Why Blind People Make Great Network Engineers

There are many examples of individuals with different disabilities who excel and accomplish much in their lifetime, rendering physical or mental attributes meaningless -- consider Stephen Hawking, Stevie Wonder and Helen Keller, among many others. But certain tasks and careers are more or less suited to some disabilities than others. Thankfully Ray Charles could sing and compose without his sight, but if his natural talent had been as a sportsman then the world may have not seen him rise to fame. Today's technology offers many new possibilities, not least the opportunity to work in the information technology field itself.

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Network engineers are the plumbers of the internet, setting up and configuring network equipment such as routers and switches which ensure that data is carried swiftly and surely from one side of the world to other. They spend most of their time studying a text-based terminal, the command line interface of computers of the 1970s. Lacking the visual finesse and ease of use a modern graphic operating system affords, this becomes a benefit for the blind.

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Accessible staff, wherever they are

The simple output of a text-based terminal can be re-processed screen reader software (such as the free Thunder), which reads the text content of a screen in a synthesised voice, turning even the longest and most complex of typed commands into intelligible speech. A braille display can be added to provide a physical rendition of the screen's content.

With tools such as these -- there are braille mobile phones now too -- computers offer those with disabilities considerably more opportunities to access the world around them than ever before. And if the job can largely be conducted through a terminal, then it doesn't matter much whether it's at their home, in an office, or even inside a client's server room. The software's demands on internet connection bandwidth is low, and the potential immense. In fact individuals with conditions such as dyslexia also enjoy using, and benefit from, the same technology.

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Adapted for the abstract

Blind people and people with sight loss are often more able to conjure up a clearer mental image of their environment, and this is extremely helpful when dealing with network connections. From a terminal anywhere in the world, an engineer may need to have in their mind an image of the complex connections between different routers, more likely to be on the other side of the world than in the server cabinet in front of them. This can put them at an advantage over many sighted engineers.

Their very lack of sight gives the blind a unique perspective into troubleshooting networks, supporting complex, distributed systems and working remotely. The challenge is to reach out and let them know of the training and employment opportunities available. Sadly, in most countries around two-thirds of the blind are unemployed.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Teaching the trade

Cisco Systems is a tech company as important as Microsoft or Apple, but you might not have heard of it because its products -- networking equipment -- are less visible, humming away in back offices, connecting together the many networks that make up the internet. The company runs a social enterprise, the Cisco Networking Academy, which works with universities, schools, colleges, educational charities and prisons.

The academy's objective is to encourage and support the teaching of IT networking skills, irrespective of the student's background or educational experience. The courses are challenging and there is no compromise on technical level and discipline, but everyone -- whether disabled or not -- has the chance to succeed and further their careers in the profession.

Curtin University in Australia has supported the Cisco Academy for the Vision Impaired since 2002. Teaching blind and visually impaired students in Australia, Sri Lanka, India and other Asia/Pacific nations, the university is recognised as world leaders in teaching those with vision disabilities to become network engineers.

Curtin University has solved many of the technological barriers encountered by creating alternate technologies, means of accessing the teaching material, and generating a positive mindset among the blind community.

Such inventions include software that reads graphs and mathematical formulae, remote labs containing networked switches and routers that can be shared by blind and sighted alike, controlled by the addition of Ventrilo voice-over-IP software. There's also ongoing work to create a vocal output for the Packet Tracer program that that simulates network setups.

In the UK, the Royal National College for the Blind has educated the blind and visually impaired for over 140 years. Based in Hereford, their college has taught thousands in subjects as diverse as music technology, psychology, and computing. Britain's Open University, long established as a university offering accessible opportunities for students, is able to support teaching staff at Royal National College through its leading Cisco Academy.

The hope is that the combined expertise of these three organisations and the Cisco Networking Academy can help provide blind people with the means to become success stories in the networking industry.The Conversation

Andrew Smith is Lecturer in Networking at The Open University. Iain Murray is Senior Lecturer, Electrical & Computer Engineering at Curtin University. Andrew Smith receives funding from Cisco Systems to support the development of an academy for the blind in the UK. He is affiliated with Cisco Systems as a member of the Cisco Networking Academy programme. Iain Murray is affiliated with The Association for the Blind (WA) as an honorary member of the board of directors

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    Unfortunately, Braille is great for determining which bathroom to enter, however as a language for transferring information, it sucks. Which is why in blind people braille proficiency runs at about less than ten percent.

      Braille has a low proficiency rate because:
      a) A huge percentage of the blind population become blind late in life and aren't inclined to learn.
      b) Screenreaders/audiobooks have a much shallower learning curve than braille.
      c) Making your products accessible via voice is cheaper and hits a wider chunk of the population
      d) Braille displays are horribly expensive to make compared to voice chips. So reading a braille book is easy and flowing, you have to read data off your computer one 40-character line at the time (about a third of a tweet, including contractions). Imagine your computer could only output text to a nokia 3210 screen, reading emails would be a bit more of a chore.
      That 40-character braille display will cost you $2500.

      Braille isn't perfect, but it is pretty good at transferring information. It has a lot of other factors working against it.

        True and its very unfortunate that more blind people dont learn braille, it makes so many printed things easier, bank statements, maths if you are studying etc. This is why we are also working on a reading system that helps (we hope) see the youtube video, should be described enough to follow. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6-z7jzP7U8

      I've always wondered how blind people even know how to get to the bathroom in the first place.

        by their highly developed sense of smell :)

    You guys also have to remember that there is a HUGE difference in blind and "legally blind" here in Australia.

      And we do, there is a very different way of teaching to low vision students compared to blind ones. BTW all our CAVI (www.cavitraining.org) instructors are blind and they understand the difference, its a case of been there done that ;-)

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