Feature Story

Paving the Way for People with Disabilities

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Employee Helps Cisco Meet Accessibility Standards

October 08, 2007

By Terry Timm Moos, News@Cisco

Daniel Tang is one busy Cisco employee. When he is not meeting with customers, he is working with fellow engineers, testing products, attending national conferences, teaching classes, or consulting on regulatory issues. What makes his situation unique is that he is blind.

Tang, Accessibility Specialist, CCIE# 3681, is part of Cisco's Accessibility Group, which oversees the development of guidelines for the company to ensure that products, Websites, and documentation are accessible and usable by everyone, including those with disabilities.

Accessibility issues affect Cisco employees and the employees of customers. Nearly 20 percent of the worldwide population copes with some type of disability, which is why Cisco devotes time, resources, and energy into companywide accessibility programs to make an impact in the lives of people around the world. Last year, Cisco was honored with the prestigious Helen Keller Achievement Award from The American Foundation for the Blind for being an industry leader in addressing accessibility in products for people with vision loss.

From Hong Kong to the United States

Tang grew up in Hong Kong, losing his sight when he was only 6 years old. "When I was young, educational opportunities established for the visually disabled were nonexistent," he says. "I had to devise a means to get an education."

Tang learned to speak English and was able to take the London University general exam in braille. The exam is available to all British citizens, including U.K. students and those who live in the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly British Commonwealth). "I was the first person with a visual disability in Hong Kong to take the London University exam," Tang says.

"At first, I wanted to attend the Royal Physical Therapy School for the blind, which involved three years of training, but my concern was that if I, after a year or two, discovered that physical therapy could not captivate my career interest, the credits earned were not transferable to a different field," he explains.

Tang met some American friends, who suggested that he consider getting a liberal arts education in the United States. He attended Middlebury College in Vermont and received a bachelor's degree in math and economics. He later got his master's degree in computer science.

His career at Cisco started in 1995. As a contractor, Tang worked in the Technical Assistance Center (TAC), where he helped people configure routers and handled other troubleshooting duties.

"I was very interested in the Internet," he says. "At that time, people didn't know its full potential, but I could sense an explosion was going to come-and it would be worldwide."

He became a full-time employee two years later. He also holds a CCIE certification, which is highly-regarded in the industry.

Paving the Way for People with Disabilities

"I was first involved in technical issues with pending sales," Tang says. "Cisco had an opportunity with Sacramento County, but our competitor (Avaya) had their equipment on site."

Mark Wilkinson, director of accessibility for the state of California, wanted to be sure that Cisco equipment was accessible, so he was invited to visit Cisco to learn about the equipment. Tang hosted Wilkinson and also spoke with him on the phone four times, ensuring that Wilkinson, who is also blind, was aware of all the available features. Cisco got the contract, and Tang was invited to join the Accessibility team.

"The value I add through my own disability can help solve a lot of problems," Tang says. "I have been able to resolve many issues on my own." Tang uses his own reading machine that converts text to speech, as well as a braille device that connects to the computer and converts contents from the screen for window slides (left and right). He has braille and voice output.

At the Accessibility Lab, which opened in San Jose in 2004, customers can see firsthand the demonstrations of accessibility. "These are usually high-profile customers," Tang says. "We do executive briefings, and I host visits there with both external and internal audiences."

Tang often speaks to customers with disabilities. They trust his explanations because he can relate to their needs. Some of Cisco's biggest customers include state and federal government agencies, and many of these agencies require vendors to have accessibility integrated within their products.

"The Veterans Administration and Defense Department, for example, work with large numbers of disabled people," Tang says. "When they have problems with product accessibility, I can help. Often others cannot relate to the details."

A regulatory requirement is that products be tested by people with disabilities, so Tang helps evaluate products for accessibility and audits them.

"When engineering conceives a product definition document, we introduce a process for accessibility at the beginning," he says. "There is a template we follow-I audit these and alert them if there is an issue. Accessibility is being built into the products that Cisco develops, which is much better than retrofitting products later."

Representing Cisco and Helping Others

Tang represents Cisco at conferences, including the past few years at Interagency Disability Educational Awareness Showcase (IDEAS), the U.S. federal government's annual event on Section 508, presented by U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).

He also actively participates in the International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, the longest-running and largest annual university-sponsored conference on technology and persons with disabilities. "This conference hosts vendors for all kinds of disabilities-hearing, visual, and dexterity-and showcases people with ideas for accessibility, because it is so important in the workplace," Tang says.

He teaches a class of screen reading applications that convert text to speech. For test engineers, they can learn how to use the screen and read for testing.

"Basically, I help people solve problems," Tang concludes. "I had to help myself. The sighted have classes to teach them, using white boards with diagrams and so forth. I learn the information and produce a mental picture of the diagrams in my mind."

Terry Timm Moos is a freelance journalist located in Seattle, WA.