American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2023      CAREERS

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Closing the Loopholes and Opening Doors: Preparing Blind Students to Work in the Field of Cybersecurity

by Laura Bostick and Chuck Gardner

Blind students work on laptops in a classroom setting.From the Editor: To operate effectively, today's businesses, schools, hospitals, and government agencies depend on a sprawling network of computers. Unfortunately, although they manage vast stores of information, computer systems are vulnerable to malicious attack. Whether attacks come from clever mischief-makers or dangerous cyber-criminals, they can severely interfere with operations, sometimes with dire consequences.

Cybersecurity is a growing field, and its importance will only increase in the years ahead. Laura Bostick, Chuck Gardner, and other innovators are working to ensure that blind students have the opportunity to enter this field and make meaningful contributions. In this article Bostick and Gardner describe initiatives that will prepare blind students to enter this growing field.

Laura Bostick: I started my professional life in biomedical engineering, and I worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for eighteen years. After I had a blind child, I became interested in special education, which ultimately led me to make a major career change. While still at NASA, I earned a master's degree in special education.

In 2011 I spoke to Dr. Ruby Ryles at the NFB National Convention. She encouraged me to apply for a position at the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. I interviewed with Dr. Eddie Bell, the director, and the next thing I knew, my daughter and I were moving from Houston, Texas, to Ruston, Louisiana.

After earning a graduate certificate in visual impairments/blind education, I began teaching in the Teaching Blind Students Program at Louisiana Tech and working on my doctoral degree. I earned my EdD in 2016. What I really wanted to do, I realized, was to combine my love of science and technology with my passion for teaching blind students. I was thrilled when I learned that CYBER.ORG wanted to partner with Louisiana Tech to work on accessibility projects. It was the perfect job for me! For the past two years I have contracted with CYBER.ORG through Louisiana Tech.

CYBER.ORG is the academic initiative of the Cyber Innovation Center (CIC), a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation that provides curricula, professional development, and resources free of charge to K-12 educators across the country. Since 2017 CYBER.ORG has been offering summer camps to students who are blind or have low vision through our Project Access. Last summer we held camps for blind students in Colorado, Missouri, New Jersey, and Virginia, as well as hosting hands-on activities for young blind children in the Louisiana BELL® Academy and for students in the Youth Track at the NFB National Convention in Houston.

Some of the hands-on skills students learned last summer include:

Chuck Gardner: Back in 2012 I was living in Bossier City in northwest Louisiana. That part of the state is best known for agriculture, petroleum, and gambling. I started to work for the Cyber Innovation Center at CYBER.ORG, which was launching efforts to modernize the region's economy. We wanted to prepare K-12 students to take jobs in the high-tech fields of the future. Today Bossier City is home to companies such as General Dynamics, a leading government contractor. A new world of job options has opened up.

Through CYBER.ORG's work in Bossier City, we received funding from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is funded within the Department of Homeland Security. The program provides education curriculum to teachers across the country. I started training high school teachers so they could begin to prepare students for future careers in cybersecurity. We expect that hundreds of thousands of jobs will open up in this field in the coming decades.

In 2016 Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe directed the state's Department of Education to host a series of cyber camps for K-12 students. The Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired reached out, asking that blind students be included in these programs. At first we were very hesitant to engage. It seemed that nobody knew what to do or had the will to figure it out.

I think of myself as a problem solver. When I learned that the Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired wanted blind students to be included in our cybersecurity programs, I was sure there must be a way to make it happen. After some research I found that a platform from Parallax was capable of working with assistive technology. The CYBER.ORG team designed a one-week camp for blind students that covered the same content sighted students had learned in previous years.

That first summer we enrolled twenty-four blind students, and we started them off assembling bots by themselves. I had planned to have the students spend the first day assembling the bots, but the students got finished by lunchtime! Each year we test out new content, and the students never fail to surprise me. When I talk to panels on cybersecurity, I often ask if they're looking for problem solvers. I tell them that blind people possess some of the most mischievous minds across the globe. Blind people have been solving problems all their lives, and they're used to thinking in highly original ways.

Our cyber camps have evolved into camps that focus on cybersecurity. Each year we try out new operating systems, which the students install on their laptops. Last year we brought in some cyberattacks for the students to work with. I was afraid the students wouldn't be able to handle the challenges with their assistive technology. We showed them a demo of a password attack, and to our delight they figured everything out by themselves from there.

Our students' success led us to partner this year with Palo Alto Networks, an industrial-scale global cybersecurity provider. We gave the students opportunities to explore hands-on exposure to a physical firewall device. They installed a virtual next-generation firewall onto their laptops. I don't know of any other program where high school students, blind or sighted, are getting such exposure.

When our students attended their first cyber camp, many of them had very low expectations. They believed they would never hold a job, but would stay home and collect SSI. Experience at the cyber camp truly changed their trajectories. Today 94 percent of the students from our Virginia program have gone on to study cybersecurity or obtain certifications in IT. Many of them have done internships or apprenticeships in the field. A few have completed training and are moving into the industry.

When I talk with potential employers, they predictably raise concerns about the cost of accommodations for blind staff. I assure them that today, in many cases, the cost is zero. Windows, iOS, and Linux offer free software-based accessibility. If there is any cost, in most cases, it's less than five hundred dollars.

At this point we're busy hosting cyber camps for blind students across the country. We take what we learned in Virginia and bring it to other states. We've hosted camps in Louisiana, Colorado, New Jersey, and Missouri. We've worked with the Nebraska Department for the Blind, and we're trying to set up a program in Hawaii. Some camps run for two days, and some run for a whole week.

Many students who attend cyber camps during high school return as mentors during their college years. "I started at a camp in Richmond, Virginia, when I was fourteen," a former camper explains. "When I went to my first camp I didn't know anything about programming. They said I'd get a free laptop at the end of camp, so I decided to sign up. I found out I loved it, and I went back year after year. Eventually I became the lead mentor in the Richmond camp. Now I'm majoring in computer science at the University of Virginia."

The camps are very team oriented. The students learn from the mentors, and the mentors learn from the students as well. We always have staff members who are familiar with assistive technology. We use JAWS, ZoomText, and other programs. Campers start with a relatively small challenge, such as the hacking of a password. Then we move on to challenges that are more complex. The instructors can help the students step by step, but we never want to hand someone the answer!

A typical day at one of our cyber camps starts with breakfast, followed by four hours of classroom work before lunch. In the afternoon students work for four more hours. In the evening it's time for a break. Students may go bowling, enjoy some improv comedy, or simply go out for ice cream. For some of our students, cyber camp is their first taste of independence. We're building their skills with technology, and they're honing their people skills, too.

Laura Bostick: It's essential that we create opportunities for blind students to meet blind mentors who are out there working in the tech field. We also need to identify the barriers that may hold students back, such as inaccessible sections on qualifying exams. Often counselors steer blind students away from careers in technology, assuming it will be too difficult for them to succeed. Based on our years of experience in the blind community, we know better!

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