Info@NationalCyberSecurity
Info@NationalCyberSecurity

Ambitious Training Initiative Taps Talents of Blind and Visually Impaired | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #ransomware


When David Mayne first started looking for a job in cybersecurity, the recruiter at his first-choice company told him no. With only one eye, how could Mayne spend all day looking at a computer screen?

But he didn’t let that stop him. Mayne had already overcome tremendous hardship, losing his eye and his leg following a severe car accident, then finding a way to raise his four children on his own. He had earned a degree that qualified him for cybersecurity work, and he was not going to take no for an answer.

Mayne landed at Novacoast, a cybersecurity company specializing in IT services and software development. After the company moved from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Wichita, Kansas, Mayne reached out to state and city organizations to recruit for Novacoast’s training program. That’s how he met the team at Envision, a local organization that helps people who are blind or visually impaired (BVI) through employment, outreach, rehabilitation, education, and research.

“In meeting with them, light was shed on the employment situation for people who are blind or visually impaired,” Mayne says. “I had no clue how bad that actually was.”

According to Envision, 70% of people who experience low vision are unemployed. Mayne saw an opportunity.

Curriculum Adapts to the Tools

With the right tools — such as a computer with a screen reader and a Braille keyboard — BVI individuals can work in cybersecurity and IT roles, such as a SOC analyst, help-desk engineer, or network administration, Mayne realized. And organizations needed to broaden their search to address a national shortage in trained cybersecurity workers. So with the support of Novacoast CEO Paul Anderson, Mayne led the development of the Apex Program, an online, on-demand course to prepare VBI students for cybersecurity certification exams.

About 25 students have enrolled in the program since its inception in May 2023, and Mayne says he hopes to register 100 this year. While the course is designed to last 10 weeks, students can work at their own pace. Apex supports students through the course and exam processes, then helps them find work.

“We will stay with them until they get to the end,” Mayne says.

The program is free, its $7,500 cost covered by state grants. So far, 16 states have partnered with the Apex Program, with Florida and Texas expected to join the fold this year, Mayne says.

The training materials are delivered in several different ways to accommodate student needs: audio-only, text-only, and PowerPoint and Word document versions that auto advance or advance manually (which is preferred by JAWS, or Job Access with Speech, a common screen-reader program that renders text as speech or in Braille). Content contains both text and video, and students participate in hands-on labs and quizzes.

Creating a curriculum that was accessible and still tackled the challenging topics completely was challenging, Mayne says.

“There’s binary math in the class and subnetting, and it took me over a month to figure out how to teach that without using a blackboard,” he says.

Mayne is currently updating the materials, as the exams will be updated in July. The course prepares students for CompTIA’s Network+ or Security+ certification exam. Students can request accommodations for the exam, such as screen readers, extra time, or even human readers.

“All of our exams are computer-based, and we have gone through the effort with multiple versions to ensure 100% compatibility with JAWS,” says Carl Bowman, senior vice president of exam services at CompTIA.

Because tests are taken in a locked-down browser, the software has to be configured to allow the screen readers to run. But Bowman says it’s important to make sure that BVI individuals who want to take the exams have equal access.

“Fairness is one of the underlying themes across the board when you look at our entire operation,” Bowman says.

Training Pays Off for Students and Employers

So far, four students have completed the Apex Program course. One of the first graduates, Curtis Johnson, recently joined Novacoast as a SOC 1 Analyst, the company’s first direct hire from the program.

Finding the Apex Program through a Facebook ad was a game-changer for Johnson, who was born blind due to congenital glaucoma. The father of two, who had worked as a telemarketer for nearly two decades, dreamed of working in tech but felt locked out due to his disability.

Now, however, he not only has a new job, he has a career.

“I definitely have more earning potential,” Johnson says. “But the real opportunities will come when accessibility comes and I have a chance to advance and move up in the company, just like everybody else.”

For Mayne, bringing Johnson on board was important for both the company and the success of the Apex Program.

“We drink our own Kool-Aid,” he says. “We don’t want to be out there telling everyone they need to hire BVI employees but we do not.”

Once graduates successfully pass the CompTIA exams, their resumes are given to Novacoast’s staff augmentation arm, which helps companies hire tech professionals. So far, about 70 organizations have said they are willing to interview the program’s graduates. They’re from a variety of industries, including local businesses, federal agencies, vehicle manufacturers, and software firms. Graduates can work anywhere that “has an IT department,” Mayne says.

Cybersecurity Is a Career, Not Just a Job

Mayne has been working with the White House’s Office of the National Cyber Director to spread the word about the program, which also was featured in a recent short film from WorkingNation, a nonprofit media organization that explores the future of work in the US.

WorkingNation’s Melissa Panzer, the short film’s director, says that she hopes the film inspires business leaders to look to unlikely talent pools and expand who they consider for opportunities.

“I tell a lot of stories about people who are marginalized, and I always come back to the same thing: I believe that people who are marginalized, their work ethic is strong, their dedication is strong,” she says. “They just want a chance.”

The Apex Program plans to expand beyond its focus on BVI individuals to veterans and disabled veterans, which could open the program up to 500 to 800 students a year, Mayne says.

“We’re bringing people to careers, not just to jobs. And we want them to be financially secure as well as have a career that they enjoy,” Mayne says. “We’re bringing students that are excited to get into this field, that are go-getters. We would like the people in the IT world to give these people a shot. That’s what doesn’t exist today.”



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