As Senior Vice President of Cisco’s Advanced Security Research & Government group, Greg Akers is focused on building technology relationships with academia and other organizations to develop technical approaches to cybersecurity problems. But as a 24-year veteran with the company, Akers is uniquely positioned to bring the right Cisco talent together to create unique solutions for business and technical challenges.
Can you tell us a bit about Cisco’s Connected Disability Awareness Network (CDAN)?
CDAN is one of our employee resource organizations (EROs) at Cisco. It provides support for employees who may have a family member with a disability, or who are differently abled themselves. My interest in the group stemmed from the fact that my daughter, who is developmentally delayed, was graduating from college and I was lamenting the fact that I didn’t think there were many career paths that were obvious for her. Out of curiosity, I reached out to the People with Disabilities group at Cisco, which is what it was called back then. Well, my curiosity turned into a 10-year stint as CDAN’s executive co-sponsor.
Over the years, I’ve become very passionate about this group, and we’ve been successful in growing the organization. We have actively expanded into APJC and EMEAR, and some years back we merged with the Cisco Parents of Children with Disabilities group. They are still a very active sub-group of CDAN, and recently sponsored a “bring your special needs child to work” day in the UK and on our Raleigh campus. In addition to their outreach and fundraising efforts, they offer parents support and provide a perspective on what they can expect in their children’s lives.
How can companies help to accommodate differently abled employees?
There are two important principles that are applied in special education these days – create the least restrictive environment possible and be as inclusive as possible. I think companies should adopt these principles as well, and these are two areas where Cisco has brought a lot of focus. To foster innovation, you must integrate people with different perspectives and life experiences – and that pertains to employees with different abilities as well. Get familiar with people who are different than you are. Don’t isolate people based on their differences, but rather look for ways to integrate them. Start a dialog, and create broad inclusion in all aspects of the business.
How is Cisco using technology solutions to accommodate disabled workers?
Cisco has a lot of collaborative technology that provides accessibility for the disabled. One innovative solution, that our CDAN ERO actually helped bring to market, is Project LifeChanger. This program makes use of retired Cisco video collaboration technology to enable people to work remotely. This is a huge benefit for people who are dealing with mobility challenges or perhaps are not comfortable working in a traditional office setting. Project LifeChanger has enabled us to bring on disabled support engineers to work in our Technical Assistance Centers for example. They can connect with customers remotely while still being able to access audio and video enhancing tools, or other assistive technologies, from their desktops. We’re currently expanding Project LifeChanger, and other companies are starting to take notice. Several are now patterning their own programs after Project LifeChanger and using Cisco technology to do it.
What advice do you have for job seekers with different abilities who want to work in the tech industry?
Get comfortable and familiar with the assistive technologies you need to be productive. Don’t wait for someone from the company to come to you – do your research and be prepared to use the solutions that enable you and to demonstrate that it’s a normal part of your work environment. This is something I’ve had to do myself as I’m considered legally blind without my glasses. I use magnification on the computer all the time. In fact, the motions I use on my Mac for magnification have almost become rote for me. This is a very big part of my daily work experience. But I also do a lot of work in government spaces where that technology is not available, and that can be very difficult for me. So I have to get creative with technology. At times, I’ll use audio replay instead of visual files. Or I might use my camera to take a picture of something and enlarge it. My advice is to experiment with technology – even if you can’t even imagine how you would use it today, because you never know when that assistive technology might benefit you. Speech-to-text solutions are also a good example of an assistive technology that, while not 100-percent reliable, can definitely benefit many disabled workers. Explore different solutions, and proactively acquire skills with those assistive technologies that can help you.