One of the most challenging aspects of teaching, especially on the college level, is attending academic conferences. Typically, you are confronted with crowds in the hundreds milling in the halls and lobbies of a strange hotel, and you are expected to attend seminars, receptions, as well as lunches and dinners and network by primarily depending on the ubiquitous nametags worn by all of the attendees. If someone is using a cane or guide dog, their inability to introduce themselves as easily as sighted peers is readily understandable. However, someone else who is visually impaired but does not use either of these mobility aids, has the additional burden of appearing to be rude, arrogant, or aloof. As one English professor said, “I worry that the expectation that I can read others’ name tags creates awkward situations. For one thing, it deprives me of one of the easy conversation starters: ‘How long have you been at X University? I have a friend from grad school who teaches there’. Second, I worry that if the name on the tag belongs to a heavy hitter whose scholarship I should know, I look ill-informed. Finally, sometimes, I’ve been embarrassed to walk past old and dear acquaintances without recognizing them.”
There is no question that, no matter how you slice it, we'll never be able to network at conferences like someone who is fully sighted. A friend who lost her vision several years ago says, “The thing I miss most, aside from driving, is the ability ‘to work a room’ at professional meetings.”
There are, however, specific strategies you can use to network more effectively and with less stress. First, call or e-mail several colleagues ahead of time to see if they will be attending the conference. This is, in itself, a good way of making additional personal connections prior to the convention. I use to do this anyway, just for social reasons. I didn’t want to miss having coffee with A or lunch with B.
Plan to go to a different event with each of these colleagues. That is, if person A indicates he/she is going to the first program of the day and it is something you would like to attend as well, make arrangements to go together. Likewise, you could go with B to the second program and C, D, and so on for the dinner, reception, etc. You’re not asking them to take on a special burden since this is someone you already know and they plan to attend these events anyway. After all, professional conferences are a blend of the social along with the professional.
Depending on your previous relationship with the people with whom you are connecting, you may want to explain your concern about the ability to network and what they should and should not do to be of assistance. It shouldn’t require a lot of explanation. All you are needing is some help with introductions. After that, it’s up to you.
I’d plan ahead how you want to explain your situation. It’s been my experience that such explanations are (1) brief and (2) use general, nonfrightening language such as “I’m afraid I don’t see nearly as well as people think I do.” The exact language is very much a personal decision, depending on your individual circumstances and the situation. While “blind” may be the most accurate term for your situation and one with which you are perfectly comfortable, it should be born in mind that, for the large majority of the population, just the word is exceptionally terrifying. Surveys indicate that, next to “cancer,” it is the word Americans are most afraid of. If research in interpersonal communication is to be believed, personal impressions are primarily formed in the first couple of seconds after meeting. It may be that you view “visually impaired” as a more accurate description of your vision loss or as a silly politically correct euphemism, however, it does present an alternate, and probably less threatening, way of describing legal blindness.
Colleagues can be coached to provide assistance quite subtly. For example, the introduction and nametag issues can be dealt with by the friend saying, “Craig, do you know Mary Smith?” or “Mary, do you know Craig?” I’m assuming that, once you have the clue that the woman’s first name is “Mary” and you’ve heard her voice, you stand a pretty good chance of identifying her. Alternatively, encountering the individual at a dinner or reception is handled by having your colleague say something like “Mary Smith, how have you been?” While this might sound stilted in print, it works.
Of course, these techniques cannot cover all situations. They, however, offer the prospect of minimizing the difficulty of networking at professional meetings and, if your colleagues have a remotely thespian bone in their body, it can be done without anyone being any the wiser.
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