PEAT recently spoke with AT&T's Diane Rodriguez about the company's commitment to providing accessible products and services.

AT&T Inc. is a premier communications holding company. Its subsidiaries and affiliates—AT&T operating companies—are the providers of AT&T services in the United States and internationally. With a powerful array of network resources, AT&T is a leading provider of wireless, Wi-Fi, high-speed broadband, voice, and cloud-based services.

PEAT recently spoke with AT&T's Diane Rodriguez about the company's commitment to providing accessible products and services.

PEAT: Tell us about your role at AT&T. Where does accessibility fit into your organization?

RODRIGUEZ: I work as a lead compliance analyst (LCA) in AT&T's Corporate Accessibility Technology Office. Our office is a dedicated division within AT&T that is not part of any particular business unit; rather, our expertise can be used freely by all of our business units. Forty AT&T employees staff the Corporate Accessibility Technology Office—everyone from compliance analysts and solutions engineers to technical architects and web engineers. And it's our job to help AT&T's business units make products and services accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities.

In 2013, the Corporate Accessibility Technology Office evaluated about 12,000 AT&T projects, which should provide a sense of the need for our services. What's great about our office is that our work also raises company-wide awareness about disability-related issues in general. The Corporate Accessibility Technology Office was actually featured as an industry model in a 2013 white paper by G3ict, so you can read more about our office there.

PEAT: What led you to your work in accessibility, and what do you and your colleagues do on a day-to-day basis?

RODRIGUEZ: Honestly, it was fortunate timing and circumstance that led me to my current role. In 2008, while working for AT&T's Corporate Compliance division, I worked on an accessibility compliance project that included creating a "Disability Awareness" training course for customer facing employees. The course provided tips and techniques on interacting with people with disabilities. The expertise I gained through that experience made me a logical choice to help staff the Corporate Accessibility Technology Office. And ever since, I've become absolutely passionate about the topic of technology accessibility. I know that our work makes a real difference in the lives of people with disabilities by helping to further their independence and productivity, not to mention enhanced employability. So, I can truly say that I love coming to work every day.

In my LCA role, I evaluate new projects at an early stage of development. When AT&T business units want to create a new product or service, we ask the developer to complete a questionnaire to help us determine whether accessibility solutions need to be incorporated and assigned. Then, if we identify a need, we pull together the right team of experts to help guide the accessibility aspects of the product's development. Our office also conducts internal and external accessibility training.

PEAT: Tell us more about your accessibility training offerings.

RODRIGUEZ: The original disability awareness course I mentioned was the beginning of a series of internal training programs for AT&T employees that are tailored to the employee's role within the company. For the customer-facing training, we've created numerous iterations, based on the ever-changing product and service offers. For product designers and developers, we created a course entitled "Achieving Product Accessibility" that addresses specifics of building products and services. To address general awareness and understanding, we created an annual accessibility policy review. All of our internal training is designed to help our product people think about accessibility at the beginning of the product lifecycle or help our employees better serve the needs of customers with disabilities.

On the external side, we're also offering free training to consumers. We've partnered with the Wireless Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) at the Georgia Institute of Technology to sponsor a road show that demonstrates to persons with disabilities how to use the accessibility features on their mobile devices. We've held these outreach sessions in various cities, from Dallas to Atlanta to Washington, D.C. AT&T contributed $50,000 to help fund the project, and it's purposefully educational. We aren't marketing or selling anything in these seminars and participants don't even need to be AT&T customers—we're just providing free training to users on the accessibility features that are on their devices already. The training sessions are also an opportunity for AT&T to gather important information about experiences and problems with mobile devices and services encountered by consumers with disabilities. They also provide AT&T and the Wireless RERC with valuable insight on how to improve the accessibility of products and services and how accessibility is communicated from organizations who share AT&T's long-standing passion to improve communities.

PEAT: What prompted the establishment of the Corporate Accessibility Technology Office? Was it in response to a market need?

RODRIGUEZ: The Corporate Accessibility Technology Office was created to help put in place the structure for AT&T to continue to consider accessibility when developing the next generation of products, services, and networks and to be able to comply with new accessibility laws. It's also good business. The numbers alone tell us that 20% of the population lives with a disability, almost a third of U.S. households include a family member with a disability, and half of Americans 65 years and older live with a disability. To exclude that market segment is simply bad business.

