of the presenters said, “I want everyone to stand up.” We did. Then she said, “Now, sit down if you or someone you know has a disability.” Out of about 100 people, three were left standing. Which means that almost all of us know (or are!) a disabled person. Which means that learning how people with disabilities experience professional settings is probably a good idea.
Creating a More Inclusive Event
Based on my 40 years of experience as a visually impaired person and my four months of going out in the world and networking as a blind founder and entrepreneur, here are some tips to help make professional spaces and events more comfortable for the visually impaired (I can’t speak to what people with other disabilities need, but I would love to hear from those who can!):
- I can’t see well enough to read your name tag without getting uncomfortably close to your body. When meeting me for the first time, if I ask your name, don’t hold up, point to or gesture at your name tag. If someone has asked your name, and you think it should be obvious, there’s probably a reason.
- I don’t recognize people until I’ve met and interacted with them several times, because I don’t see details in faces well, and therefore have poor facial recall. Even if we’ve met a few times before, a good way to approach me at an event might be, “Hi, great to see you! It’s Jane.” This way, I can hear your name and connect it to your face and any memory of our previous meetings, instead of having to rely on visual cues to remember how I know you.
- If you’re hosting any kind of networking or professional event, or are part of planning and setup, mark any stairs (indoors and out) with some kind of marking at the edge of each step, so the visually impaired know where to step down. These stair markings act as visual cues for the partially sighted and can also be felt with the tip of a White Cane, for those who use them, to indicate a step is ahead. You can buy sticky stair treads online. (Pro tip: in a pinch, a strip of blue painter’s tape at the edge of each step does the trick and can be peeled up later without leaving a mess.)
- Make signs! Handwritten ones are fine. Signs with arrows, in large, dark print, taped to the walls in regular increments to point the way to the restroom, kitchen, main meeting room, etc.
- Use directional words. If someone asks where the restroom, buffet table, or a certain person is, be conscious of how you respond. Phrases like “over there” coupled with pointing or gesturing may not be helpful. Try training yourself to describe things with directional words and landmarks. (e.g., “If you go straight down this hall, past the receptionist desk and the sunflower painting on your right, the restroom is the second door on your left.”) A visually impaired person may feel self-conscious asking you to clarify. If you can be specific at the outset, it may alleviate discomfort and make spaces feel more inclusive.
- I don’t have a driver’s license because of my vision. This means I took a ride-share service or a complicated combination of public transportation to be here, which probably means I had to spend either a lot more money or a lot more time getting here than you did. (We call this the “disability tax.”) There isn’t anything you can to do about this, but you can help by being very clear in event information about addresses, landmarks, where entrances are, what is best to give ride-share drivers, etc. So often I see invites or instructions that say, “Park in lot B,” but I have no idea how far lot B is from where I’ll need to enter, how to tell the ride-share driver what entrance I’ll be at or where to find me, where I should go if I took the train and am walking instead of parking in the lot, etc. It may feel natural to assume everyone drives, but it doesn’t feel inclusive.
- Bonus Tip: Virtual Communications—Before every virtual meeting, email the document or presentation you’ll be screen-sharing to all attendees in advance (coworkers AND clients!). If you don’t want clients to see the presentation until you’ve had time to walk them through it, send it 60 seconds before the meeting. You never know who may have low vision, and some people may need to zoom in on their end to see it well, use magnifying or text-to-voice software, print it out, adjust the colors/contrast, etc. One of the great post-pandemic struggles of my life is that when someone else is sharing/presenting a screen, other meeting attendees can’t zoom in on their end, which means that 100% of the time, I cannot see whatever it is you’re presenting. Then I need to publicly ask, “Can you zoom in on that, please?” Followed by, “Nope, a little more, please,” outing myself to a meeting full of people and taking up precious meeting time. Please, just email it to me.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, about 79% of people with a disability were unemployed. There are a lot of reasons for this, from employer bias to lack of reliable transportation options. But we are here. We want to work. And we’d love it if you could help make professional spaces more inclusive and accessible, so we can show up and do the great work of which we’re capable.
Jennifer Ringler, MS is Founder & CEO of ReadHealthy Communications, LLC, a woman-owned, disability-owned communications and PR firm.