From Action to Inclusion: Telstra's Disability Inclusion Plan

Early last year, I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Telstra's new 2017-2019 Disability Inclusion Plan. I was familiar with Telstra’s commitment to disability employment, but was not aware of the other ways in which the company was committed to creating a more accessible and inclusive community. Following the launch, I wanted to learn more, so I met with Kelly Schulz, Telstra’s Senior Advisor on Accessibility and Inclusion. Over coffee, Kelly shared some of her story, and described how the new inclusion plan would be implemented over the next two years.

“I’ve actually been with Telstra for ten years, so it’s a great anniversary time for me,” Kelly explained. “I’ve only been in my current role for nine months. I'm a senior advisor on accessibility and inclusion, which might sound fancy, but what it does is represents what Telstra's strategy is to support customers, Telstra employees – and people in our communities who have a disability or who identify as having various accessibility needs. It has been very much a role focused on regulatory compliance because Telstra, as a telecommunications company, has requirements on what we need to do for customers with disabilities. But it's now moving very much towards Telstra becoming a technology company, and we need to think about what that means beyond your normal fixed phone – where it might be a big button phone or a TTY. What does it mean in a digitally connected world for people with various needs, and how do we make sure they're included as part of Telstra's overall strategy?”

Although Kelly had not worked in an accessibility role previously, having a vision impairment has, by default, made her much more aware of people’s accessibility needs.

“Living and breathing the experience actually makes a difference to what you try and influence, I think, so yes, I was always interested in what happened for customers and advocating. But I guess now, I definitely can't walk past anything. It's my absolute responsibility to say yes, I need to do something about that.”

Telstra has had accessibility on its radar since 1981, when it introduced specialist products to assist people with disabilities in using a regular telephone. By 1996, Telstra formalised its commitment to improving accessibility with the release of its first Disability Action Plan, which was lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission. Six action plans were then implemented prior to Telstra launching the current Disability Inclusion Plan. I asked Kelly to describe the differences between the action and inclusion plans.

“For us, it was initially about building compliance to make sure the traditional fixed service and payphones were accessible to everyone who needed them, so those action plans have been very much focused on how we drive that compliance. It was about building up a base level of compliance to the Disability Discrimination Act, the Telecommunications Act and all the other relevant acts we needed to consider. Now, however, not only is it a change in strategy, it's a change in title where we're actually not referring to disability specifically as an action plan. We're referring to accessibility and inclusion to encompass the variety of needs of people who have very significant disabilities right out to representing the people who just need reading glasses. Someone may have a disability, but they may not consider themselves as having a disability. However, they still have inclusion and accessibility needs. So, it's become a change in the conversation to one of inclusion rather than saying ‘How do we deal with people with a disability separately?’ It's trying to be inclusive, rather than pigeonholing. Sure, something might become accessible for someone with a disability, but this will mean it is ultimately accessible for everyone.

“I can give you a recent story where we were talking about an app that's being developed by Telstra. I encouraged the developers  to consider what their base font size is. They only increased it by 1.5 points, but the team themselves told me that it was easier to read. Originally, the designers came back and said this is the design we were stuck with. No one thought to say, why don't we increase the font size? And as soon as we did, the developers and the people who are a part of the project team all now think that it's easier to use.”

The plan is divided into three pillars: Improve Customer Experience, Create a Fully Inclusive Workplace and Innovate for the Future. I asked Kelly about how the inclusion plan would be implemented over the next two years, and what was involved in the implementation process.

“A big part of this plan for me is building awareness – because once we build awareness and build out that organic set of advocates who are in the company, then it doesn't rely so much on me doing all the work and being the only one who is pushing this out, pushing the accessibility and inclusion message. One of the things that's been really hard is that the Disability Discrimination Act basically says, ‘Don't discriminate.’ But what does that really mean? How are we, or who might we be discriminating? And that’s something people don’t know. So, one thing we’re implementing is campaigns to build awareness. Telstra has about 32,000 employees, so when you think about raising awareness in that community, you’re going to impact what happens in the rest of the world. While I am very much focused on Telstra people, Telstra’s partners and the communities and organizations we work with, I think there's an organic process that happens to build that awareness more generally.