PEAT: How does AT&T market to and solicit input from the disability market?

RODRIGUEZ: On the marketing side, we have a dedicated disability marketing group that leads those efforts. As a rule, our marketing materials take a universal design approach; they're targeted toward all consumers, so everyone can learn about our accessibility features when they read our product materials. But we do have some targeted marketing activities for the disability market.

What's great is that all of these efforts are informed by a unique advisory group called the AT&T Advisory Panel on Access and Aging (AAPAA), a panel of 15 external subject matter experts on assistive technology, aging, and cross-disability issues. They're all external and we use them as a sounding board on many disability-related efforts. For instance, we presented our disability awareness training to them multiple times to gather feedback and improve the end result.

AAPAA has also helped shape our product strategies and operations. As an example, when the iPhone first launched, customers had to pay for voice service, even though many people who are deaf or hard of hearing rarely or never used it. On the AAPAA's recommendation, AT&T created our Text Accessibility Plan, an alternate rate plan for users who prefer text or sign language video. Members of the panel were also able to provide feedback during the early stages of our U-verse Easy Remote app, which enables customers to use their accessible smartphone to control their U-verse TV service in place of the hardware remote control.

And, as mentioned above, at the training road shows conducted by AT&T and the Wireless RERC, persons with disabilities share their experiences with wireless devices and services, providing AT&T with valuable insight about ways to improve accessibility.

PEAT: How does AT&T serve individual customers with disabilities who may need assistance with accessibility features?

RODRIGUEZ: AT&T has two specialty call centers that can provide one-on-one technical assistance. AT&T's National Center for Customers with Disabilities (NCCD) assists wireless customers and AT&T's Disability and Aging Center supports landline customers.

PEAT: What are some of your Office's greatest triumphs and challenges?

RODRIGUEZ: One of our big internal wins concerns our digital materials and it turned out to be a win-win. Recently, the Corporate Accessibility Technology Office determined that some of the color specifications from AT&T's branding department used for presentation decks, web pages, and other digital assets did not always provide sufficient contrast for persons who are color blind. After approaching the branding department to educate them on the issue, we learned that they were having trouble getting designers to use the color palette as intended. We were able to get the branding team to make a few subtle changes to colors, so now being “on brand" also means being accessible.

In terms of challenges, our biggest has to do with scale. AT&T is so large and so diverse that it's challenging to stay on top of the many efforts going on across the company. That's why our internal road shows are so important. They allow us to meet with all of our business units to spread the word about accessibility's importance.

PEAT: How does AT&T evaluate its products for accessibility and what standards do you follow?

RODRIGUEZ: AT&T uses many standards to evaluate accessibility. AT&T evaluates accessibility based upon the performance objectives set forth in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules. AT&T also evaluates websites based upon Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Other products and services are evaluated using the standards that are relevant to the technology in question. But at its core, AT&T evaluation of accessibility is aimed at answering this question: “Would someone with a disability be able to use this product and receive the value they are paying for?"

PEAT: What advice would you offer other technology companies interested in developing an accessibility initiative?

RODRIGUEZ: My first piece of advice is that you have to start somewhere, so commit to doing something and then work your way forward. I think one of the best ways to get started is to determine which rules and requirements apply to your company and then use that as a guideline to establish your approach to accessibility.

This can apply not only to the development of accessible products, but also to the promotion of an inclusive workplace internally at your own company. There are people with disabilities working throughout AT&T, of course, and this adds valuable perspective to the work that we do. In my own department, three of our solutions engineers have disabilities, so we know firsthand about the crucial role that technology plays as an accessible workplace productivity tool.

Another best practice I would offer technology providers is the advisory panel approach. Our work with the AAPAA has been incredible, and thanks to the panel's expertise, we've learned and grown as a company—and enhanced the inclusiveness of our products and services. I recommend that others seek out those types of partnerships and build relationships with mentors and subject matter experts. It's been tremendously successful for AT&T.

Finally, I feel it's important to have support for accessibility from both the top down and the bottom up. At AT&T, we have a chief accessibility officer who drives home the message about accessibility. But other officers and managers in the company support our commitment, as well, as do the business unit leaders we've been able to educate through our internal training efforts. By working together, we've been able to embed accessibility in every aspect that we can.