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Ability – Advance, Advocate, Educate

During an AT&T town hall, Erich Manser took the stage wearing a pair of AIRA glasses. Based off his reported level of vision, Kelly Burton realized Erich had the same level of visual impairment as her husband.

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Kelly Burton

“Work-life and home-life finally melded together,” she said. “I felt like I could bring a little bit more of myself to the office.” Having been a founding member of the Professionals 50-Forward and a key part of launching the Women of Business Employee Network, Kelly was no stranger to our employee resource groups (ERGs). Before Erich, she was already a formal member of Ability, our ERG dedicated to advocating for individuals with disabilities. Originally starting as IDEAL, the employee resource group rebranded to Ability in 2018 – highlighting the ability in disability.

Gina Love, Ability’s Executive Vice President, first heard about the group as it looked to open a new chapter in St. Louis. As someone who lives with an invisible disability – as well as has a child with one – a similar moment of being seen sparked her decision to join. She thought, “You have to be kidding me, I need to contribute to this.”

When meeting with employees who are interested in joining, one of Gina’s primary goals is to heighten awareness while reducing stigma.

“A lot of times, people are fearful of what they don’t understand,” Gina said. “We strive to help others with disabilities in removing that stigma and helping people relate. Disability doesn’t change who a person is. To help those without a disability understand, I would ask them to imagine they’re suddenly with a disability, it doesn’t fundamentally change who you are. The only thing it changes is that one aspect of you.”

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Gina Love

“We advocate, advance and educate,” Kelly said, referring to the mission displayed on Ability’s website. “We lift people with disabilities around getting more employment and work towards understanding invisible versus visible disabilities. The intersectionality of our group really knows no gender, no race, no sexual orientation. It touches every demographic out there.”

Ability plays a large role in our commitment to making technology accessible for everyone. The AT&T Foundry, for example, often works towards technology-focused solutions for users with disabilities. This has included those injured on the battlefield, or in accidents, as well as those who have been born blind or deaf. The AT&T Accessibility Lab, a project brought to life by AT&T Lead Compliance Analyst Crystal Baker, gives our product developers a chance to understand what it can mean to have a cognitive, visual, hearing or motor disability.

“Our partnership with the AT&T Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) organization is critical,” Kelly said. “Our particular area can be tricky because of the stigma Gina mentioned. Many people are not ready to self-identify. We work closely with D&I and HR to figure out how we can create a more inclusive environment.”

Much of Ability’s direct efforts involve the internal work they do within our teams. Recently, the group opened one opportunity for dialogue through an event they co-hosted with other employee groups. The event centered around the filming of Swim Team, a documentary where three young athletes on the autism spectrum overcame trials to win their sporting events.

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Running such events helped Gina and Kelly gain more confidence in taking on leadership roles.

“Employee groups give us an opportunity to step outside our normal comfort zone,” Gina said. “They let us raise our hands and say, ‘I want to help lead.’ Whatever you don’t have, in terms of skills, you can grow here in a safe environment.”

“I like what Gina means about a safe environment,” Kelly added. “There have been so many opportunities where I feel like I’m making a difference in something I really care about. These are volunteer positions and we’re just grateful someone is coming to the table with their ideas, resources and time. It’s a win-win for everyone.

“We hope when we share these stories people feel represented, safe and comfortable to share their own. They’re not spending wasted energy trying to edit who they are or watch what they say. People are more productive and happier when they bring their whole selves.”

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