Akshai Mallappa is a business manager for Cisco in India and a global lead for the company’s Connected Disability Awareness Network (CDAN). This employee group, which drives inclusion and accessibility initiatives for Cisco, helped to launch LifeChanger, a global program that harnesses the power of Cisco technologies to transform the lives of people with disabilities.
How did you become involved with Cisco’s Connected Disability Awareness Network (CDAN), and what sparked your interest?
I was introduced to CDAN about two years after I joined the company. At the time, I was looking to become part of one of Cisco’s Employee Resource Organizations (EROs) because I wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives and enrich my knowledge about how we can accept and include people with other abilities. I was a member for a few years and volunteered in several activities. It was an eye-opener, because I previously had no exposure. But I was able to understand many of the subtle needs and nuances of working with differently-abled employees. A few years later, I was asked to lead the India chapter of CDAN, and was nominated to be the global lead in 2014.
What are some of the CDAN activities that have had the greatest impact on employees?
We align many of our activities to flagship events like Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), which happens in May, and the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) in December. We go into high gear for these events by bringing in guest speakers who either have a disability or work with the disabled. We also host a hackathon (a fitting event for Cisco as a technology company) that creates a lot of excitement with tech savvy people and developers—even from other companies. We ask them to innovate around a solution for people with disabilities. In one case, we took the digital map of our building floor plan and had the hackers design a solution that worked like a GPS to guide people by voice command in a safe way around the office. We also create awareness about people with disabilities, sometimes bringing in non-profits that showcase goods made by people with disabilities, or hosting activities where employees can learn to empathize by experiencing what it might be like to have a disability.
Can you share more details about the programs where employees get to experience what it’s like for people with disabilities?
We have one event called Dining in the Dark, which is a great team-building event. It’s a dinner that is served by people who are visually impaired, with everybody in pitch black darkness. The diners have to depend on their sense of touch. It gives perspective about what it means to be visually impaired.
The response was extreme—one person was claustrophobic, another got a headache struggling to see. For most people, it was an “eye-opening” event and gave everyone a good understanding of how it would feel to be blind. Those who attended developed more empathy for their visually and hearing- impaired colleagues, and many were inspired to recruit differently-abled people to their teams to bring in more diversity.
What has being part of CDAN meant to you, and how has it shaped your perspective of Cisco as an organization?
I was pleasantly surprised by the level of involvement from multiple business functions, from the top leader on down. When people find out what CDAN is about, they tend to go all out to help us make things happen. We re- ceive tremendous support and encouragement for our plans and ideas to drive inclusion and diversity at Cisco.
How is CDAN making an impact globally for Cisco?
We have been recognized by industry- leading organizations for some of our efforts, like LifeChanger—a global program that makes use of Cisco teleconferencing tech- nology, flexible workplace policies, and an inclusive workforce culture to create more accessible work environments for people with disabilities. Our APJC region was recently recognized with a Disability Matters “Steps to Success” award.
Can you share a story of an employee who personally benefited from CDAN programs?
We have a blind employee who came to Cisco through LifeChanger. He went through a challenging journey to earn a degree but still could not find a job. Cisco provided the opportunity, and he is shining now as our first visually impaired CCNA (Cisco Certi- fied Network Associate). He is getting great feedback from both customers and his team. It is a true success story. It demonstrates that Cisco is making our company more inclusive and not limiting the view of diversity to race and gender, but including diverse people of all abilities.
What are some ways companies can address the unique needs of differently-abled employees?
The best way to get started with a program to engage people with disabilities is to share ideas. Most companies that are fierce compet- itors when it comes to business are very open to sharing their ideas and best practices around employing people with disabilities.
What advice do you have on how best to engage employees with disabilities?
I would say be bold and take the lead to get involved. Many companies have employee groups like CDAN. These groups bring together like-minded individuals who are looking to make a difference in people’s lives. The experience is very rewarding and ultimately enhances your own personal life. Participating in EROs makes us better employees and benefits our company and society as a whole.