These STEM organizations help kids and adults with disabilities hone their tech skills

Deaf Kids Code and nonPareil Institute expand opportunities for deaf children and adults with autism, respectively.

By Betsy Vereckey

When Shireen Hafeez’s son was diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss, she knew she had to do something. “In the early stages of a diagnosis, you have all this data with very uninspiring outcomes,” she says. “You start to panic and feel a sense of urgency.”

With her son’s future in mind, Hafeez started the nonprofit Deaf Kids Code in 2015. The objective? To teach deaf and hard-of-hearing children the technical and creative skills required to compete for jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), an industry that’s projected to grow twice as fast as the total for all occupations in the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hafeez and her team, however, face some disheartening statistics: The National Deaf Center found that 53.3% of deaf people were employed in 2017, compared to 75.8% of hearing people. Meanwhile, the pandemic was particularly hard on individuals with disabilities. In 2020, 17.9% of people with disabilities were employed, down from 19.3% in 2019. Estimates also show that approximately one million workers with disabilities lost their jobs during the first few months of COVID-19.

But figures like these only reinforce Hafeez’s commitment to making a positive change.

“When I founded Deaf Kids Code, my thought process was not, What if it doesn’t work? It was: I’m going to find the right way to make this work,” she says. “You can’t wait for the next generation to make it better. It was through a sense of urgency that I was able to start an organization and an initiative like this.”

Bringing STEM education to deaf children

Deaf Kids Code hosts workshops around the country to teach students from grades K-12 how to be innovators. Workshops have been hosted in numerous states—New York, Florida, Oklahoma and Phoenix, among others—at organizations such as the Lexington School for the Deaf and the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf. While the pandemic curtailed the organization’s operations, Deaf Kids Code has resumed providing in-person programming, recently hosting an event at the Iowa School for the Deaf.

Photo courtesy of Deaf Kids Code

Though Hafeez herself does not personally have a background in tech, workshop leaders are trained on specific curriculum and bring to the table a range of expertise. Head facilitator Nadmi Casiano, for instance, is deaf and educated in STEM and aerospace engineering.

In workshops, kids learn how to create apps and video games, as well as program robots. “These are skills that aren’t integrated within traditional deaf education curriculum,” Hafeez says.

While other coding classes and programs may be difficult for those whose first language is American Sign Language, Deaf Kids Code uses Scratch, a free program designed for children between the ages of 8 and 16 that can be operated on an internet browser or offline via a proprietary app. Scratch uses a visual programming language that mimics computer coding without the need for audio instructions. Instead of typing, commands are displayed in Lego-like “blocks” that users can drag and drop to change background colors or to have characters act and communicate in certain ways. Kids are encouraged to use their imaginations to create their own games and animations.

Photo courtesy of Deaf Kids Code/Scratch

Hafeez says there’s no one-size-fits-all workshop; teachers modify their curriculum to make each session applicable to different levels and abilities. At one workshop, Deaf Kids Code provided each student with a kit that allowed them to build and move a robot by directing a light at it. At other events, students made rockets from recycled materials and made their own pinball machines. The nonprofit also hosted an innovation challenge where students displayed gadgets that they’d made.

No matter the project, design-thinking remains a consistent, fundamental concept behind each Deaf Kids Code workshop. Students are encouraged to consider how everyday items can be used to solve their unique needs. Hafeez recalls one workshop attended by a deaf child at the North Carolina School for the Deaf who had cerebral palsy and weakness in his hands. Without any prompting, he added a stick to his physical creation so that he could hold it without assistance. It was a true “immersive, interactive learning experience,” remembers Hafeez.

Equipping adults with autism with technical skills

Alongside Deaf Kids Code, the nonPareil Institute is applying a similar educational approach to technology to assist individuals with autism entering the workforce. Co-founders Dan Selec and Gary Moore both have sons with autism who are interested in digital technology. Believing they could turn that passion into a career, Selec and Moore started the nonPareil Institute in 2008 with the goal of helping other parents of children with autism answer the question: What happens when my child grows up?

Currently, up to 90% of adults with autism are underemployed or unemployed, a sobering figure for Kim Tagge, director of the nonPareil Institute. “The ability to self-manage and self-regulate is a huge challenge for adults with autism,” she says. “Someone may be an amazing programmer, but if you give them a project with more than two instructions, they may struggle. If you translate that into the workplace, maybe they’re a great employee, but if they have a boss who gives all verbal instructions in a meeting, they may get lost.”

But Tagge and her team at the nonPareil Institute believe in the power of difference. After all, nonPareil means “no equal” in Latin, a name that was chosen to honor individuals with various strengths. Career courses in professionalism, business communication and time management are offered alongside technical education in digital art, design and information technology. Tagge says that the students, many of whom are between the ages of 19 and 24, represent a significant untapped pool of tech talent that can bring unique skills to the workforce. To enroll, students must be at least 18 years old and have completed high school.

Photo courtesy of the nonPareil Institute

At the nonPareil Institute, courses are taught by instructors who have technical expertise in their fields, as well as experience working with individuals with autism. The program provides classes in-person at locations in Austin, Houston, Plano and Orlando, in addition to online classes to support individuals who don’t live near a branch.

After completing their education at the nonPareil Institute, usually in about three to four years, students will have a resume and a portfolio of work, and will be prepared for a number of different jobs in the IT industry. In addition, some tracks offer certification, such as the Dell Tech Certification made possible through a partnership with Dell TechCrew. These certifications are dependent on the career path of the student.

Students also have the opportunity to work on outsourced projects that enable them to gain practical, real-world experience. One such project was Super Safe Kids, an educational game aimed at teaching children about electricity and safety, for Oncor, a large utility company. As of today, there are approximately 20 gaming titles available online for streaming or download that were designed by nonPareil Institute graduates.

Tomorrow’s success stories start today

“The beautiful thing about today’s world is that the disability community at large has banded together—allies as well as leaders—and is changing the narrative,” says Hafeez, whose son is now a senior in high school and a musician in a band. Looking back at when he first received his diagnosis, Hafeez recalls how more people have opened up about their disabilities, whether visible or invisible.

Progress continues to be made by groups like Deaf Kids Code and the nonPareil Institute as they democratize STEM education and, in turn, help to shrink the employment gap for individuals with disabilities. “There is an awakening of being better custodians and better allies, as well as the understanding that inclusion leads to better business outcomes,” says Hafeez. “If there’s any time to be involved in this conversation, it’s now.”