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This blog was written by Angela Vandersteen. Angela is the Business Development Manager for Tangram Business Resourcing (TBR). Before joining her current employer in 2016, Angela worked in sales, project management, department operations, and staff training for Bosma Enterprises. In her current role, Angela helps businesses access tailored services to address workforce issues and enhance their diversity programs.
Angela is a lifelong resident of Central Indiana and a proud graduate of Indianapolis Public Schools. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Indiana State University in both Broadcast Communications and English. Angela currently resides in Greenwood with her husband and their four sons. Angela’s passion for creating equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities stems not only from her friendships with individuals living with disabilities, but also from her personal experience. She is the mother of two sons with disabilities and lives with a disability herself.
Very few women are comfortable with how they look. Let’s be honest, unless you’re lucky enough to have hair like Gisele’s, Ellen’s eyes, and Rockette legs, you’ve at some point looked in a mirror and cursed your relatives and the features you inherited from them. Societal pressures for women to look like the latest Hollywood favor-of-the-month does nothing to help us be completely comfortable with what our genes created, and depending on the field of work you are in, looking modelesque can be an unwritten job requirement. That’s how it was for me, until the onset of my disability made me reexamine these expectations.
For the majority of my career, I have been in sales. My first position was at a broadcast television station in a top twenty-five market. I was in my mid-twenties when I was promoted from an internal desk job. I knew I had the skills and knowledge to be successful, and I always dressed professionally. Nice slacks with solid colored tops or sweater sets and respectable flats. Long dresses or skirts with boots. Some days powder and mascara, some days only the mascara. Clean, combed hair. What I learned after leaving the security of my cubicle for the world of client meetings and networking events was there is a big difference between expectations for professional dress in the office and dressing for a customer facing role in a highly competitive industry.
I don’t want to give the impression this was a culture shock for me. I had seen plenty of sales women and on-air personalities walking around in two-inch heels with professionally manicured hands and on-point makeup to know what the norm was for these positions. I just didn’t want to be the norm. It wasn’t me. I wanted to be true to myself and didn’t think ‘being me’ would affect my job efforts. Well, I quickly learned how wrong I was.
After being ignored several times at networking events for a done-up competitor that I knew had an inferior product, I felt the pressure to adjust. For several years I left for work every day looking as done-up as those attractive competitors, wearing skirt suit sets and high heels. That is until I couldn’t wear high heels anymore due to my disability.
I was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease, an inherited neurological disorder that affects the peripheral nervous system, as I was nearing thirty and still building my career. Although fifteen years since my diagnosis my disability is still non-apparent to many, by the time of my diagnosis I could no longer snap my fingers or get up on my tip toes. I also couldn’t hold pens or silverware correctly. I fell often due to my drop-foot, and in high heels, due to how CMT affects balance, I stumbled around like a newly born calf. CMT was affecting my body and my abilities, and losing those abilities affected how done-up I could appear.
Facing this new reality was hard. It was hard to think that someday I might not be able to walk or tie my own shoes, that I could lose any of my independence. It was also hard thinking about the way CMT could disfigure my extremities, and how people would react when seeing that, especially people I would encounter through my job. People I needed to impress. Never mind if I can still apply mascara or wear heels and how they would perceive my attire – what would prospects think upon meeting me if I reached out to shake their hand with a clawed hand? Could this cost me deals? If I ever had to give up my profession due to CMT, would it be because of my inability to do the work, or how CMT affects my ability to look—and by extension to be perceived?
I struggled mentally with this, but somewhere along the way in my journey with CMT, I started thinking differently about my disability and my looks. I started embracing how my disability could free me from some of the societal pressures placed on appearance, especially for women in the workplace. I hated wearing high heels when I could walk in them, so why did I care if I couldn’t wear them anymore? I had a damn good excuse not to wear them, and I embraced that excuse as a reason to not succumb to societal pressures. My excuse became a foundation for change in perception for me.
I’m certain many things influenced my great perception change, including my realization of the influence I have on my two sons with disabilities. I couldn’t expect the two of them to overcome the societal pressures they will face as men to be physically strong and assertive if I didn’t overcome the pressures placed on me. I want them to be confident with who they are, and their disabilities are part of that, so I had to find my confidence in being me, a working disabled woman, and not being influenced to hide that in any way.
My work attire for the last few years is very much like when I had an internal office job. I own only one skirt suit set, and I wear flat heel boots with it. I love boots and love that I have been able to find ways to incorporate them into my work attire more. I feel good about myself and confident in these clothes, and with wearing less makeup and having shorter hairstyles that differ from the teased long hair most of my counterparts have. This confidence has carried over to how I dress outside of work also. I no longer care what opinion someone has when I pass them on the stairs at a concert and they look at my feet. I care about keeping my balance while walking to the nosebleed seats.
Unfortunately the wider business world hasn’t embraced me as fully as I have. At a convention I worked recently, I noticed some male attendees pass the booth I was working after giving me an obviously nasty once-over before stopping at a booth further down with a woman as done-up as I use to be. I wish these things weren’t still like this, and I hope in time it changes, but I can’t fret over these rejections anymore or question my appearance or my ability to do my job because of them. My appearance is true to who I am, what looks and abilities my genes granted me, and I’m completely comfortable with that.