By John M. Williams Students at the Rochester Institute for the Deaf might have a Cisco Systems career in their future. The high-tech juggernaut is looking to set up a recruiting relationship with the technical training departments of the school as part of an ongoing push to hire more disabled employees.
Sounds like a nice press release. But this initiative is hardly a token effort. In fact, Cisco is not only a Nasdaq bellwether but also a leader in recruiting and employing the disabled. The San Jose (Calif.)-based company, which makes the computer routers that direct traffic on the Internet, also recruits disabled employees through disability organizations, including regional groups such as Project Hired,
TransAccess, Sensory Access, and national groups such as the National Disability Business Council.
In fact, the company recently took the extra step of developing and implementing its own curriculum for teaching disability etiquette and outreach techniques to Cisco recruiters. The aim was to increase their ability to communicate effectively and comfortably with disabled potential hires. Bottom line? Cisco gets it when it comes to working with the disabled.
CUSTOMER ADVANTAGE. Cisco's logic here is simple. Employees with disabilities are good for business. They add diversity to a workforce, something that Cisco CEO John Chambers has long trumpeted as a factor in improved productivity and creativity. Furthermore, some of the company's customers have disabled employees. So acclimating Cisco's workers to professional contact with disabled workers inside the company has the added benefit of enabling them to work productively with Cisco clients.
"We have employees with disabilities, and we have customers with employees with disabilities whose information needs must be met. As a result, we do our best to accommodate their communications needs," says Nancy Cruz, who oversees Cisco's disability policies and recruiting efforts.
That's a nice sound bite. But truth is, Cisco really practices what it preaches. I spoke to dozens of people and could not find anyone who had bad things to say about the company with regard to its efforts to both employ and accommodate disabled workers. Here are some examples of how Cisco puts its money where its mouth is.
It has taken pains to keep its Web site completely accessible, a rarity in the tech field, where Byzantine sites often frustrate screen-reading software. And it is moving toward even further accessibility by integrating audio and video files into the recruiting portion of Cisco.com. "We do not use frames on our Web pages, which are what makes it difficult for someone using screen-reader technology to translate," says Cruz.
PROACTIVE APPROACH. The company also maintains a pool of TDD (text teletype) devices for use on an on-call basis by its deaf and hearing-impaired employees. That's a solid proactive step to ensure that these employees can work in any part of the company and still find a key communications tool at their fingertips. These extra efforts do make a difference. Just ask Lee Mudrock. A hearing-impaired electrical engineer at Cisco, Mudrock claims the company provides him with everything he needs, including a TDD and other assistive-tech tools. "Having been here several years, I know Cisco is really interested in my abilities. I have everything I need for my job," he says.
Mudrock's view is backed up by former Cisco employees with disabilities. Take Cheryl Mitchler, who has cerebral palsy with a severe speech impediment. People with this condition often have tremendous difficulty obtaining work due to the dual impairments to their speech and mobility. She worked at Cisco from 1997 through 1999 as a systems engineer and left the company to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering at the prestigious University of California, Los Angeles. "My supervisors bought me all the technology I needed and never asked me why. I felt like a very valued employee," says Mitchler, who has no regrets from her Cisco years.
Job-placement agencies for the disabled that work with Cisco say the company has a similarly proactive approach to recruiting. Unlike other tech businesses, Cisco regularly comes to these agencies in search of workers. Usually it's the other way around, with the agencies spending most of their time beating the bush for potential employers, says Karen Kuczler, a counselor at Santa Clara, Calif., nonprofit Project Hired.
DRIVEN BY THE BOSS. To be sure, many other technology companies have laudable programs to hire and accommodate disabled workers. Both Microsoft and IBM have won acclaim in the disability community for hiring and supporting disabled workers. But Cisco is unlike those two in that it conducts most of its business with telecom and data companies, not consumers. For Microsoft, accessibility technology could be a future tool to attract aging Baby Boomers who are losing their hearing or vision. IBM has similar contact with consumers. For Cisco, the rationale behind its move to include the disabled, although smart business, is less obvious.
Part of Cisco's drive likely has come from CEO Chambers, who himself is dyslexic. And under Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, companies bear a legal responsibility to ensure that their hiring practices and workplaces are accessible to the disabled. Cisco sees that as an opportunity. "Companies will have to employ more disabled people to meet the accessibility requirements of 508. The best testers and developers of assistive-technology hardware, software, and accessibility issues are disabled people," says Cruz.
How many Lee Mudrocks has Cisco hired? That remains unclear, as the company declines to divulge how many disabled people it employs. Numbers of disabled employees in the tech sector as a whole are likewise murky, but possibly in the thousands. Project Hired's Kuczler says, though, that she regularly places workers with Cisco.
Thus far, the company has failed to promote anyone with disabilities into the very top executive ranks. That's not unusual, however. Few technology companies have taken that step -- a glass ceiling still blocks the executive suites of Silicon Valley. Perhaps Cisco can set a standard there, too, by hiring the first top exec with a disability. It would be a crowning achievement for a company that has already thrown its doors open wide to the disabled. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.
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