The following article appeared in the May 29, 1995 issue of ADVANCE for Occupational Therapists.

Mentoring On The Internet: For Science Students With Disabilities

by Loretta Marmer

Picture Caption: Mentor Shem Bingham shares a laugh with DO-IT scholar Nhi Duong as they explore the benefits of computers for users with low vision during a study session. (photo by Mary Levin/courtesy University of Washington)

Peer support flourishes on the Internet, Dr. Burgstahler said. Students discuss homework assignments and on occasion send math problems or ideas for writing papers to others on the system. "They share school experiences and (discuss) world events."

While peer networking is an outstanding feature of DO-IT, those in the program also have access to a pool of 40 mentors worldwide who serve as positive role models. These mentors include engineers, mathematicians, and post-secondary students, most of whom have disabilities.

For the most part, the community of mentors grew via word of mouth, but the program also uses resources from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which produces a directory of engineers with disabilities interested in helping others in the field.

Citing, how diverse these mentoring relationships can be, Dr. Burgstahler said a deaf professor of computer science at the University of Edinburgh is working with a deaf student living on an Indian reservation in the states. Although the two have never met, the professor is a great source of inspiration for the student, who has learned first hand that people with his disability can prove successful in the highly specialized world of science.

Another unique feature of DO-IT is its residency summer program for secondary-level students. Those selected for the program, referred to as "scholars," stay in dorms on campus at the University of Washington for two weeks. Here, high school students with disabilities link with the mentors who have similar disabilities. Mentors give apprentices tours of the campus, offering strategies and helpful hints for getting around, as well as filling them in on places to avoid, how to access services offered at the school and tips for becoming their own best advocates.

Dr. Burgstahler believes mentoring is even more effective when it is provided in-person in conjunction with correspondence over the Internet.

"These students have communicated electronically, and it's interesting to see how they interact, and the comments they make." For instance, she overheard one student say to another, "Oh, I thought you were deaf," when in fact the student has a mobility impairment. "It's delightful because they are not used to meeting someone where their disability is not the first thing (the other person) notices. The disabilities are minimized by using the Internet."

As negative attitudes among faculty are one of the greatest challenges facing students with disabilities, DO-IT endeavors to educate instructors in an effort to crumble these barriers through its outreach information dissemination program.

"Since we are recruiting students with disabilities for career (success), it's only fair to help prepare faculty for these students," Dr. Burgstahler offered.

DO-IT tackles the issue by providing colleges and universities with a resource guide and an eight-minute videotape designed specifically for faculty members, covering such areas as creating accessible labs and strategies for handling situations involving students with disabilities. DO-IT also sends to schools a notebook which gives directions on creating faculty awareness presentations, Dr. Burgstahler added.

So far, materials have been distributed to 2,000 schools nationwide, including all those with an engineering program on campus. The information is intended to guide faculty in developing presentations for colleagues on accommodating and fairly treating this student population.

DO-IT intentionally took a proactive stance by sending the packets of information directly to the institutions. Making it optional tends to attract those who are already interested in disability issues, said Dr. Burgstahler. This way "we target those who aren't. We wanted to open the door and make them more receptive. The level of information is very practical. We are not trying to make them experts."

Funding for developing these materials was provided primarily through the National Science Foundation, U.S. West Communications and NEC Foundation of America.

On the employment front, DO-IT fosters relationships between students with disabilities and the business community by encouraging internships whenever possible. One DO-IT participant, a young woman who had had a stroke, was interning with a scientific laboratory, for example. "Most (science) programs don't recruit students with disabilities, and students with disabilities tend not to apply for those positions," Dr. Burgstahler said.

He feels that DO-IT's practical approach helps students put their disabilities into perspective, but she said that it is just as important that the people around them have open, positive attitudes. "The student should know what he needs, and has to be able to justify his (requests). He needs to be a salesperson, in a way," Dr. Burgstahler concluded. "Students need to gain these skills early to maximize success."