Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet

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E-mentoring and individuals with disabilities

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

Most of us can think of people in our lives, more experienced than ourselves, who have supplied information, offered advice, presented a challenge, initiated friendship, or simply expressed an interest in our development as a person. Without their intervention we may have remained on the same path, perhaps continuing a horizontal progression through our academic, career, or personal lives.

The term "mentor" has its origin in Homer's Odyssey when a man named Mentor was entrusted with the education of the son of Odysseus. "Protégé" refers to the person who is the focus of the mentor. Today, mentoring is associated with a variety of activities including teaching, counseling, sponsoring, role modeling, job shadowing, academic and career guidance, and networking.

DO-IT Mentors are valuable resources to their protégés in DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) programs. Most Mentors are college students, faculty, practicing engineers, scientists, or other professionals who have disabilities. Protégés are participants in the DO-IT Scholars or Pals program as well as DO-IT-sponsored projects such as AccessComputing and AccessSTEM. These students are making plans for postsecondary education and employment. They all have disabilities, including vision, hearing, mobility, health impairments, and specific learning disabilities. Frequent electronic communications and personal contacts bring DO-IT protégés and Mentors together to facilitate academic, career, and personal achievements.

Introducing protégés to mentors with similar disabilities is a strength of DO-IT. As reported by one protégé, she had never met an adult with a hearing impairment like hers before getting involved in DO-IT: "But when I met him, I was so surprised how he had such a normal life, and he had a family, and he worked with people who had normal hearing. So he made me feel a lot better about my future."

Participants learn strategies for success in academics and employment. Mentors provide direction and motivation, instill values, promote professionalism, and help protégés develop leadership skills. As one Scholar noted, "It feels so nice to know that there are adults with disabilities or who know a lot about disabilities, because I think that people who are about to go to college or start their adult life can learn a lot from mentors...." As participants move from high school to college and careers they too become Mentors, sharing their experiences with younger participants.

There are probably as many mentoring styles as there are personality types and no one can be everything to one person. Each DO-IT participant benefits from contact with several Mentors.

While some in-person mentoring occurs, most mentoring in DO-IT takes place via the Internet. Through electronic communications and projects using the Internet, mentors promote personal, academic, and career success. Electronic communication eliminates the challenges imposed by time, distance, and disability that are characteristic of in-person mentoring. For example, participants who have speech impairments or are deaf do not need special assistance to communicate via email. Those who cannot use the standard keyboard because of mobility impairments use adaptive technology to operate their computer systems.

DO-IT encourages one-to-one communication between protégés and Mentors via email. It also facilitates communication in small groups through the use of electronic discussion lists. For example, one group includes both mentors and protégés who are blind. They discuss common interests and concerns such as independent living, speech and Braille output systems for computers, and options for displaying images and mathematical expressions.

While most communication occurs via email, some Mentors meet their protégés during summer study programs at the University of Washington and at other DO-IT activities across the United States. In-person contact strengthens relationships formed online.

DO-IT received national recognition with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mentoring "for embodying excellence in mentoring underrepresented students and encouraging their significant achievement in science, mathematics, and engineering." It was also showcased in the President's Summit on Volunteerism and received the National Information Infrastructure Award "for those whose achievements demonstrate what is possible when the powerful forces of human creativity and technologies are combined."


DO-IT has been studying the nature and value of e-mentoring since 1993. Thousands of email messages have been collected, coded, and analyzed; surveys were distributed to Scholars and Mentors; and focus groups were conducted.

Preliminary findings suggest that computer-mediated communication can be used to initiate and sustain both peer-to-peer and mentor-protégé relationships. It can also alleviate barriers to traditional communications due to time and schedule limitations, physical distances, and disabilities of participants. Both young people and Mentors in the study actively communicate on the Internet and report positive experiences in using the Internet as a communication tool. The Internet gives these young people support from peers and adults otherwise difficult to reach, connects them to a rich collection of resources, and provides opportunities to learn and contribute. Participants note benefits over other types of communication. They include the ability to communicate over great distances quickly, easily, conveniently, and inexpensively; the elimination of the barriers of distance and schedule; the ability to communicate with more than one person at one time; and the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Many report the added value that people treat them equally because they are not immediately aware of their disabilities. Negative aspects include difficulties in clearly expressing ideas and feelings, high volumes of messages, occasional technical difficulties, and lack of in-person contact. There are gender differences in e-mentoring as well. For more information about the results of this study, consult the References section of this publication.

Preliminary findings of this study suggest that peer-to-peer and mentor-protégé relationships on the Internet perform similar functions in providing participants with psycho-social, academic, and career support. However, each type of relationship has its unique strengths. For example, peer-to-peer communication includes more personal information than exchanges between Mentors and protégés.

It is often reported in the literature that peer and mentor support can help students with disabilities reach their social, academic, and career potential. However, constraints imposed by time, distance, and disability make such relationships difficult to initiate and sustain. This study suggests that practitioners and parents should consider using the Internet as a vehicle for developing and supporting positive peer and mentor relationships. DO-IT Mentors offer Protégés...

Getting Started

Following are a few suggestions for new DO-IT Mentors.


Burgstahler, S., & Doyle, A. (2005). Gender differences in computer-mediated communication among adolescents with disabilities: A case study. Disability Studies Quarterly, 25(2).

Burgstahler, S. (1997). Peer support: What role can the Internet play? Journal of Information Technology and Disabilities, 4(4).

Burgstahler, S., & Cronheim, D. (2001). Supporting peer-peer and mentor-protégé relationships on the internet. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 34(1), pp. 59-74.


A short video, Opening Doors: Mentoring on the Internet, may be freely viewed at or purchased in DVD format.

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

To order free publications or newsletters use the DO-IT Publications Order Form; to order videos and training materials use the Videos, Books and Comprehensive Training Materials Order Form.

For further information, to be placed on the DO-IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages contact:

University of Washington
Box 354842
Seattle, WA 98195-4842
206-685-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
888-972-DOIT (3648) (voice/TTY)
206-221-4171 (fax)
509-328-9331 (voice/TTY) Spokane

Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 9725110. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Copyright © 2012, 2011, 2010, 2008, 2006, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, non-commercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.