Susan Mazrui, Director of Global Policy for AT&T, discusses the importance of accessible workplace technologies and how a commitment to accessibility and inclusion can help employers navigate the implications of long COVID as we shift to an increasingly hybrid workplace.
Original publication date: October 18, 2021
Intro: [00:00:00.99] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools, and case studies for the business leader, HR, and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.72] This episode of the Workology podcast is part of our Future of Work series, powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities. The Workology Podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. Today, I’m joined by Susan Mazrui. She’s the Director of Global Public Policy with AT&T. Susan works on public policy issues related to disability, ageing, and social justice. She was the architect of AT&T’s Accessibility and Inclusion Program, which identifies and addresses technology and social challenges faced by a corporation committed to full inclusion. She also led the effort to create the Corporate Accessibility Technology Office, a program to evaluate AT&T’s advanced communications, products, and services. Susan, welcome to the Workology Podcast.
Susan Mazrui: [00:01:26.84] Well, thank you for having me.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:29.27] Let’s talk a little bit about your background. How did you get involved in inclusivity and accessibility?
Susan Mazrui: [00:01:36.80] Well, I started out actually as a special ed teacher, and I went through school, got my education credential and, as a blind person, had some real challenges in getting a job. So, I became a special ed teacher, which was much easier to do. And when I was teaching special ed and teaching at San Francisco State, I was approached by Pacific Telesis for the advisory group for people with disabilities. And working on that group, I realized that if we didn’t get ahead of the game in terms of technology, especially communications and information technology, that no matter what I did for my kids to prepare them for the workforce, they still weren’t going to have jobs. And I was aware of issues that came up when the graphical user interface came about and many of my blind friends lost their jobs because that wasn’t accessible. Fortunately, today, companies are making their products and services accessible, but it came about because there are a lot of people in the community and in industry who said, “You know, we really need to look at how we are making our products and services accessible. We really need to make our workforce and our society more inclusive.” And so, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many people who have dedicated their lives to this goal, and I think we’ve seen some very positive changes as a result. So that’s how I got into the field.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:15.99] Thank you for sharing. I think it’s really important for us to talk about our own personal stories and what’s driving the work and that we’re doing, in, especially, in the areas of, well, all work, but especially in that accessibility inclusivity areas. Can you talk about the difference in perception or how employers work with employees who have invisible disabilities versus visible disabilities?
Susan Mazrui: [00:03:42.64] Well, when we look at the history of the disability rights movement, it was really led by people who said: I’m disabled, I don’t need to be fixed, I’m not sick. And one of the things that happened was a lot of the focus on, on disability became about people who have disabilities that we can develop tools for, who lead very happy lives, who, and have things that are very apparent. But the reality is more people have disabilities that aren’t readily apparent. You can’t look at them and say you have a disability. It could be a hearing loss. It could be a mental health issue. It could be a chronic health issue. There’s a range. And I think that initially all our HR focus was really thinking about those folks who needed a ramp or a screen reader. And over time, we realized that really the tools, the accommodations, the approaches we have for people with disabilities that are obvious, also work for people who have disabilities that aren’t apparent. And I think that the, over time societies as a whole has recognized that a disability is a difference. It is something that is sometimes caused by the environment, like a lack of a ramp and sometimes can benefit from some flexibility and other things. So, I think there’s still a stigma around disability, whether it’s apparent or not. I think there’s some stigmas that we really have to take a concrete effort to stamp out in a workplace. And one of the things that was done at AT&T is an effort to stamp out the stigma around mental health issues. And especially with COVID-19 and the whole pandemic, so many people are facing issues around mental health.
Susan Mazrui: [00:05:43.95] The fact that we started early, we started before the pandemic, the fact that we look at it as something that, you know, we can help as a workforce or as a society, by making accommodations, by providing resources. I think there’s still a stigma around chronic health issues. You know, when I developed cancer, I was very open about it because I thought that people should know that it is part of the continuum of life. I continued working, but what amazed me the most was how many of my peers had gone through the same experience. They’d gone through treatments and never asked for an accommodation. They never realized that they didn’t have to necessarily just tough through it and would have benefited from my knowledge and the knowledge of people who have other disabilities that, that you can get accommodations and they can help, and that there are resources available within the workplace that can make you not only a better employee, but happier. And so I think that the level of awareness in many companies is not as high as it is at AT&T, that a disability is a disability, whether you see it or not. But I think we need to get there, and I think we need to say, you know, we’re all human beings at different points in our lives. We may need to do something differently, and that’s OK. And we’re OK as human beings, even though we’re not, you know, this spherical person that’s, you know, perfect all the time.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:27.82] And this is exactly why I’m so thrilled and excited to have you share your story because you can talk and, and I’m sure that those who are listening here have unfortunately, or maybe they have family members too that that have these visible or invisible disabilities, including a cancer diagnosis. So there’s, disability is many different things and it can be visible to the eye or, or invisible. We really don’t know what’s going on with people on the inside.
