My Aira Life, A Conversation with Suzanne Montgomery AT&T’s Chief Accessibility Officer

I arrived via Lyft to AT&T Headquarters in downtown Dallas with Aira Agent Cassie in my ear. As I waited in the lobby, Agent Cassie and I discussed how I was going to approach the interview. We developed a game plan for working together. It wasn’t long before Suzanne’s assistant, Frances, came down to show me to Suzanne’s office. Frances spoke very highly of Suzanne, informing me that it was only Suzanne who could convince her to leave her former department in the field where she spent her career. Frances was no doubt loyal. As I walked in, we greeted each other and chatted for a bit, waiting to hear if she was needed in another meeting. Hoping that wasn’t the case, I was relieved by a knock on the door and a thumbs-up, her schedule was clear. So, here we go...

 My first question was to ask Suzanne to tell me a little about herself. I learned she was born in New Jersey into a family of 7. She told me that there were probably two factors for why she became a lawyer. The first was being 1 of 7 children. There was a lot of “lawyering” when it came time to eat. The second influence came from TV and a love for all shows legal. She loved everything from Perry Mason to LA Law. After college, she said goodbye to New Jersey and made the drive west on I-80 to St. Louis to attend law school. As she made the drive she believed her days as a “Jersey Girl” were over. She made a point to tell me that New Jersey isn't the same one you see portrayed on TV. She never dated a Pauly or hung out with a Snookie. After law school and working for a firm for a few years, she was hired by SBC as a litigator and handled everything soup to nuts for the telecom company in Missouri. After a rather short period of time, SBC and AT&T merged and Suzanne made the drive she never thought she would. Back to New Jersey -- to Bedminster, where she expanded her responsibilities in the legal department from litigating in Missouri to now working across the states. After working relentlessly in New Jersey and then Florida and earning a stellar reputation, she made the move to Dallas and soon took on the role she serves in today. It is funny how life unfolds because along with graduating and practicing law as an attorney, she is now the Chief Accessibility Officer in an entertainment multinational. 

 My next question was, what has been the evolution of the Chief Accessibility Officer role at AT&T and how did you come to it? Suzanne reminded me that when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he was in fact working on an “accessibility” product for the deaf because he had a family member who was hearing impaired. So, AT&T’s roots stretch way back into the accessibility arena. She pointed out that AT&T has always had a mission to provide products and services that met ALL their customer’s needs “on their terms.” In 2012, there was a recommitment to being more deliberate about accessibility. In 2011 the FCC issued a set of regulations known as the CVAA. This put in place a comprehensive regulatory structure for advance telecommunication services with an emphasis on accessibility. This mirrored some of the desires the company had to improve accessibility, paving the way and legitimizing their direction. She reminded me that the iPhone had only been out for a couple of years at that time and people were communicating in ways they never had before. The CVAA dovetailed nicely with the ADA, ensuring that accessibility kept at least some pace with the growth of technology and ensure that those with disabilities kept pace with the general public. 

 My next question was, what makes you MOST passionate about accessibility and inclusion. I ask this question because as a person who has a disability, I have witnessed a kind of exclusion for people from my community. I personally have attributed that to a lack of knowledge and understanding by the general public. Suzanne related a very personal and emotional story to me. Her younger sister suffered from epilepsy. The first time she recognized some of the difficulties of those who have a disability occurred when her sister was flat out refused entrance into a class because a particular kindergarten teacher simply did not want a student with that type of condition in their classroom. She felt it would be disruptive and she also didn’t want the responsibility of having her sister in the classroom. This proved to be a turning point of sorts for Suzanne, as she witnessed first-hand the exclusion of someone she knew, someone she loved, for simply being different. Her sister is fine these days. However, this experience began to shape Suzanne and served as a ground zero for her passion for those who were disabled. Throughout her life, she had many other occasions to witness the issues of those with a disability being left behind or marginalized. While attending law school, she had a classmate who was deaf. She watched as the student learned, as he was accompanied to class every day by a sign language interpreter. Suzanne recognized the challenges of that particular student’s ability to receive the same or equal educational experience as the other students. Suzanne was asked to share her daily notes with the student, and today he is a very successful lawyer. I believed in that moment Suzanne Montgomery was one of the rare few I have met who saw the importance of trying to create ways to level the playing field. She looks to impact the environment of those who are not un-abled, but differently-abled, who just need the chance to compete and be allowed to show their talents in spite of, rather than because of. At this point Suzanne expressed to me that education is a great passion for her because, and these are her exact words, “Education is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter where you come from and your circumstances whether you’re rich or poor, have a supportive family or don't. Education is always a path to success. And if we don't give kids an equal opportunity to learn we are losing out on whatever hidden untapped talent they possess.” 

