Creating a welcoming event is a multi-faceted endeavor and I would be remiss if I did not offer some guidance on how to communicate with a person with a disability. Unfortunately, the angst people have about networking gets amplified when given the opportunity to connect with those with disabilities. This may be true even if you have a disability yourself.
Some people choose to avoid engaging rather than do or say something wrong. Others make an awkward, hesitant effort, which is sometimes perceived as inconsiderate, and rather than making someone feel included may have the exact opposite effect.
The bottom line is to be respectful. Aside from that basic tenet, there are some things to keep in mind when communicating with someone who is differently-abled than you.
Just as you shouldn’t comment on how tall someone is or zero in on any other feature they have no control over – don’t ask that curious question that popped into your head when you first meet someone with a disability. You will get a rote response and it won’t lead to a more engaging conversation.
What’s the first thing you should do when you meet someone? Shake their hand and introduce yourself. You might be thrown off if you meet someone who isn’t able to shake hands for one reason or another. The thing is, they can. The social cue works even if the person has an artificial limb, arm only to their elbow, or very limited hand use. The gesture still works as a social cue – and can also be done using left hands if that feels more appropriate.
Remember that interpreters and companions are not who you are trying to connect with. Therefore, don’t direct your question to them. Maintain eye contact with the person with a disability so they know you are waiting for them to respond.
One of the ways people who are temporarily able-bodied interact with people with disabilities is to offer assistance. The instinct to help is great. Just be sure this particular person wants your help. This means you need to wait for a response before jumping in with unsolicited help. Listen carefully to the response so can follow specific instructions. The onus is on the person with the disability to ask for help, not for you to offer.
“Treat adults as adults,” says Glenda Watson Hyatt, a motivational speaker who offered guidance for this section of the book. She says, “Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others.”
Now imagine you are sitting in a chair and everyone around you is standing. The person standing to your left is engaging you in a conversation so you’re awkwardly turning to look up at them. How long could you hold this position before your neck and back ached? Ok, so now you can imagine why lowering yourself to eye level when speaking to someone in a wheelchair is so helpful. Sit in a chair if one is nearby or squat if you
have to, but don’t tower over the person you are speaking with. This also could be perceived to be a power play, an unfortunate dynamic that will not help build a strong connection.
Bear in mind that a wheelchair is not furniture. It’s tempting to rest against a wheelchair if you’re tired of standing. To the person using the wheelchair, it feels like you are leaning directly on them. If there wasn’t a wheelchair, you wouldn’t think to move into someone’s personal space like that. Same rules apply here then. Glenda offers one caveat, “If, however, you need to steady yourself for a moment, simply ask first.”
Speaking of wheelchairs, one of our worst instincts is to pat people on the head or shoulder if they are using a wheelchair. No. Just no.
Remember that the goal in communication is understanding. If the person you are speaking with has difficulty with verbal communication you should ask fewer open- ended questions and focus instead on ones that can be answered “yes” or “no.” You could also ask if they would like to write their response either on paper or using a device. Be patient as they do this. What you don’t want to do is finish sentences for them, which may come across as impatience, or act as if they make perfect sense when you have no idea what they are saying. Actually, it would be best if you repeated what you heard and gave them an opportunity to clarify or confirm.
Understanding can be difficult if you are speaking with someone who is Deaf and you do not know American Sign Language. Not all people who are Deaf can read lips, so don’t assume that that will help, ask by gesturing. You’ll need to first get their attention by either waving your hand or lightly tapping on their shoulder. Of course, if you are standing in a dark corner it will make reading lips harder. As will speaking very quickly, eating, drinking, or smoking. Basically, make sure you are well lit, that you keep your mouth clear of objects, and be sure you are turned towards the person who is Deaf.
It’s possible you will be speaking with someone who is hard of hearing. They may need to situate themselves so the ear they hear best out of is closer to you. If you are aware of this, be mindful when choosing where you are sitting.
As I mentioned, sometimes, the easiest way to communicate is using paper and pen or a device to share words or phrases. If someone is having a hard time understanding you, type your comment or question in a notepad on your phone.
Most times, if you want to gracefully exit a conversation, it’s easiest to do so when you are in a group of three or more people. You can step away with barely a murmur. Of course, if one of the people in the group is blind, then you’ll want to be sure they realize you are stepping away. This is especially true if you are speaking one-on-one with a person who is blind. Ducking away, even momentarily, to grab your drink off the bar or greet someone who just walked in, will leave that person standing by themselves without knowing where you went or even knowing that you’ve left.
