We've all been excluded and made to feel less-than. And, we've all had someone stick up for us and make us feel like we belong. We've all had opportunities to step out of our comfort zone and be an ally for people who need our support. Culture doesn't happen to us; we create culture.
In today's Culture Spotlight, Sandeep K. shares his thoughts on navigating the world with a hearing impairment, making human-to-human connections, what it means to truly be an ally, and why we all need to feel like we’re included.
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Please share an experience from your personal or professional life when you were excluded. How did that affect you?
When I was fifteen years old, I got afflicted with a sensory-neural hearing impairment. The only way out for me was to lipread. Rather than get dejected, I studied with double the vigor and I got private tutoring because it's easy to lipread one-on-one. This ensured my grades never dropped in high school. However, it was a different story pursuing my Bachelors in Engineering. I found it very hard to lipread my college professors in a class with nearly one hundred students. I had always ranked in the top three all throughout school, and now I was struggling to get passing grades in the Semesters. Private tutoring was banned in college so none of my professors could offer additional support. Disheartened, I approached the college principal to explain my situation and asked to be granted an exception. I got a firm “no.” I feared that I would fail in my exams and he said, "That's your problem to solve. You cannot have private tutoring."
I was utterly dejected. I was on the verge of crying, holding my semester marksheet that had an “F”. I wanted to quit engineering. The daily struggle of trying to follow what the professors said and not being able to understand a word of it left me with crazy thoughts swarming in my head! My confidence was down and my self-worth was at an all-time low. Then I thought, You become disabled only when you lose your confidence. Whenever you are challenged, there are always two roads that appear: to quit or to persist.
As I sat desolated on the steps holding my marksheet, a gentle hand landed on my shoulders, passing a chit that read: “From tomorrow, sit next to me in class and copy notes from me.” I looked up to see the top ranked girl looking back at me, smiling and waving a thumbs up. That moment was one of the most defining moments of my life. I converted the “F” to an “A”.
The best way to make a human-to-human connection is to ask for help.
Please share an experience when you were included but noticed that someone else was left out. How did that affect you?
The best way to make a human-to-human connection is to ask for help. It’s amazing to discover that people are actually much nicer than they appear to be. Barring one or two singular incidents, I’ve been fortunate to always feel included, courtesy of the amazing people around me. Everywhere I go, people welcome me with open arms. In any meeting or conference, I always find someone who is more than happy to transcribe for me – sometimes even total strangers.
Having struggled immensely during my Engineering years, I yearned to create an accessible, barrier-free, and inclusive higher education for Students with Disabilities (SwDs). I reached out and became an official volunteer with a Chennai-based Ability Foundation in early 2016 and was tasked with enrolling SwDs in their scholarship program. In May 2016, I began visiting schools for SwDs enrolling their students in the Ability Foundation-Sathyabama University Scholarship Programme. This program allows SwDs to get a full scholarship in their undergraduate degree with the university, and provides them free accommodation. Most of all, this program empowered them with accessible and inclusive classrooms – something I longed for during my college years.
After the screening test, fifteen hearing impaired girl students were shortlisted for the scholarship. Their parents had tears of gratitude in their eyes and showered blessings upon me. Fast forward to August 2019. I got a text from the school teacher that all fifteen girls in the batch of 2016 had secured their bachelor’s degree, and one student secured a distinction in the final semester. I couldn’t have been happier. Since my move to Pune in 2017, I continue to do this work, and so far 42 students have benefitted from this wonderful scholarship program.
What role does allyship play in creating a more inclusive culture at Symantec?
On May 17, 2016 an email broadcasted to the Chennai site landed in my inbox. It was about IDAHOT and spoke of inclusion for LGBTQ+ employees, and said we could collect SymPRIDE stickers from a certain cube to express our visible support. Knowing little about the LGBTQ+ community, I went to the designated cube with a bit of hesitation. This was the beginning of my friendship with Moulee, which opened a plethora of learning opportunities for me. He helped me network with fellow D&I professionals, which formed the groundwork for creating and launching the SymABLED ERG to eventually launching it.
To me, allyship is a way of life, a philosophy to embrace and incorporate into everyday life.
When the SymPRIDE India chapter celebrated its first anniversary, I assisted Moulee and got a first-hand experience of being an LGBTQ+ ally. I had become an ally even without knowing about it. To me, allyship is a way of life, a philosophy to embrace and incorporate into everyday life. See a visually-impaired person? Volunteer to become a buddy to help them move around. See a person struggling with a wheelchair? Volunteer to help them. Notice a LGBTQ person being excluded? Gently let them know that you are an Ally and willing to help. Do these things because they are the right things to do. Allyship generates an immense internal feel-good feeling. Allyship makes your life and the world around you beautiful, one step at a time.
What motivates you to work towards an inclusive culture at Symantec?
I left the comforts of my home to begin my career in a faraway place with a new culture, a new language, and new food habits at a small but distinctly humane company – a company that didn’t have an “Equal Opportunity Employer” tagline on its careers page, but was truly and totally inclusive, inside out and outside in. The sense of belonging that I felt and still feel is beyond words.
Since it was my first job, I had a hell of a lot to learn. It was there that I got my first brush with diversity (again without knowing about it – D&I wasn’t a thing back then). I learned most of the company’s coding standards from a brilliant guy who was speech and hearing impaired, yet would clarify my doubts better than anyone else. I learned a lot of programming tricks from a person with a near total visual disability. He would also beat us all every single time we played a game of chess. I was just amazed at the human potential I saw there. It felt a like a beautiful, diverse, inclusive family there!
In the early years of a child’s life, they yearn to be appreciated and included by their parents. In teenage years, it’s all about being included by friends. In work years, it’s about being included and respected by colleagues, and later by a life partner. Even in retirement years, one yearns to be included by other retirees. A human being’s entire life journey is but a journey of inclusion, and inclusion is what makes this life worth living. What do I get by being inclusive? What do I get by being an ally? What’s in it for me? The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen, touched, or counted. They can only be felt within. Inclusion is what makes a human a humane being!
The Culture Spotlight series illuminates what culture means to us as individuals so we can collectively create the culture that supports us all.
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