 My next question: what are some of the roadblocks you have experienced and given your obvious passion for this how do you plan on changing hearts and minds? Not just on a corporate level but within the general public as well. Suzanne acknowledged that there exists a lack of awareness both in corporate America as well as within the general public. So, mission #1 for her is to raise awareness. She gave me an example of one of the many things that she has done to begin to raise awareness. Earlier this year, her team sponsored an accessibility prize at an AT&T “hackathon” at which they issued the challenge to developers to develop an application with accessibility inclusion in mind. Several approached proclaiming, “Well, someone who is blind isn't going to use my app…” and “…why would somebody who is blind ever use the Internet?” Undaunted by the lack of understanding, she and the team worked with the developers and by the end of the event, after talking and educating many of them on exactly how those who are deaf, blind or have mobility issues relate to the use of a phone or computer, they converted many of the developers. This teachable moment was fully realized. The developers were enthused when they saw how they could dictate trends, be influencers and capitalize on an untapped market. Fast forward to the end of the event. The accessibility prize received the most submissions. Suzanne told me that, “What it came down to is simply creating awareness and informing them of a need in an unfilled space.”

 Another roadblock Suzanne’s team had to overcome was that oftentimes they would talk to business leaders who would say that accessibility simply isn't in their business plan. Suzanne informed them (and me) that according to the census, approximately 20% of Americans have some sort of disability. She poses the question, why would you leave 20% of the population off the table if the goal is to reach as many customers as you can? So, for her, it’s about educating people. She wants to show them how to do it, and how the benefits go beyond just serving those with disabilities. It reaches potential customers via the families of those with disabilities because they become very loyal to companies that care for those they love. She is building a case and hopes to be among the leaders in the field of educating both corporate America as well as the general public. The bottom line is AT&T is committed to breaking down barriers through an active awareness program. This is being done at both a micro and macro level. Example, the creation of a mobile Accessibility Awareness Lab. This lab is available to all AT&T offices and vendors that work with AT&T. By the sound of Suzanne’s excitement about this project, I’m sure if she was contacted she would share it with anybody and everybody. These are on hand experiences where people are exposed to simple activities that show them in a very real way what completing certain tasks feels and looks and sounds like for those with a disability. As people become more aware, they become advocates. They become committed to educating everyone about the benefits of embracing accessibility. Because it can increase bottom lines through reaching untapped markets, all while doing what is right.

 My next question for Suzanne, asked about some of the initiatives they are working on and if she could share, what can we look forward to seeing from AT&T? We all know that AT&T is growing their family, and has been on the cutting edge of many advances so I guess the question within this question is how will Suzanne leverage her position among business peers to influence them into joining this cause? Suzanne explained to me that AT&T is committed in a very real way to accessibility and inclusion. “We have an outstanding leadership team and a company filled with dedicated, talented employees. That powerful combination has afforded us the opportunity to grow, to expand our reach through some very strategic acquisitions. These are amazing companies in and of themselves. Because of our culture of diversity and inclusion, we are bringing together the values and best practices of each entity to create an overall exceptional experience for our customers and our employees. These things take time, but It is our goal to make this our reality.” She explained that their goal is to become the leader when it comes to the arenas of accessibility, diversity and inclusion. 

 Gaming is not the only avenue they are bringing their combined values together.  Shortly after the acquisition by AT&T, WarnerMedia issued a Diversity and Inclusion Policy, committing their film and content to adopt the mindset of accessibility and inclusion that existed within the gaming division.  This was a practice that was to be observed both behind the camera as well as reflected in front of the camera.  Accessibility crossing platforms.  As I (Eric) see it, at a time where 5G and its low latency, as well as the promises that AI will bring.  A new reality is fast approaching and as Suzanne said often during our conversations, it will be “on your terms.”

My next question was related to assistive and transformative technology called AIRA, a product that’s a collaborative effort with AT&T. This type of effort makes it possible for blind and low vision individuals to participate on a more level playing field with the sighted community. I asked Suzanne to explain her thoughts regarding AIRA and the value of partnering with or collaborating with other companies to enhance the lives of those with accessibility issues. I truly loved her answer, because it shows her humility as well as deep understanding of the question with zero ego involved, she simply stated that. “We cannot do this alone.” I found this refreshing because I am familiar with those who answer questions like that in a more arrogant manner as though they alone can solve for X.  She went on to say, “There are many great innovators and entrepreneurs out there with what seems at times to be an endless stream of ideas. These individuals simply don't have the resources to bring them to market. That is where we come in. We have the resources necessary for them to succeed enabling them to bring their brilliance to the marketplace.”She reminded me that at AT&T they have the philosophy of “Better Together,” a philosophy she carries beyond the walls of the company. She went on to say, “When you take the power of AT&T and combine it with the spirit of innovators and entrepreneurs, together we can take on the world.”She pointed out the fact that I was wearing technology, utilizing a particular piece of technology that was an effort of the better together philosophy. Aira is one of many projects aimed at improving life experiences. At this point, we talked about AT&T Foundries. These are labs located around the world. I visited the one in Houston where Aira had a fully realized product and vision but needed a partner to blend the tech with a reliable network to sustain its customer base. Now, Aira runs on AT&T’s network. There are other foundries in Atlanta, Georgia; Houston, Texas; Plano, Texas; Silicon Valley; Mexico City; Israel. Each Foundry focuses on research and development as well as strategic partnerships. 