“Great to see you!” Oops! Did I just say that? Are you anxious about avoiding this common expression when speaking with a person who is blind or saying or “Did you hear about…?” to someone who is Deaf? It’s ok. Don’t make it a big deal. Pointing it out and discussing your feelings is what you want to avoid. That puts the burden on the person with a disability and for them this is just life. It’s not the first time they’ve heard that expression and it won’t be the last.
Sometimes it’s not immediately obvious that the person you are speaking with has a disability. If someone keeps asking you to repeat yourself, it’s possible they are hard of hearing and you can suggest moving the conversation to a quieter location. Try to keep an open mind and not judge someone because they have a weak handshake, it’s possible it would be painful to squeeze. Have compassion if someone seems completely fine the first day of the conference and on the second day they are having a hard time standing for long periods of time, it’s possible they could be experiencing flare-up from chronic pain.
Social cues are a huge part of networking and for people with autism this is a challenge. I remember speaking with someone and at the end of the conversation I shook his hand, said it was nice to chat with him and then I hesitated. I didn’t walk away. I was waiting for him to acknowledge the social cue. To acknowledge that I was leaving. After a few more minutes of chatting, I realized that I was in control of the situation and didn’t have to wait for him to respond. I shook his hand, said I’m going to go now – and walked away.
Later we became friendly and he told me he had autism (then defined as Asperger’s) and I asked him about that interaction. I asked if he had still been standing there because I was standing there. He simply said, “Yeah.” I had felt so rude and abrupt walking away without him acknowledging it by saying “Nice to see you too.” He told me he appreciated how explicit I had been. He spends a lot of time not quite sure of what the socially correct response is – but with me he knew I was going and it was clear.
Lesson learned. If someone doesn’t understanding social cues because of autism, being from another culture, being obtuse and self-centered, or being inebriated – that does not mean you need to feel stuck in the conversation. It’s up to you to take care of yourself and move on, even if in the moment it feels rude.
Don’t avoid people with disabilities if you have the opportunity to make a connection at a conference (or elsewhere). As Glenda says, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re unsure what to do.”
If you have a disability, don’t hesitate to ask for what you need to be present and engaged in the room. If you need someone to speak louder, or for the music to be lowered, or need to move a conversation over to chairs – you need to be your own best advocate.
ABOUT ROBBIE: www.robbiesamuels.com/about
Business Growth Strategy Coach
Robbie coaches inspiring entrepreneurial women in their 50s and beyond (and a few awesome men) to grow their impact and income by building an audience before launching new revenue streams.
WHO YOU ARE:
You want to have a greater impact and increased income. The problem is that there are so many options for how to build your business that you can feel stuck, overwhelmed, and like you’re running out of time.
The reason options are overwhelming is that you’re looking at them as a series of disconnected steps when to make the most of your time, you need a strategy that connects only the most important and highest impact ones.
You know that if you try to do everything, you’ll accomplish nothing. This means, to achieve your goal, you have to invest in a strategy to put time on your side.
WAYS ROBBIE OFFERS SUPPORT:
As a relationship-based business growth strategist, Robbie will work with you one-on-one to design a year-long plan that consists of three 12-week sprints, each followed by 4 weeks of reflection/assessment, rejuvenation, learning, and strategic planning. This will allow you to sequence your goals, create momentum, and leverage your limited time.
Have a project that you want feedback on or need assistance with a specific strategy? He offers half-day strategy sessions.
Already selling but feeling stuck around how to increase your revenue? Sign up for a one-day mastermind with fellow entrepreneurs to break through to the next level.
Ready to dig into your network to validate a solution you’ve been working on to see if you can build an audience for it before launching? Sign up for 12 Weeks to Create Your Irresistible Offer program.
Want accountability, support, and guidance as you implement your strategic plan? Learn more about his year-long Wake Up Your Network mastermind program.
These are not right for everyone; they're personalized offerings and are priced accordingly.
WHAT MIGHT YOU WORK ON?
In his coaching work with entrepreneurs, his clients focus on the areas where they'd like to grow, which may include:
- Creating a strong sales conversation framework
- Building your referral network
- Lead generation through a relationships
- Growing your visibility in your industry
- Increasing your ability to attract the right kind of clients
- Identifying and launching a minimally viable offer
- Breaking through whatever bottleneck is holding you back from getting the results you want and deserve
- Becoming a published author and marketing your book successfully
- Improving your virtual presentation skills
LEARN MORE AND SCHEDULE A CHAT: www.robbiesamuels.com/coaching
Robbie is excited to support you in reaching or exceeding your goals.
Interested in booking Robbie to speak? At www.robbiesamuels.com/speaking you’ll find video clips and a description of his talks.
Watch his TEDx talk “Hate networking? Stop bageling and be the croissant!” at www.robbiesamuels.com/TEDx.
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