Thirty years ago this week, on the South Lawn of the White House, President George H.W. Bush signed one of the most significant pieces of legislation of my lifetime: the Americans with Disabilities Act or “ADA.” As a high school student who was a self-described political junkie and as someone who has two siblings with disabilities, this was one of the most defining moments of my childhood.
It is fitting that President Bush referred to the “splendid scene of hope” before him as he signed this legislation, for that is truly what the ADA embodies: the spirit of hope for a better tomorrow. The ADA brought the promise of equity for people with disabilities in America, addressing a broad cross-section of human life from employment to public services to public accommodations and – importantly for AT&T – to telecommunications. President Bush’s words at the signing of this law are still meaningful today: With the “signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom.”
The ADA has brought true change to American society. Every time you use a ramp to enter a building or step onto a train with a step parallel to the platform, you can thank the ADA. Every time a person who is deaf makes a call using relay service, you can thank the ADA. Every time an employee receives a job accommodation from their employer to enable them to perform their job duties, they can thank the ADA.
At AT&T, our mission is to inspire human progress through the power of communication and entertainment. We know that true human progress only happens when there is progress for everyone. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau tells us that one in five Americans has a disability; I expect that number to increase when this year’s census is complete.
Reflecting our mission, I am proud that AT&T has a strong history of a culture of disability inclusion and going beyond the minimum requirements of the ADA. Ability, our employee resources group (or ERG) for employees with disabilities, family members of people with disabilities, and allies, has existed for more than 31 years (a year longer than the ADA itself). I personally know many of the leaders in that organization, and I know that every day they live the message of “Advance, Advocate, Educate.” AT&T has been focused on accessible design for our customers for decades. We issued our first Universal Design Statement in 1998. We offer products and services that are accessible and incorporate usable design, which you can learn more about on our accessibility website.
For our employees, I am proud to say that AT&T has received a score of 100 on the Disability Equality Index every year that it has existed since 2015, and I am proud to say that we continued that streak this year in the recognition that was announced just last week.
Of course, as we strive to inspire human progress, we know that we can always do more and do better. It is with that focus on continuous improvement that in 2018, we launched our formal Accessibility and Inclusion program, made up of a cross-functional group of leaders across the business focused on improving the work experience for employees with disabilities. We know that achieving equity in job opportunities and experiences, including having true career progression opportunities, is critical. We have the support and sponsorship of two of our most influential executives, David Huntley, Senior Executive Vice President & Chief Compliance Officer, and Corey Anthony, Senior Vice President & Chief Diversity Officer, who recently issued a joint statement encouraging every business unit at AT&T to make its work environment and systems accessible to everyone.
In the time we’ve had this program, we’ve seen several accomplishments, including:
- A complete overhaul of our public-facing website, where we bring enriching content to employees and customers about our commitment to accessibility.
- Enhancements to our voluntary and confidential self-ID program for employees with disabilities, where we’ve seen a nearly 25% increase from 2018 to 2020, demonstrating an improved culture of inclusion.
- Live and closed captioning are now business-as-usual practices for our internal media team.
- For changes to software used by employees, we added an accessibility call-to-action for internal projects and created support resources.
- We made significant accessibility improvements to our online meeting tool.
- Many of our parking garages have been upgraded for better accessibility.
Through this program, we have learned that we need to be deliberate in our pursuit of accessibility and inclusion for our employees. It’s unfortunate that we are not at the stage in society where accessibility and disability inclusion just happen. Including employees with disabilities and partnering with Ability has been and will continue to be key. “Nothing about us without us” is more than just a phrase. It is a fundamental concept of inclusion and partnership. Continuous conversations with employees, including a routine feedback loop, is critical to making sure we stay focused on areas that matter and also to holding us accountable to true improvement.
One of my friends and colleagues, fellow AT&T employee Abdi Warsame, has written a powerful memoir of his life’s journey from the civil war in Somalia to the dream of a better life in America called Always Rolling Forward: The Power of Hope Against Insurmountable Odds. In his book, Abdi expresses gratitude for how the ADA contributed to that dream for him. As he states in the book at the critical time of his immigration,
I couldn’t have known then that my struggles would continue. They’d just be different than they were before. But, at least America had no sand. Fortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, which mandated equal access under the law. I’m still grateful for those facts.
I share Abdi’s gratitude and his spirit of hope. I am proud to live in a country where disability inclusion is not only mandated, it is on a path to being celebrated. 2020 has taught us that we have work to do as a country. But, I have hope that working together, we can make tomorrow better than today, and improve every tomorrow after that.