Susan Mazrui: [00:08:06.78] No, we don’t.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:08.85] When we think about disability and technology, what do you think, Susan, we’re missing as HR leaders?
Susan Mazrui: [00:08:16.44] I think we need to understand the importance of technology for people with disabilities and that we need to make a conscious effort to buy accessible, to make sure that we are including standards within our RFPs and contract language when we’re purchasing technology. We need to make sure that the technology, the accessibility is built in and not bolted on. So, designed in a way, and we know how to make things accessible. But companies that are developing technologies need to understand that you, as a company, find accessibility to be important. You need it in your contract language in case there is a problem with a discovered flaw later on. Now, ideally, they’ve gone through the testing and you’ve gone through testing, and you’re sure that you’ve made your product accessible at launch, which is critical, but you also don’t want to be held accountable for their mistake. If they need to fix it, you need to have something in the contract language that says they need to do it. They’re not going to charge you more to fix it later. And, and I mentioned make sure it’s successful at launch, because that is such a critical factor for people with disabilities.
Susan Mazrui: [00:09:33.15] Frequently, companies are told we will add that in later. And when you think about it, the message is, is not a good one. You would never say, we’re going to allow men to have this tool, but we’re not allowing women to have it until six months later. And you shouldn’t do the same for people with disabilities. They should have access. If they’re going to be competitive in the workplace, they need to have access to all the tools from day one. And I think that it’s also important for HR leaders to make sure that people with disabilities and accessibility specialists when they’re looking at equipment or helping them design what they want to make sure that there are no major red flags in terms of the process. They need to have people who are accessibility specialists testing throughout. And, you know, if you have people within your company who are supporting this technology, which is, which is often the case, you need to make sure that they are trained to notice the red flags to develop solutions that are not going to cause problems later on. And so they need to have training and accessibility solutions as well.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:39.96] Great. And great insights here. I mean, I, I am seeing more conversations happening in the HR tech space in providing or having technology that is able for everyone to be able to access. But I think that we need to continue to talk to those HR technology companies and continue to have these conversations to really push, continue to push the developments and just our kind of universal design thinking forward.
Susan Mazrui: [00:11:09.60] And there are companies that work as consultants that can help you get up to speed. So, if you have to make a decision right away and you haven’t built the capacity within your organization yet, they can help you with the start and they can help you also build the capacity.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:24.12] Awesome. How does your background in communication and compliance impact the way you think about disability in the workplace?
Susan Mazrui: [00:11:31.17] I think we can’t rely on compliance with laws alone. Even flexible laws like the Communications and Video Accessibility Act can only do so much. They’re written in a set period of time. We need to take the lead. If we want to make our workplaces really inclusive, we need to make sure that we are looking at compliance as a low bar and that we are looking at a goal of full inclusion and communicating that. And to do that, we need to take concrete steps. We have to lead. We have to say that our tools have to be accessible. We have to say we have to test and, and provide opportunities to make sure our websites stay accessible. We need to understand things like our implicit biases and give opportunities for education and exposure. And we need to collect data on where we stand in terms of inclusion. You know, survey, is our environment inclusive? Do we have a population in our workforce that represents general society? If not, we really need to make sure that we’re collecting data on where we are at the baseline, take some steps to make changes and we need to measure those successes. We don’t have all the answers and compliance with laws is not going to give you all the answers. It’s going to give you a baseline. But if we want to change the world, if we want to make it inclusive, and I think we all do, because I think there’s so much benefit to businesses and to shareholders if we do that and to society as a whole. We need to take a lead and say this issue is important and communicate it from the top down and the bottom up.
Break: [00:13:24.13] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you are listening to the Workology Podcast sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. Today, we’re talking with Susan Mazrui. She’s the Director of Global Public Policy with AT&T. This episode here is part of our Future of Work series powered by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology.
