What comes to mind when you hear the word disability? Many things I would imagine. It’s a word with many connotations and history behind it. But does poverty come to mind? For many of us it doesn’t. The truth is, adults with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty and nearly 70% of the nearly 20.8 million people with disabilities of working age in the United States are unemployed.

This problem has flown largely under the radar across the United States – but not in New York City. Realizing the depth of the problem and the opportunity for the business community, Martha Jackson, Assistant Commissioner, Employment and Business Development, New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, decided to do something about it.

Inspired by a talk given at a conference, a staff member from Cisco’s Life Changer program, an employment program for individuals with disabilities, provided Martha with a vision that a similar program could be implemented in New York City. In eight quick months, the abilITy Cisco Networking Academy – the first IT training program for people with disabilities in the country – was born in September 2018.

“Thirty-four percent of the nearly one million New York City residents with disabilities live in poverty and 79% of them are not in the workforce. This is unacceptable. We see the disabled community as an untapped talent pipeline and the abilITy Cisco Networking Academy is a game changer,” said Martha.

The abilITy Cisco Networking Academy is a six-month intensive networking technology education program that uses Cisco’s Networking Academy curricula, adapted to serve people with disabilities. Using a cohort model, the program provides hands-on training to 20 students at a time. Students learn to configure and support Cisco devices as well as a broad-based understanding of networking security concepts.

The abilITy’s adapted curriculum is built around preparing students with the skills they need to successfully pass the Cisco certification exam and obtain full-time employment. Once students have completed the coursework, they move onto paid internships at New York City companies that have demonstrated a strong interest in employing people with disabilities, such as Cisco, Simons Foundation, NYC Transit, and others. Now, just over a year later, two cohorts have graduated, with the newest cohort of students achieving their Cisco certifications before the last day of class.

Early on, the Mayor’s office knew they needed to engage experts in the field and partnered with the Institute for Career Development (ICD) in New York City to run the program. IDC has a 100-year history of helping people with disabilities transform their lives through career development and employment.

“ICD’s vision is that everyone with a disability has abilities, and technology can be the great leveler. By providing our participants with tools such as assistive technology that allow them to be successful, we are ensuring that a disability can be a proud part of people’s identity,” says Susan Scheer, CEO, ICD. “Our services and programs take advantage of our students’ strengths to transform their lives through meaningful jobs with growth potential. We know that employment is not only a source of financial resources, but also a chance to be fully included in all aspects of society.”

Triet Le, instructor, abilITy Cisco Networking Academy

abilITy Students and Instructors

“Our students vary in disability – learning, mental, physical. Any disability you could imagine,” explains Triet Le, instructor, abilITy Cisco Networking Academy. “We find that students come to the program not just to get a paycheck, but eventually to change their lives. Some students have never worked and the opportunity to break into the high-paying IT industry is giving them the opportunity to create an independent life for themselves.”

No one knows this better than Fern Smith, an abilITy Cisco Networking Academy student in the second cohort.

Fern Smith, an abilITy Cisco Networking Academy student

“I was struck by a car and have been out of work for nine years now. Being physically disabled, I have some challenges obtaining work,” said Fern. “I found the ICD’s vocational services program and that’s when my life started to change. After a series of rigorous tests, they suggested I take the abilITy training program. It felt like a great fit. I’ve always been a tech enthusiast and was looking for career where I could make a difference.”

Each class or cohort is unique. Every student has different challenges that have stopped them from having a career or moving forward in their careers. To ensure each student is learning in a way that’s best for them, the instructors use a wide variety of teaching methods, including visual games, repetition techniques, and mapping practices. And knowing that students learn at different speeds, they do not move forward until everyone is ready.

“Teaching at abilITy is very rewarding. What I attempt to do on a daily basis is not only provide our students with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful, but a feeling of independence,” says Triet.

“There is a sense of community and camaraderie in the class. We are helping each other through the different tests,” says Fern. “Some of us are helping each other with soft skills too. A lot of us really love the computer, but not so much public speaking and things like that. But in order to obtain the jobs we want, we need the soft skills. Thankfully, the program not only covers the technical side of things, but the career ready skills that we need to be successful.”

Given the success of the abilITy Cisco Networking Academy, the Cisco Networking Academy launched a similar program this month in Lansing, Michigan. To date the cohort includes seven students from a wide range of backgrounds and disabilities, including a US Army Veteran, a former police analyst, and a high school student who is legally blind.

Cisco is deeply committed to an inclusive future for all and is proud to be developing programs like New York City’s abilITy Cisco Networking Academy throughout the globe. Cisco’s Networking Academy plays an integral role in this commitment and has as its goal to be the best workforce development program in the world, empowering all people with the opportunity to be economically sustainable.


Marie Zwickert

Business Development Manager, Cisco Networking Academy

Corporate Affairs