Meeting basic needs under normal circumstances can be challenging. Add a global pandemic, and the complexities skyrocket. Now, imagine you also have a financial hardship (lose a job or have costly medical bills) or a disability, and it can be overwhelming. Thankfully, there are social service organizations that provide a priceless safety net.

An important social services organization in the United States is the New York City Department of Social Services (NYC DSS). It provides vital services to millions of residents in need from all backgrounds, cultures, and experiences in America’s largest city with a population of nearly 9 million. In the best of times, it is not an easy task.

Jennifer Shaoul, the Executive Director of Disability Affairs at the NYC DSS
Jennifer Shaoul, Executive Director of Disability Affairs at the NYC DSS

“More than three million people count on us each year to provide much-needed services, such as emergency food assistance, domestic violence support, and more. And the lockdown and subsequent economic downturn only made what we do even more critical,” says Jennifer Shaoul, the Executive Director of Disability Affairs at the NYC DSS.

With a budget of nearly $10 billion and a staff of 14,000, NYC DSS is responsible for more than 12 major public assistance programs, a range of job training efforts, homelessness prevention initiatives, and more–which the city operates in partnership with qualified not-for-profit social service organizations. Over the past several years, through various reforms, including the use of new technologies, the NYC DSS has modernized how New Yorkers access these benefits. During the pandemic specifically, as more New Yorkers found themselves in need of both food and cash assistance, it was necessary to adapt quickly to ensure and maintain access to these resources as the COVID-19 emergency unfolded.

Better employment opportunities for people with disabilities

Against this backdrop, New York City’s nearly one million persons with disabilities have experienced some of the most significant hardships–even prior to the pandemic, particularly when it comes to employment. Nationwide, they are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than those without a disability. And in New York City over 60 percent of working-age people with disabilities are either unemployed or not in the labor force, according to a recent report. The reason: societal barriers such as discrimination, limited access to education and employment, and lack of inclusion in social programs.

“It became apparent that we needed to do more for people with disabilities,” says Ms. Shaoul. “We not only needed to provide essential services, but also a pathway to meaningful job opportunities. To accomplish this, we teamed up with AHRC NYC and The Taft Foundation to launch the Partnership for Inclusive Internships (PII)–an inclusive program designed to provide valuable work experience to people with disabilities.”

Launched in 2019, Jennifer and her team would have no idea just how important the PII program would become. Thanks to close partnerships with various service providers across the city, the PII program has provided powerful real-world internship experiences for nearly 100 individuals with disabilities to date.

Joseph McDonald, who oversees ICD’s training program which works with Cisco's abilITy program
Joseph McDonald, ICD’s Organizational Co-Lead and Executive Director of Development and Communications

Equipping individuals with disabilities with in-demand IT skills

One such partnership is with the Institute for Career Development (ICD), a New York City-based non-profit that, for more than 100 years, has been helping New Yorkers with disabilities overcome barriers to employment and gain economic independence by offering leading-edge training and career services.

“At ICD, our vision is a world where all people feel welcome, included, and valued in the workplace and have equal opportunity to secure economic mobility. Since our founding in 1917, we’ve proudly served over a quarter of a million individuals with disabilities,” says Joseph McDonald, ICD’s Organizational Co-Lead and Executive Director of Development and Communications.

Among ICD’s training programs is its abilITy Cisco Academy, which is the first fully accessible computer networking certification program for New Yorkers with disabilities, founded in 2018, in partnership with the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

“Through our abilITy Cisco Academy, we are providing students with the skills and resources they need to pursue meaningful careers in IT. Integral to this are our partnerships with Cisco Networking Academy and NYC DSS, which are helping us to pave the way to a more inclusive and accessible landscape in the tech sector,” says Joseph McDonald.

Cisco Networking Academy graphic about our abilITy program
Cisco Networking Academy is committed to creating opportunities for everyone.

abilITy interns help solve NYC DSS’ IT issues

When the city went on lockdown in the heart of the pandemic–requiring massive adjustments in service delivery options to meet the community’s needs, which of course resulted in normal course-of-business challenges as the city implemented new IT solutions–the city and NYC DSS adapted its internship programs, too.

Ray Hui, AbilITy Academy Alumnus
Ray Hui, AbilITy Cisco Academy alumnus and NYC DSS intern

The abilITy Cisco Academy interns were well-positioned and prepared for this transition–and played a key role helping NYC DSS run smoothly during this period. They solved IT issues and provided tech support for employees who were working remotely and had computer problems. As a result, all NYC DSS’s employees successfully connected individuals in need with vital benefits and services.

To date, the PII program has employed nearly a dozen abilITy Cisco Academy alumni as interns from all five boroughs in the city.

“Helping solve NYC DSS’s IT issues, when city residents needed their services most, gave me such a sense of pride and confidence. Prior to joining abilITy Cisco Academy, I was working in the financial services industry as a call center associate with little hope of the vertical advancement I needed to sustain myself and my family financially,” says Ray, a former NYC DSS intern and abilITy Cisco Academy graduate. “After 15 years, I wanted to make a big change in my life for the better by pursuing technology as a career, not just another job. Today, thanks to my education from ICD and internship experience at NYC DSS, I’m living out my career aspirations as an IT Support Technician for Silverline and look forward to further growth opportunities in the future.”

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Sarah Hurd

Marketing Communications Content Specialist

Corporate Affairs