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Disability and Technical Expertise from Cisco interns

December 2, 2011 - 1 Comment

“When I first got here, the [intern] orientation was talking about all business stuff…supply chain..and I’m a computer science major, and I was thinking, uh-oh, I’m in the wrong place.” Kelley Duran said as we settled down to talk about her internship here at Cisco.  Her classmate Samuel Sandoval had the same reaction: Honestly, I thought I was in [the] wrong group since I’m in IT [information technology]”

Internships are a great way for students to make the connection between their studies and the business world.  Combining education with practical application through internships means an easier transition into the workforce after college.  Even better is when education and personal expertise are both channeled into the right internship.

Kelley and Samuel are studying Computer Science and Information Technology respectively at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. I sat down with Kelley, Samuel and their Cisco mentor Shraddha Chaplot to get their thoughts on how to create a successful internship program for college students with hearing disabilities.

Samuel Sandoval, Shraddha Chaplot and Kelley Duran spell Cisco in American Sign Language at Cisco Headquarters

Internship Projects

Samuel and Kelley interned for 11 weeks in Cisco’s Software Engineering Accessibility team.  The Cisco Accessibility team is focused on ensuring Cisco products are accessible and usable by people with disabilities, whether by design or through compatible use with assistive technology.

Samuel worked as a lead developer for real time text chat on the jabber client and Cius, Cisco’s tablet. Real time text chatting allows you to see text as it’s being typed, rather than after the sender has hit the “return” key.  It allows for a more interactive experience as you can sense the mood of the person who is typing: speed, typos, etc.

Kelley’s project scoped ways to caption Telepresence video conferences to allow persons with hearing disabilities or persons operating in a second language to read conversations in real-time during a video conference. 278 million people worldwide are deaf or hard of hearing. In the U.S. workforce, 8 million people are deaf or hard of hearing. There is a clear market opportunity for this functionality.

Kelley found the environment at Cisco welcoming and the projects compelling: “I felt they gave us projects that applied our skills and knowledge of deaf people. I think people here are really willing to learn, and that’s how I felt when I got here, that people wanted to learn about me and deaf people, wanted to know how to improve and what to do.”

Set-up for Success

Hardware Engineer Shraddha Chaplot started preparing for Kelley and Samuel’s arrival about 6 months in advance—so, if you’re looking at preparing for summer 2012 interns, now is a great time to start! Shraddha worked on creating an infrastructure of support: translation as well as coworker readiness.

Shraddha kicked off video meetings with Samuel and Kelley to establish a good working relationship. She learned the basics of American Sign Language (ASL) and Samuel and Kelley expressed their communication preferences.  Kelley is very comfortable lip reading; they both have an order of preference for translation services: in-person interpreting, instant messaging and then video relay interpreting (VRI).

In-person interpreting is when you have an interpreter in the room with you during conversations translating ASL to spoken English and back.  Shraddha advised:“If it’s an hour of presentations, you usually need two interpreters who can switch off every 15 minutes as it’s extremely tiring to be doing live translation for long periods.” Also of note, Kelley and Samuel found the quality of interaction with meeting participants was higher through instant messaging than having an interpreter on video(VRI.)

Shraddha also began letting her co-workers know about the interns coming on-board early in the process.  They began with learning how to sign “Happy holidays” and the Cisco motto, “Changing the way we live, work, play and learn.”

Before they arrived, Kelley and Samuel put together an introductory video with subtitles which covered the different ways to communicate with them.  I found it useful to get some coaching from Shraddha on how to have a conversation using an interpreter. Here’s what I learned: Chatting with Kelley, I made eye contact with her and not the interpreter the entire time.It was strange to be hear someone’s voice in my ear and not be looking at the speaker. Similarly, though I was looking at Kelley when I spoke to her, she was looking slightly off to the side so she could see the interpreter sign my comments.  It took a little getting used to.

Day to Day Workplace Dynamics

From a day-to-day perspective, Kelley and Samuel felt it was important to have a minimum of two interns conversant in ASL. “Imagine me working all day without talking to anyone,” said Samuel.  Sometimes, communicating is tough.  “We chat a lot during the day, not everyone knows sign language” said Kelley. They also felt it was critical to be co-located with a mentor.

In addition to providing a little more lead time to schedule meetings (to allow interpreters to be scheduled), Kelley mentioned “one [piece of ] advice we give to other people is not to expect everything to work, sometimes the interpreter does not show up, sometimes video quality is bad and prevents video relay interpreting. People need to understand that.”

Samuel added, “one thing I was thinking would be really good was if all the people in the office took an ASL class.”

Kelley and Samuel at the end-of-internship presentations

The Cisco Intern Experience

Kelley and Samuel immersed themselves fully in the Cisco intern experience. Among the fun activities: the interns all ventured out to a gun range! They attended intern lunches, meet-and-greets with executives and participated in the intern case competition where they presented business plans to a judging panel.

Did their internships give them a taste of the corporate life? Yes. Says Kelley: “Don’t think you’re gonna have a desk job. You’re gonna have to do stuff, give presentations and make an impression all the time.” What Kelley and Samuel took away from their time at Cisco is what we hope all of our interns do: great academics are a solid foundation to your professional life.  The ability to communicate effectively, influence others and understand business impacts are what will take you to the next level.

Related Links

United Nations International Day for Persons with Disabilities: Dec 3

Disability Matters with Pamela Dirks-Burke

Cisco University Connection

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  1. I too am hearing impaired. 70% hearing loss and I was so pleased to read the interns felt welcomed and Cisco had accomodated their needs. Meetings, telepresence, webex conferences can be extremely difficult for those with hearing impairments and presents challenges, especially when everyone talks at once. Thank you meeting their needs.