 My next question was, do you feel AT&T can be a breakout leader in the accessibility and inclusion movement? I asked Suzanne to think about the value of this endeavor, what if anything can those with disabilities bring to the table. Not just as potential consumers but as contributors to the workforce. I asked this question because it is my belief that sitting on the sidelines, often in the shadows, is a vast pool of talent that goes largely unnoticed because there is a stigma that exists when it comes to interacting and integrating. Suzanne began by explaining how changing the culture and approach to accessibility, diversity and inclusion on a company level will legitimize them in the eyes of their business peers as well as their customers. She said that “Being authentic is key because people can tell when you are just talking the talk without walking the walk.”

 She talked about some of the steps she is taking. “I began by instituting an accessibility and inclusion plan.” This was aimed at encouraging employees to offer suggestions where AT&T could do better, not just with regards to employees but with employees who had loved ones with accessibility, diversity and inclusion issues in their lives. Through a series of comprehensive interviews with employees, Suzanne’s team identified areas where they could do better. One outcome was supporting HR in their efforts to grow AT&T’s iCountprogram. This is a program aimed at self-identifying diversity, including being a person with a disability and being comfortable bringing your true self to work. They feel this simple concept is a key step. She went on to explain another area they were supporting HR is improving the employee experience in the job accommodation process.  As she put it, “In the end, our goal is to make employee experiences seamless because it improves employee productivity and overall happiness.”

 We then transitioned into a kind of window into the world of someone with a disability working at AT&T. We talked about what Suzanne described as the “Spillover Effect.” This occurs when someone with a disability is feeling left out or left behind. What happens is that their frustration and marginalization spills over from the workplace to their life outside of work.

 Suzanne provided me with some examples of how people can be “left out.” Occasionally, a business unit or leader is remiss when it comes to providing closed captioning at things like Town Halls. The result is that employees with hearing impairments can feel marginalized and left out. In this example, the simple act of providing captioning is important because otherwise employees can’t participate and be part of the town hall (i.e. ask questions during Q&A or interact and discuss with their peers and leaders, afterward). Conversely, those employees who have family members with a disability, by showing your employees value through inclusion s

My experience is that there is a stigma attached to me, to my different-ability. This may not be the case or the experience of those dealing with accessibility, diversity and inclusion issues. According to Suzanne, “There needs to be continuous conversations about equality.”At this point I bristled a bit because I don't believe that “True equality” is possible and is a bit of a myth to me. Instead what I think is that our goal should be one of pursuing the ideal of creating the “Equality of Experience.” Suzanne pondered that for a moment and then said, “I like that.” We then talked about how technology is advancing the experience of those who are differently-abled through augmenting their experience. Technology is a tool in the toolbox meant to enhance and experience. It’s not meant to be a cure or a fix-all. Suzanne went on to say,  “We’ve made a lot of progress and it’s become a more open conversation. But until we see leaders in visible positions with either visible disabilities or speak about their invisible disabilities, we will never remove the stigma. There is a common phrase in the diversity and inclusion community: ‘You have to see it to be it.’” I felt like that was a perfect way to end that question.

 My last question was, what can you tell me about your team? At this point Suzanne beamed and her answer to this question shows her excitement and enthusiasm when it comes to the future. This is based on those she has surrounded herself with and the support she is receiving for her endeavors. “We have assembled an amazing group of people at AT&T. They work earnestly on accessibility issues that are embedded throughout the business. We couldn’t approach this in a “silo’d” way. They include experts to help improve websites, TV products, Compliance, and Engineers. Experts in Human Factors, a merging of psychology and engineering. Most importantly, we have people with disabilities themselves or family members with disabilities. We have diverse representation from Blind, Deaf, Mobility and Mental Health Disabilities. Everybody bringing their individuality and their whole self to ensure we meet everyone where they are, so our products can handle as large a population as possible.” Suzanne continued, “Accessibility benefits everyone. Until you work in this space you’re not necessarily aware of it. But once you start dipping your toe in the water and see the connections in the community, within your family, or larger social connections there are some people who bring their differences to wherever they are. Designing product and services and building resources and features with accessibility in mind, helps everybody…it brings that world connected together. Our mission at AT&T is to inspire human progress through the power of communications and entertainment and Accessibility is the key to meeting that mission.”

 What a perfect way to conclude this interview. I thanked Suzanne for her time and considerable grace. 

 @aira #aira #myairalife #onmyterms #whatsnext #jabfund

 Below is a photo with Suzanne Montgomery, In the background are life sized statues of WarnerMedia’s DC Comic Legends.