“It is a lot of people to educate, and it comes down to being contextual as well. So, the teams who are building apps don't necessarily want to know about using Auslan to communicate in stores, for example. However, by raising awareness about Auslan with our staff who work in stores, we're gaining some traction, and encouraging people to be trained in Auslan so they can communicate with customers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing when they come in. We employ people who speak Chinese. We employ people who speak Italian. We employ people who speak Malaysian, but we don't employ people who speak Auslan, yet it is a recognised language.

“One of the other big ways to build awareness is through empathy. Whether that's digitally with people using apps and assistive technology, giving developers a chance to use their own apps, either with vision impairment simulation glasses on, or using voiceover; voiceover with the screen curtain on is a lot of fun. It’s important for people who don't realize that you can actually navigate without being able to see the screen and only being able to hear. So, making them use their own apps, and their own technology for people who are developing that sort of thing is a really powerful thing to do to give them that experience.

“We also want to work with people who aren’t Telstra employees, but who have a close relationship with us – the security guards at our offices, for example. They need to learn how to support people who visit our offices who have disabilities. Yes, guide dogs are allowed. Service dogs are allowed. Someone might need a guide. Someone with a wheelchair might need to know where the accessible entrance is if there are stairs at the front of the building.

“The implementation of the plan is very much driven by me. I can't say I'm the only one working on it because I do have advocates out there in the company, and there are a lot of people who are supportive of the message, but the responsibility does lie fairly and squarely with me. I'm more than happy to either be doing the overall strategy for how we're going to build this into 2020, or meeting with security guards to talk about guide dog etiquette. It's a wide and varied job and I love it.

“Regarding review processes for the plan, we have to report yearly through our sustainability reporting. We also have an audit of the plan and the results, and I'm keen to make sure that it’s a transparent process, and that if we're not doing as well as we should be that we are calling it out.

“We will collect feedback from representative groups. We do a yearly survey of stakeholders, which includes disability-representative groups and those that we're working with. We'll also have an external party come in and do an audit of the plan. So rather than the inmates running the asylum, so to speak, someone else will come in and hopefully let us know we’ve done a good job.

“This plan isn’t just a document that says, ‘This is what we're already doing.’  It's meant to be aspirational. I've tried to include some of that aspiration in the plan so that we can continue to build on what we’re already doing. We're not simply after minimum requirements. Everyone seems to assume that things like building codes and the building regulations will tick the boxes for accessibility requirements, but that’s not enough.”

 “For Telstra, the Innovate for the Future section of our plan looks to a couple of important key issues. One of those is about standards of accessibility and inclusion for native apps. There are a number of guidelines out there – web accessibility guidelines, people touching on native app accessibility – but very few people actually give you a usability and an inclusion sense. No one is holding people accountable regarding inclusive design.

“There are people who have different needs. Someone who is left-handed has different needs in apps than someone who is right-handed. But that’s an inclusion thing, it’s not a disability thing. By taking the concept of inclusive apps and trying to develop some usable standards that give you the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’, who it benefits and why, is something that we're looking to develop. We want it to be something that benefits the whole community. It's going to be open source so anyone can use it. We want to say okay, get on board and make your apps accessible to everybody.”

I was interested to know if Telstra hoped to influence the broader corporate or community sectors through the inclusion plan.

“I’m hoping that the profile of what Telstra is doing can raise the profile of the conversation, if nothing else. The fact that Telstra is so prominent might sound a bit esoteric and all sort of highfalutin and all the rest of it. But that does have real benefit on the ground.

“We want to be able to speak to banks, energy companies and other corporates and say ‘Hey, this is what we're doing’, and challenge them to be part of that. There are some strong corporate relationships and they're really important to making sure that we're all keeping each other accountable for our service, our products and our processes. I think the community benefit is one of overall engagement, awareness, and bringing accessibility issues to the fore – to say that it's not good enough and we are doing something about it. Everyone else should come on that journey with us.”

If you would like to provide feedback on the Disability Inclusion Plan, or other Telstra accessibility issues, please email [email protected]telstra.com. For advice on Telstra’s disability products and services, call 1800 068424, TTY 133677, or email [email protected].

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