By Margaret Breihan, Communications Associate, National Disability Institute
Summer is a great time to start networking. Building professional connections can help people who are looking for work find job leads, and it can assist those who are already working stay up to date with others in their fields of interest. When I first attempted professional networking, I was a recent college graduate with a disability and I had no idea how to begin.
I decided to reach out to my extended family for help with networking, and they kept encouraging me to connect with people in the disability community for job leads. I resisted their suggestions because I did not want my career to be defined by the wheelchair I use. However, I decided to go where my connections led me. My aunt, who lives in Boston, reached out to the Dean of School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. They had met through networking at a conference. The dean, in turn, arranged for me to have an informational interview with the Director of Public Policy for the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD). The AUCD’s office is located blocks away from my apartment in Maryland. As I started networking, I learned that webs of professional connections can reach far and wide.
My fields of interest include government and poverty, so imagine my surprise when I arrived early for my informational interview and ended up meeting former Congressman Tom Harkin, an author of the Americans with Disability Act. Coincidentally, Mr. Harkin was visiting the AUCD offices that day. That surprise encounter should have alerted me to the fact that working in the disability field would offer me the opportunity to see the government at work. However, it was not until the AUCD director ended our informational interview by connecting me with the nonprofit RespectAbility, that my understanding of the disability community started to change.
I began my fellowship at RespectAbility just before the 2016 presidential primary season gained momentum. I worked with other fellows and RespectAbility staff to ensure that media outlets and presidential candidates, from all political parties, talked about issues important to the disability community. During this fellowship, I learned that one in five Americans has a disability and, therefore, issues important to the disability community touch on everything from political debates to prison overcrowding. This experience also helped me gain practical office skills like using Microsoft Office Suite, and it gave me valuable work experience to add to my resume. I am an example of how internships and fellowships can help people with disabilities gain skills and work experience.
In between visiting Capitol Hill and doing social media at RespectAbility, my networking journey and search for a job continued. A college friend told me about a job opportunity she found through our college alumni network. National Disability Institute (NDI) was looking to hire someone in communications. I really wanted this position, and after years of fruitlessly applying for jobs online, I realized that if I wanted to be a serious contender for this position, I needed to craft a great application. Just as important, I needed to find someone in my network who had a connection to NDI. I hoped that a personal endorsement could help me stand out in a large pool of candidates.
As it happened, the CEO of RespectAbility knew the Executive Director of NDI. Thanks in large part to those who helped me through networking, I am now writing this blog as a member of NDI’s communications team. I invite you to start your own networking journey today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margaret Breihan is a Communications Associate for National Disability Institute. As an undergraduate, she interned with several federal agencies, including the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. Margaret graduated from American University with a B.A. in Literature. Before joining National Disability Institute, she was a Communications Fellow at RespectAbility, a disability nonprofit.