From Relay Services to Vibrating Ringtones, AT&T Is Committed to Serving People With Disabilities

October 8, 2013 6:38 pm

Debbie Storey, AT&TThe DiversityInc team recently sat down with AT&T’s Chief Diversity Officer Debbie Storey for an update on the company’s efforts to support and serve people with disabilities – from both a product development and employee perspective. Storey joined the company in 1983 and has held numerous positions along the way – including leadership roles in customer service, sales, operations, network, M&A and now HR. 

What motivates AT&T to focus so much on people with disabilities?

It goes back to how the company began 137 years ago. Most people know the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s first call to Thomas Watson in 1876. What many may not know is that Bell’s interest in elocution and speech – which led to that first call – was driven by personal experiences with his deaf mother and deaf wife. So making communications accessible to all has been a business imperative at AT&T from the beginning.

Communications technology has evolved dramatically over the past few years. How do you keep up?

One way we’ve stayed ahead is by relying on the expertise of the AT&T Advisory Panel on Access and Aging (AAPAA). It’s a board comprised of national leaders in assistive technology, aging and cross-disability issues that we launched in 2009. AAPAA gives us advice and counsel, and helps guide our efforts to achieve accessibility across our portfolio. They’ve played a big role in helping us identify and respond to ever-evolving accessibility needs and issues – from both educational and product development perspectives.

Give us a few examples of AAPAA’s recent work.

On the education side, in the past couple years they’ve developed “Senior Days” – a wireless training program for people over 65; they’ve helped us develop Accessibility Awareness Training for employees; and they’ve offered guidance to the AT&T-sponsored Paralympics and Special Olympics. On the product development front, they’ve helped us develop wireless-device vibrating ringtones for the deaf and hard of hearing, and they helped guide the design of the AT&T U-verse TV “Easy Remote.”

Tell us about the Corporate Accessibility Technology Office you launched this year.

As you said, the way we communicate and do business today is dramatically different from just a few years ago. Nearly everyone relies on wireless and broadband. We have a responsibility to make all of these technologies accessible, so earlier this year we launched the Corporate Accessibility Technology Office (CATO). It’s an internal team of 30 employees, led by a senior officer, whose mission is to ensure a focus on accessibility early in the design phase of all product development across the company. The team also partners with business units to advance our efforts to comply with accessibility laws for all our products, services, applications and networks, and promote technology that’s accessible by all. Just this year, CATO has processed 11,000 requests for accessibility reviews.

Talk a little about your approach to hiring people with disabilities.

We’re really committed to making AT&T opportunities accessible for all. All jobs are posted on several disability sites, and accommodations are offered at every step of the recruitment process – from application to assessment to interview. Beyond that, our public jobs site,, is designed to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines standards of accessibility. Career videos are close captioned; key collateral is available in Braille, and we prominently feature employees with disabilities in our hiring materials. We’re also long-term sponsors of Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities, and in partnership with the Wounded Warrior Project, recently hosted career sessions at the Warrior Games.

You have a unique hiring program in Tennessee.

Yes. In 2010 we launched a hiring program for candidates with mental disabilities. Project capABILITY is a partnership between an AT&T warehousing facility in Memphis, the Tennessee State Vocational and Rehabilitation Agency, and Goodwill to train and place job seekers. We’ve placed 30 individuals and continue to support Goodwill and the State of Tennessee in training candidates – and we’ve expanded the program to include five vendor-operated facilities.

You also rely heavily on your Employee Resource Group focused on people with disabilities.

Absolutely. It’s called IDEAL Disability Advocates, and it has 1,500 employee members. IDEAL plays a key role in all we do in the accessibility arena – working with CATO, AAPAA, and Staffing – and educating and advocating directly on behalf of employees with disabilities. They’re also vocal community advocates. They recently sponsored the film Love Land – the story of a young woman who overcomes traumatic brain injury to achieve new heights. Their advocacy resulted in the Disability Cinema Coalition awarding AT&T the Malcolm J. Norwood Award for Inclusion through Technology. Norwood was the “father” of closed captioning.

IDEAL also awards college scholarships: In 2012 they awarded four students $2,000 scholarships and one student a $200 scholarship – and they mentor those to whom they grant scholarships.

For more on AT&T’s accessibility efforts, click here.