Imagine you are 17 years old, you live in Kenya, and you are deaf. In this part of the world, deaf and disabled people are considered “cursed.” Your family is ashamed of you. You can’t communicate with them or with anyone else. Nor can you go to school, see a doctor, get a job, or make friends. You are alone, with little hope that your life will ever change. Now, imagine being able to personally help teenagers like this, without even leaving your office building.
Karim Remu, a Cisco systems engineer in Toronto, is doing it — by mentoring a group of deaf students who participate in a Cisco Networking Academy program in Nairobi, Kenya designed just for them. If you aren’t already familiar with Cisco Networking Academy, it is a global program that teaches students how to design, build, manage, and secure computer networks. Networking Academy helps fill a mounting demand for network professionals worldwide, and also provides a path to a career and financial independence for participants.
But the Networking Academy for deaf students in Kenya goes beyond that: It brings young deaf people out of isolation and gives them hope for a better life.
The program began in 2009, when Cisco partnered with a non-governmental organization called Deaf Aid to help young deaf people develop information and communication (ICT) technology skills.
As a mentor, Karim and two colleagues go to their office early in the morning to meet with the students — who have traveled by foot or public transit to the Cisco office in Nairobi – via Cisco TelePresence video conferencing solution.
On a recent morning, the students crowded around the TelePresence conference table in Nairobi; they introduced themselves in sign language before asking questions through their instructor and an interpreter. They were curious about differences in the various Internet operating systems (IOS) they had been reading about.
Karim and his colleague Craig Henriquez explained how the Cisco IOS evolved – and shared the fact that it is among the top three operating systems worldwide. Occasionally, the students asked Karim and Craig to slow down for translation and lip reading.
Karim, who was born in Kenya, said he and his colleagues started off as a technical resource, but have morphed into more of a mentorship role, encouraging and motivating the students.
“The feedback we get from the kids is what keeps us coming back,” Karim said. “They thanked us individually and told us we encouraged them to continue moving forward. To hear that from each one of the kids was heart-wrenching.”
It took a long time to reach this point, where deaf students could engage in technical conversations with experienced Cisco systems engineers half a world away. For example, just recruiting students for the first class back in 2009 was a challenge, due largely to the societal preconceptions about deaf people.
“Because of the stigma, nobody was allowing the students to come out,” explained Hital Muraj, Cisco Networking Academy manager for East and North Africa. “We got help from people in the community who are deaf and have done well, like church leaders.”
Eventually 20 students were recruited. But about a week into the course, everyone realized the Kenyan sign language (which Deaf Aid had previously worked with the country’s government to develop) didn’t include technology terms. For example, a sign for “computer” didn’t exist, and the only way to sign LAN (local area network) was to spell the individual letters, and that didn’t convey the word’s meaning.
Hital contacted universities and organizations around the world to find a sign language dictionary of ICT terminology, but it didn’t exist. So, the students created their own. They worked in small groups to create a library of 52 signs specifically for the Networking Academy curriculum.
“My group might say a computer is a box, then your group would say it’s a box that can type,” Hital explained. “Another group would say it’s a box that can type and has a brain, and they would take the three concepts and come up with one sign that says ‘computer.’” Subsequent students continue adding to the lexicon as needed.
“We told them they are pioneers,” Karim said of the current students he is mentoring. “Ten years from now, other students will be … saying they laid the groundwork to bring technology equality to those who are hearing impaired.”
Hital reports that 79 students have participated in the Deaf Aid Networking Academy coursework since 2009; 52 already have jobs, including six who were hired as Networking Academy instructors. Many have moved out of their family homes, rented their own places, and made friends with other deaf people.
“I’ve known many of them for a long time,” Hital said of the Networking Academy participants. “Many of them used to be locked up in their own houses. They didn’t have friends. Now, they interact with people like them. All of a sudden they are able to go out. All of a sudden they are no longer alone.”
Twelve thousand kilometers away, Karim has only met the students on a video screen, but he still takes pride in their accomplishments.
“The personal satisfaction that comes out of every session we do … you can’t believe how good it feels to give back to these kids,” he said. “There is a massive sense of satisfaction that you are helping a good group of kids who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity.”
See more videos and read about Cisco’s other efforts to help people, communities, and the planet and in our 2011 Corporate Social Responsibility Report.