UW Program Gives Disabled Students Confidence


Tuesday, August 10, 2004

By GREGORY ROBERTS
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

At first, Rima Saha said, the idea intimidated her.

Her experiences with other programs for disabled children weren't all positive. But her doctor pushed her to attend the DO-IT Scholars Summer Study program at the University of Washington two years ago, and so she went.

Now, Saha, 19, says DO-IT "was one of the best things that I ever did for myself."

So much so that she returned last summer and is back again this year, as an alumna and mentor for the high school students in the program.

"I've always been kind of a charger," Saha said from her wheelchair in a makeshift DO-IT classroom at the student union. "Here, it's given me more confidence -- that's confidence with three exclamation points after it."

In June, Saha graduated from Kentwood High in Kent, and she'll start at the UW as a freshman in the fall.

The high school students from across Washington state who enroll in DO-IT deal with a range of disabilities, from learning deficits to hearing loss, from blindness to the condition that limits Saha's mobility, cerebral palsy.

"You're surrounded by people who might not have the same disability you do, but they sort of walk in the same shoes as you do on a daily basis, with different needs and different perspectives," Saha said. "You can talk on an even level."

Each year, about 20 first-year DO-IT students come to the UW for a 10-day session. They attend academic lectures and participate in science labs and workshops, discuss problems and challenges faced by disabled students, eat meals on campus and lodge in a dorm.

The idea is to expose the students to college life and career options and prepare them for the transition from high school.

Many DO-IT students return to campus for a one-week stay their second summer in the program, and some, such as Saha, come back for a third year to help out as interns. Beyond that, program graduates are expected to continue to serve as mentors for DO-IT newcomers as part of an ongoing electronic community linked by e-mail and the Internet, program director Sheryl Burgstahler said.

Promoting computer connections for the disabled is central goal of DO-IT, an acronym for disabilities, opportunities, Internet-working and technology. The program was started 12 years ago by Burgstahler, who runs the computer lab the UW has set up to meet the needs of its disabled students.

Once a high schooler is accepted by DO-IT in the spring, a technician visits the student's home to provide computer training, including the use of adaptive technology, such as voice-recognition or audio screen-reading software, specialized mice and other controls. If necessary, DO-IT loans the needed equipment to the student.

Participation is free for students. DO-IT is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the state of Washington and various private foundations and corporations. The program has attracted $18 million in financing in its 12 years, Burgstahler said.

Besides providing technological support and an introduction to college life, DO-IT aims to spur disabled teens to take control of their lives.

"We try to model self-determination," Burgstahler said.

More than 90 percent of DO-IT participants go on to complete college, she said. Program alumni include a blind student who earned a Rhodes Scholarship and another, largely paralyzed from the neck down, now enrolled at Harvard, Burgstahler said.

One morning last week, this year's first-time DO-IT students gathered in Room 108 of the Husky Union Building to dissect sheep hearts under the direction of Laurie Clark, a science teacher at Summit K-12 school in Seattle. The exercise was part of the program's effort to introduce students to different academic disciplines or career choices.

Daniel Hancock, 16, a learning-disabled junior-to-be at Shorewood High in Shoreline, helped Julie Johnston, 17, cut into the tissue to reveal valves, atria and ventricles.

"It's fun to meet other people that are like you, that have disabilities and have a different array of challenges," said Hancock, who hopes to study engineering in college.

Johnston, a senior-to-be at Cascade High in Everett, is in a wheelchair because of spina bifida. She, too, is thinking of college but unsure of which one. "It seems like college is going to be different from high school. I think it would be a big difference."

TO LEARN MORE

For information about DO-IT, call 206-685-3648 or visit the Web site at http://www.washington.edu/doit/

P-I reporter Gregory Roberts can be reached at 206-448-8022 or gregoryroberts@seattlepi.com