I asked my community about mentoring and how it can work for you. This is what they said.
Whether in our personal lives or professionally, being disabled has a lot to do with the barriers we face in society. From speaking with the community, it’s clear that breaking down these barriers starts by building relationships with disabled and non-disabled role models. People who seek possibilities, who are brave enough to try something new, go beyond their comfort zone and challenge others to do the same. I know people like that can change lives, because they changed mine.
A big part of that has been mentoring.
What is mentoring?
Mentoring builds a personal relationship between someone who has less experience (a “mentee”) and someone who has more experience (a “mentor”). They have often travelled down a similar road in work or life, and can take the time to share advice on how to navigate it or open up opportunities.
Mentoring can be particularly helpful for disabled people (especially those who are young or newly disabled), because it “builds bridges over the misconceptions and barriers they face”. This makes it clear that there is a place for disabled people and that we are not alone. It helps build skills like understanding our access needs, or the confidence to advocate for them.
But it’s not about imparting wisdom or having all the answers, as it is about listening and shared understanding. As one mentor put it, “we have two ears and one mouth”!
How do you find a mentor?
I’ve participated in mentoring on everything from leadership and business skills, relationship building and making a living as an artist to navigating life in general. It can be one on one, or as part of a group or team, a formal program or an informal partnership.
So if you can, do some research on what you’re looking for. Then it’ll be easier to find the right people to work with. It might take some time, but trust me - it’s worth it!
Mentoring programs can be part of your school, work, community group or any organisation you are involved with. A lot of my opportunities have been through specific groups like the Cerebral Palsy Alliance or Accessible Arts.
Talk to people you get along with who have similar goals and interests to you, and see if they know of any good mentoring programs. And it doesn’t have to be a program, they might mentor you themselves! Keep an open mind...you never know what’s around the corner.
How can you make mentoring work for you?
Get to know each other
When you build a good rapport with someone, you’ll be comfortable enough to learn from each other and enjoy the journey - but also to respect your differences, help each other grow and be the best you can be. That’s where the magic happens...and it can last a lifetime.
Know what you want and need (and what you can give)
It helps to figure out your top three goals (over the short, medium and long-term), understand your situation and challenges (including what knowledge, skills and strengths you already have), and know what support you need to get where you want to go. This can include things like agreeing how often you and your mentor will meet, the best way for you to learn, who else may be involved, how and when feedback will be given, and the expectations on both sides for the process. Make sure it works for everyone. This includes any access, technical or other needs.
Privacy and confidentiality are an important part of mentoring, so any agreements about this should be worked out in the beginning. There may be ground rules about what should and shouldn’t be shared, and understanding these boundaries is vital to making the mentoring environment comfortable and safe for everyone involved.
It’s a good idea to document all these arrangements into a mentoring agreement. You don’t have to, but it can be useful for you both to have this to refer back to.
Your mentor can probably guide you towards coming up with some strategies to achieve your goals. This might be anything from solving problems to role playing and finding information or resources. You may be connected with outside training or other support.
My top tips to remember for a great mentee experience are:
- Share openly
- Speak up about what’s working and not working
- Be engaged and ready to learn
- Be ready to implement the strategies you agreed on
- Record and reflect on your progress, so you can celebrate or make any changes
Healthy and respectful communication is another important part of mentoring. This includes things like listening actively, giving and getting constructive feedback, asking questions that encourage conversation, and being clear and to the point.
Work through the tough times
Even the best mentoring experience can have its difficulties. It’s important that you respect each other enough to work through these, and try to understand how the problem arose without blaming anyone. In my experience, it can be as simple as a personality mismatch or a lack of time to commit to the mentoring relationship. And that’s ok. You may have to consider changing the arrangement to something that suits you better, or you might choose to move on.
Take time to reflect
No matter what your mentoring experience has been like, most mentoring relationships end - or at least change over time. When this happens, it’s often useful to evaluate what did and didn’t work or what you would do differently next time.
Like any relationship, it can be challenging to have less contact than you are used to. If this is true for you, try to be kind to yourself. Give yourself time and space to adjust to the way things are now, whatever that looks like for you.
What if you want to support someone as a mentor?
There are a few things for you to keep in mind.
Here are my top tips to remember for a great mentor: - Assume ability, and adjust as needed - Know your mentee and what motivates them to do their best - Have a flexible structure - Get excited about new ideas, because you won’t always be the expert - Understand the difference between equality and equity
Remember, everyone is different. Rather than having multiple mentees do the same tasks, it can be more inclusive to design activities for each person. This will keep them interested and engaged, and less likely to be confused or overwhelmed.
Wherever you are on your mentoring journey, I hope this has resonated with you somehow and I wish you the best.
Emily Dash is an emerging writer, actor, producer and speaker. She has a wide range of credits across theatre and screen.