Break: [00:13:47.18] The Workology Podcast Future of Work series is supported by PEAT, the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at PEATWorks.org. That’s PEATWorks.org.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:15.93] I want to have you talk a little bit about the genesis of AT&T’s accessibility and inclusion program and maybe where it is now.
Susan Mazrui: [00:14:24.96] Well, the Accessibility and Inclusion Initiative came about because our Chief Compliance Officer asked, “What can we do better for employees with disabilities?” And that leadership helped develop a program that looked at what our employees’ needs are, helped the employees and those in the workforce who are really committed to accessibility to develop projects that address those needs and to develop solutions that, that work often not only for people with disabilities, but for everyone. So, the program came about because there was leadership. The process went about because there was data collection on, you know, what were the needs of our employees? And then because there were employees who are committed throughout the corporation on developing a more inclusive environment, we had teams of folks who helped develop solutions. And sometimes the solutions were technology, but sometimes they were communication and etiquette and making work meetings more accessible. And depending on what the effort was, we had folks who worked in those areas lead the effort. We had a lot of people who have disabilities, or family members with disabilities, really engaged into making solutions. And today we have an ongoing set of, of projects that are happening that change because some get fixed or the technology changes. And we say, “Oh, we don’t need to do that anymore,” because that’s on its way out and we’re going to be focusing on something forward-looking. So, it’s been a wonderful way to engage employees. And I think the employees at AT&T are phenomenal. They are interested in making a more inclusive environment, and this ability to learn about issues and interact has not only helped our employees with disabilities, but I think it’s helped our employees overall, and it helps us be proud of who we are as a company, to take a leadership thing, to not hide our head in the sands around issues that are tough and to make a difference.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:50.83] I love hearing about this program because I really think it’s a model that other employers can take and make their own and really make an amazing difference. Like you said, for, for employees, those with or without disabilities. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is Recover into Inclusion. I wanted to ask you, how has the COVID-19 crisis affected workplaces with regards to accessibility and inclusion?
Susan Mazrui: [00:17:21.85] I think COVID-19 has done a couple of things. One, it has made us aware of how productive we can be at Work from Home. And for many people with disabilities, especially chronic health conditions, and that might be folks who are dealing with long haul COVID or lupus or cancer or any number of things. Work from Home might be a better option because you don’t have added stress and time and energy needed for commute. In some cases, it might be better because you’re immunocompromised and it’s just safer to be by yourself during treatment or at certain phases of your condition. And so, I think the pandemic has helped us understand how effective we can be and what tools we need to have to be effective. It also makes us really appreciate those who work in the reasonable accommodations process. And if I can brag a little bit about our folks at AT&T, we have had a phenomenal team. And prior to the pandemic, they looked at our process for accommodating employees with disabilities, and they looked at it holistically. They said, what do we need to do better and how can we do it better? And they made the decision to bring that process in-house because no one knows our jobs as well as our employees. And so, if you can have someone working with accommodations who knows what it’s like to work in a call center, who has worked in the field, they can help become part of the problem-solving process that is a reasonable accommodation. I mean, it is a discussion with the manager and the employee, but if you could have someone who has some background in accommodations, knows the job well, sometimes they can come up with some pretty cool suggestions that someone working in an office who doesn’t know your business doesn’t know as well. And so by bringing it in-house, we have employees supporting employees, and that’s just a win-win.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:32.11] I love that, I really love that. I want to switch gears a little bit and, we’ll stay on the theme of accommodation, but I want to talk a little bit more about COVID-19 and wanted to have you talk a little bit about the kinds of accommodations that are important for individuals with, or who are recovering from, COVID-19.
Susan Mazrui: [00:19:53.35] I think the accommodations need to be based on what you have in house. I think that there are some really basic things that someone who’s recovering from COVID-19 or another illness may not realize that they have the right to and can benefit from. For example, many people don’t realize that you can get accessible parking. And for people who have difficulty walking long distance or energy’s an issue, you can get a parking permit temporary or long term, depending on the condition. And that alone can make a huge difference because if you don’t have to walk, you know, half a mile to get into the office, that’s that much more energy. There may be a need to get breaks or to work from home. You may need to have specific treatments. And this I’m saying beyond COVID-19, that would be helpful. And, and looking at how you can be most productive rather than, you know, just, I think human nature is to say I’m just going to push through this. And when you have something that’s impacting energy, you’re impacting your ability to breathe. You can’t necessarily just push through. So, I think that having a workforce or an accommodations team and managers who understand this may take a while and there’s a lot of little things we can do that can build up to something that’s really helpful. I think when we’re looking at return to work for people with a range of disabilities, there are also other accommodations that we need to look at in different approaches. Certainly, for people who are immunocompromised, work from home longer than your general workforce might be a really great idea because it protects them and it makes them a happy, healthy person where, you know, being exposed to something and getting sick might actually not just send them to the hospital, but it could kill them. So, we need to be sensitive about that.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:00.15] Absolutely. I want to also make mention about what is called long COVID, and on July of this year, the federal government published some resources for Americans impacted by long COVID, and there includes guidance qualifying long COVID as a disability, and so certain employees and job candidates with long COVID will be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’m going to link to some resources for you in the show notes of this podcast episode, because this is not something that I have heard discussed many different places, so we do need to educate ourselves on accessibility and accommodations that need to be offered for people who have COVID-19 and long COVID.
