When remote work first went mainstream back in 2020, I remember my bemusement over others’ complaints. “It’s just not the same as working in person!” my friends and colleagues used to gripe.
“That’s true,” I would say. “It’s a lot more accessible!”
For a while, I remained convinced that for professionals with disabilities like myself, remote work had no downsides. Meetings, speeches, seminars, and training sessions—these all work well in virtual settings. True, I missed traveling, but the flexibility and accessibility enabled by remote work seemed well worth the cost.
That said, as time has gone on, I’ve gradually realized that certain professional activities really do work best in person.
This was driven home for me in March of 2023, when I attended the Finalsite University Conference in Orlando, Florida. There, I delivered a talk on the importance of digital accessibility and education, which went extremely well. Audience engagement was strong, yielding interest in professional partnerships and all-around positive reactions.
However, there were several other panels were running at the same time. This split the attendees between sessions, so I only was able to speak to a handful of people.
Most of the real networking happened before and after. Ambling the halls of the convention center, I met and chatted with teachers, administrators, third-party service providers, and Finalsite organizers—many more people than had come to my talk. What’s more, because these exchanges were open-ended, spontaneous, and one-on-one, I was able to establish more robust connections based on common ground.
This was relatively easy because Finalsite’s focus is education, and I credit education with enabling me to lift myself out of extreme poverty, become a Fulbright scholar, earn a master’s degree in journalism, and establish myself as a high-value professional with ties to multiple sectors. Everyone to whom I spoke was instantly and viscerally affected by my story, and this opened the door to discussing digital accessibility and its importance for students, scholars, and aspiring professionals with disabilities.
All the attendees agreed that education must be made accessible, but while some already knew a lot about accessibility, others were new to the conversation. Some were eager to learn how their institutions could better implement accessibility, but others, anxious and intimidated, fell back on talking points their organizations had given them, like, “Our website is ADA-compliant!”
People rarely do the right thing out of fear (and even when they do, they never do it well). Upon meeting people like this, I gently pointed out that ADA-compliance is a low bar to meet, given that the ADA was passed in 1990, before most people even had computers. Then I’d soften the blow by sharing stories of similar misconceptions I myself had held.
“We’re all born knowing nothing,” I’d say, “and no one’s ever died knowing everything. We just have to do our best along the way, support each other, listen to each other, and learn as much as we can while we can.”
My stories put people at ease. By dispelling their fear and anxiety, I helped them make room for excitement and inspiration. These are the drivers that enable enduring and positive change.
Because our interactions were spontaneous and organic, people who might otherwise have put up facades instead acknowledged that they didn’t know a lot about accessibility, and that they could use some help. We formed connections based on trust, humility, and our common humanity, not polished talking points or arbitrary fears.
In business, as in life, such relationships are indispensable.
I’m still very much an advocate for hybrid work, and for keeping certain jobs entirely remote as a reasonable accommodation, but whenever possible, I now believe we should network in person. Honest, productive, spontaneous exchanges like these are far more likely to occur in live settings, not on videoconferencing platforms where scripted presentations are delivered in virtual voids. If we want to build a more accessible future for our loved ones and ourselves, we must do whatever it takes to cultivate healthy, reciprocal working relationships based on mutual trust and common ground, even if it means admitting we got something wrong.
I love to learn from my mistakes. Dismissing the value of in-person work was a mistake, which I’m glad to acknowledge, and from which I have happily learned.