Where do you belong? In your town, your workplace, your family, your place of worship, your neighborhood bar…? I was pondering the belonging question this week after being in a focus group for a student’s study on the sense of belonging of blind employees in academe. The other members of my small group were near the beginnings of their careers and I was retired so I got to pass on some observations that I hope help them.

To me, belonging feels a lot like friendship in that it seems you put in a lot of effort and if you’re lucky you get some results. We all joked about graduate school which was a community of shared suffering where belonging was assumed. Complaining, gossiping and celebrating together happened naturally. To some degree group members said they felt this camaraderie at their work places but it was a lot less than in grad school. Blind people have to work extra to produce work in many situations because of technological and other access issues. So having time to engage in the social encounters that make for a sense of belonging is hard.

Also there’s the problem of acceptance by nondisabled folk. The Edwin Markham poem “Outwitted” deals with this issue:

“He drew a circle that shut me out-Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in.”

As a blind person I have to feel safe about my disability-related needs being met before I can feel much belonging in a group. For example if papers to be discussed are handed out at a meeting and not provided electronically ahead of time, all of a sudden I don’t belong or have much to contribute. If there’s a sign posted “Happy Birthday Sue” but I’m not told, do I belong?

A lot of my sense of belonging has come from doing what Markham mentions in the second half of the quote: drawing others in. I’ve helped start four book clubs; I work to make other outliers feel comfortable in the backrow gang at church. This week I met with a group of Christians trying to start an inclusive ministry service for people with cognitive and other disabilities to have a quarterly worship, Sunday school and fellowship where all are welcomed and get to use their gifts to serve the community.

When we both give to and get from a group we belong. I’ll never forget when one of my guide dogs retired and I threw her a party. About a hundred people came including workmates, daycare kids from the campus daycare, the mail carrier from the neighborhood, the chief of the campus police, etc. She got so many unauthorized treats she didn’t even want breakfast the next day—a first for that Labrador! We belonged to our community.

My advice to the young professionals was:

Expect you’ll have to do extra work to belong. You’re not crazy if you think it’s hard work!

Reach out and bring others into your community.

Be frank about disability needs up front so that gets settled and you can put your energy into enjoying the interactions.

You also can belong to communities because of your disability and they’re wonderful too.