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Ottalingam didn’t let his disability stop him – Latest News

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In a world where people are constantly erecting barriers around you, Ottalingam Satyanarayanan says, it takes courage to not build one yourself. Which is why he refuses to let his life be defined by his struggle with a cascade of physical traumas, the most pernicious of which struck in the form of polio when he was merely 11 months old. The disease left him with severe paralysis in his right leg and a slightly withered left one. He underwent two surgeries in his teen years, but they only helped a little. He could not stand for long periods of time.

After high school, he was staring into an uncertain future. “I couldn’t be at a construction site as a civil engineer, or be up on my feet all day long in healthcare,” says the Chennaite who spent his formative years in Delhi. “I desperately wanted to find a career and live a normal adult life.”

It was the 80s. Computers were becoming popular in India. “When I saw people sitting at a computer all day, I realised it’s almost as if they didn’t have legs. That all you need is the right skills and a pair of hands,” he says. Armed with the latter, he decided to study computer science.

Unable to get into engineering, he ended up pursuing a Bachelor’s in physics. But after the course, he enrolled for a computer science programme at IISc Bangalore.

Ottalingam was still too dependent on people around him, and he realised they’re not going to be there forever. It was painful at first when he started venturing out on his own. The brave endeavour led to multiple injuries and fractures, but he didn’t give up. He was finally able to commute on his own. After graduating in 1987, he moved to the US to pursue Master’s from University of California, Santa Barbara.

There, with the help of friends, he bought a hand-controlled car, which completely turned his life around. For the first time, I could go wherever I wanted, says Ottalingam. “I never let my disability become a barrier, but it always existed. But once I started driving, 70% of it was destroyed.”

After his Master’s, he worked with a couple of tech firms in Silicon Valley before joining Cisco in 1999. Today, as the principal engineer of the collaboration technologies group at its Bengaluru office, Ottalingam plays a key role in managing its contact centre business unit.

“I’ll always be grateful to my family, friends and mentors who stuck with me through thick and thin,” he says.

If you get an opportunity, don’t hold back. Keep pushing yourself to the limits

Ottalingam Satyanarayanan, principal engineer, Cisco India

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