One of my favorite sayings from a dear friend of mine is “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – that way you can begin to understand their experience.” Most of us have heard a simpler version of this idiom, but I think it’s especially poignant today, International Day of Persons with Disabilities – a day to not only increase awareness of what people with disabilities experience, but to honor their experiences and achievements.
One billion people, or 15 percent of the world’s population, experience a disability, and rates of disability are increasing. Disabilities take many forms, including physical disability, autism spectrum disorder, vision impairment, and mental health conditions. People with disabilities are much more likely to live in poverty than persons without disabilities. In the United States alone, they are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than those without a disability. The reason: societal barriers such as discrimination, limited access to education and employment, and lack of inclusion in social programs.
Over twenty years ago, Cisco Networking Academy committed to empowering all students with career opportunities – including students with disabilities. Last year, we reached over 56,000 students with disabilities worldwide, including through 12 specialized programs, which are providing students with disabilities with the skills they need to pursue meaningful careers in IT. I had the great pleasure of talking with some of the instructors and students at these schools, and below are some highlights from our powerful conversations.
Cisco Networking Academy at Bredon School – United Kingdom
A small, private, secondary school located in the English countryside, Bredon School was established nearly 60 years ago and is dedicated to serving students with special education needs. Specifically, the school specializes in teaching students with dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome, dyscalculia, and many more identified educational needs. It became a Cisco Networking Academy in 2013 and features small class sizes to ensure students receive the kind of hands-on, specialized teaching required to create real, sustained progress. As a result, the school has a 100 percent success rate, with 60 percent going onto university and 40 percent becoming apprentices or junior technicians.
“Most of the students that come to Bredon School have had really bad experiences at mainstream schools. So much so that they refuse to go to school,” says Pierre Neethling, Cisco Networking Academy instructor at Bredon School. “We adapt all of our materials to meet the collective needs of our students and then fine tune it to each student… My favorite part of my job is when I see how they struggle to succeed. They change to think I can do something. Their whole lives turnaround. For most of the students a career didn’t even exist in their vocabulary – and then they found us.”
Lucas Kennedy, who has autism, began taking Networking Academy courses at Bredon School at age fourteen. Today he is a networking technician at Efar.
“When I started work, I could barely hold a conversation and I stuttered all the time. Now I’m having normal conversations,” says Lucas. “Networking Academy taught me how to look for answers. No one has it easy. You can’t let it (challenges) stop you from trying.”
Alex Jarisch graduated from Bredon School and took Networking Academy courses starting in 9th grade. Today he is an infrastructure apprentice at Charlton Networks and attends Gloucester College. Alex has dyslexia, autism, and dyscalculia.
“For me, dyslexia is the one that affected me the most. It’s more the spelling… Cisco Networking Academy definitely gave me opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. To be honest, without it my life path would be completely different,” says Alex.
Cisco Academy for the Vision Impaired (CAVI) – Australia
Established in 2001 at Curtin University in Australia by instructor Iain Murray, CAVI began as a short-term research project to teach five vision-impaired students IT skills. The project quickly expanded across Australia. Today, the program teaches close to 300 students annually from around the world through partnerships with organizations in India, Sri Lanka, The United Kingdom, South Africa, and Myanmar. The program teaches the following Networking Academy courses: IT Essentials, Network Essentials, Python, Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), and others as the demand arises, and has achieved a nearly 100 percent course completion success rate.
“In many countries around the world, there aren’t job opportunities for persons with disabilities – so for a lot of our students this is their only opportunity to make a living… What’s rewarding is that you hear back from your students and they’re running the companies,” says Iain.
Iain’s close relationship with his brother set him on the road to a long career helping people with disabilities. His brother Gordon was born blind after his mother contracted the virus Rubella.
abilITy Academy – United States
A partnership with the Institute for Career Development (ICD) in New York City, the abilITy Cisco Networking Academy is a six-month intensive cybersecurity education program that uses Networking Academy curricula with a cohort model, providing hands-on training to twenty students at a time. Students in the program have a wide range of disabilities.
AbilITy’s curriculum is built around preparing students for CCNA Security certification, giving them the skills to harden Cisco devices and firewalls, as well as a providing them with a broad-based understanding of security concepts. Once students have completed their training, they go on to paid internships in the New York City area with the program’s business sponsors, including companies such as Cisco, Simons Foundation, and NYC Transit. Now in its second year, the program has begun its fifth cohort.
“This has proved to be quite a year. Our students, staff, and partners have proven up to the task as we have graduated our most successful cohort yet, during the pandemic,” says Triet Le, instructor, abilITy Academy. “Remote learning proved a test that we excelled at. The students were up to the new experience of connecting to a remote classroom from a safe but isolated space. This will serve them well in a job market that increasingly offers opportunities to work remotely.”
Exceptional Academy – United States
Established in 2019 in Northville, Michigan, Exceptional Academy provides IT training to adults with disabilities, preparing them for globally recognized technology certifications up to and including CCNA, with a focus on cybersecurity. Amongst other IT curriculum, the program teaches the Cisco Networking Academy courses, and to date nearly 70 percent of those who have completed the program have obtained their CCNA certification.
The program is the second of its kind in the nation. It is a joint effort between Cisco Networking Academy, Living and Learning Enrichment Center in Detroit, Michigan Rehabilitation Services, Michigan Career and Technical Institute, and Washtenaw Community College.
A key component of the program is not only educating area companies about the many advantages of hiring with adults with disabilities but placing participants in internships. To date participants have secured internships at Comerica Bank and Plante Moran.
“I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when I was about four. I took much longer to emotionally and mentally develop due to my disability, yet over time I eventually came to overcome my anxiety and began working toward a career for myself after finding the passion that’d help push me forward,” says John Ferella, an Exceptional Academy alumnus. “Today, I’m 25 years old with a passion for cybersecurity and helping others. After 40 weeks of classes, I walked away with my CCNA certification, and even went on to become a certified CCNA Instructor. I hope to further my career through my internship at Plante Moran and help others on the same path to IT certification in the future.”
“I joined the Army when I was seventeen. Primarily, I worked on computers and I left the Army due to several injuries. Afterwards, I received my degree in business. I found that a business degree was not enough to get me hired. Several times my lack of formal training in IT was the reason,” says Nicole Taylor, an Exceptional Academy alumna. “Cisco’s Exceptional Academy offered me the opportunity to receive formal IT training, certifications, and an internship. It was a wonderful learning experience. I trained on Cisco equipment, both in simulation and on physical equipment. Fast forward, Comerica offered me an internship and I excitedly accepted. I am enjoying learning even more and have great mentors. I am grateful to all the people who helped me achieve everything I have in the last year.”