Susan Mazrui: [00:22:50.01] And I think this goes back to your question earlier about non apparent disabilities. I suspect those resources are probably very helpful for people who have other health conditions. You know, people who are living with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis or other things. So, I think that one of the wonderful things about the announcement was really the ability to say, you know, health issues can be a disability and there’s things that employers can do that really help their employees stay engaged and productive and, and they should do this.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:26.19] Agreed, I think the more we talk about it, the more awareness happens and the easier it will be for employees to be able to have conversations with their boss or HR about having a reasonable accommodation and making the workplace more accessible, whether it’s in person, remote, hybrid or some combination.
Susan Mazrui: [00:23:46.63] Exactly.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:48.13] What do employers and HR leaders need to consider for accommodations when thinking about the hybrid workforce? I know many of us are returning to work either fully or partially over the next few months.
Susan Mazrui: [00:24:01.59] I think there’s a lot of factors that need to be considered, and I think mental health is one of them. And I think providing resources through programs, a lot of companies have an EAP program, or, as at AT&T, you know, if you, if you have a preference for a specific counselor or approach, they can tailor it. So, you know if you’re not really comfortable talking to someone who’s straight, or a different race, or something, they can, they can accommodate that. And that’s all part of, of who we are. And so, when we’re looking at returning to work part time, having that mental health support is critical. Also having opportunities for people to be able to communicate effectively in, in a workplace that has masks. You know, for example, workplaces will provide clear masks for someone who is working with or has a hearing loss because if you’re covering with a mask for safety and you use, look at someone’s face to, to understand what they’re saying, a clear mask can make a huge difference. Companies can provide stations that have hand sanitizers, that are wheelchair accessible and in the same location or work with their blind employees to say hand sanitizers will always be to the right of a cubicle or something like that. You know, some standardized process. A lot of it really has to do with getting people with disabilities engaged in the return to work, getting people the knowledge of people who’ve returned to work with health issues and, and developing a plan that works for everybody. But I think flexibility is really the key and allowing work from home as an option when it works in the, you know, meeting the essential functions of the job, I think is a great opportunity that we have now.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:26:06.33] Susan, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. I know I appreciate your insights and certainly our podcast listeners do as well. I want to make sure to allow folks who are interested to connect with you. So, we’ll include a link to your LinkedIn where they can, they can learn more about the work that you’re doing, where your passions lie at AT&T and beyond. Thank you so much.
Susan Mazrui: [00:26:31.59] Thank you.
Closing: [00:26:32.79] I really appreciate Susan’s insights on this special podcast episode for the Workology Podcast powered by PEAT. You know, accessibility and inclusion can be built into our work culture as part of hiring, onboarding, training and employee development. We’ve learned a lot of lessons. I mean, a lot from the
past year and a half during a global pandemic. And the acceleration of technology for persons with disabilities is changing the landscape of what accessibility and inclusion looks like. Ensuring that the hybrid workplace is accessible is an essential step in building an inclusive future of work for everyone.
Closing: [00:27:09.74] The Workology podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. One more thing with this episode. I do want to make sure to direct you to the resources section of this podcast episode. Go over to Workology.com, you’ll be able to access that. I have information about long COVID and workplace accessibility, along with some EEOC guidance in this area. It’s not a topic that I have heard a lot about, and I want to make sure that you, our listeners, are up to date on all the best resources and information to help you support your organization.
Closing: [00:27:44.61] Personal and professional development is essential for successful HR leaders. Join Upskill HR to access live training, community, and over a hundred on demand courses for the dynamic leader. HR recert credits available. Visit Upskill HR for more.
Closing: [00:28:00.36] This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology Podcast episodes.
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