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Blind network pros now have certifications in sight

Thanks to one university's groundbreaking program, visually impaired networking pros have the chance to earn their Cisco Certified Network Associate certifications.

The blind are literally leading the blind at one ground-breaking university.

Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia, recently became the first university in the world to modify Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) courses for visually impaired students.

This program, which covers the same content as the CCNA course taken by sighted students, started in late 2002 with four visually impaired students and grew four-fold to the 16 it has today.

Visually impaired students are not always given the opportunity to study technology and to walk away with an industry certification.
Iain Murray
Curtain University
Iain Murray, a Curtin professor, developed the program with $80,000 in equipment and support from Cisco Systems Inc. and the Association for the Blind of Western Australia.

Curtin now gives students with less than 5% vision the chance to study Cisco's CCNA curriculum using tools designed and modified for the blind.

"This is a tremendous step forward for us, and Cisco has been very supportive, providing plenty of equipment to work with," Murray said. "Visually impaired students are not always given the opportunity to study technology and to walk away with an industry certification that places them on equal footing with their sighted peers."

Two graduates of the program, Kerry Hoath, who is blind, and Neil Hines, who has some sight, completed their associate-level certifications in August 2004. They have since returned to the university to teach other vision-impaired students, becoming the first visually impaired Cisco Networking Academy course instructors in the world.

The Cisco Networking Academy program is a comprehensive e-learning program that delivers Web-based content, online assessment, student performance tracking, hands-on labs, instructor training and support, and preparation for industry-standard certifications.

The program is targeted toward prospective IT specialists, who are interested in learning about design, construction and support of data transmission networks.

According to Hoath, the academy provided his group with routers for hands-on configuration training and made other modifications to improve their learning experience, such as explaining and putting online curriculum and diagrams on a raised medium.

Certification expert Ed Tittel, a Texas-based freelance writer and consultant, said the Networking Academy course certification is the equivalent of two or three semesters of IT coursework. He added that it's quite an accomplishment for a disabled student, as it is challenging for fully capable students.

Hoath said he had previous networking experience, which made his certifications easier to obtain, but Curtin's modifications made the difference for inexperienced students between not learning it at all and being able to fully comprehend the material.

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Curtin even gave the students the opportunity to provide feedback to the producers of the course material, which will improve the content and make it easier to navigate with the students' adaptive software.

Hoath said he, with his newly earned certifications, hopes to help other motivated blind people to obtain qualifications and improve their career prospects.

"It's also an example of how successful people with a disability can be if information is provided to them in an accessible format," Hoath added. "I am happy to have been able to assist in making this possible and hope that it will empower many other blind people to undertake studies in this field with far fewer problems than we initially had to face."

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