Program Teaches Special Kids They Can Succeed: A University of Washington Program Is Making It Clear That Disabled Students Can Make the Grade.

The following article appeared in the August 17, 1994, issue of The Sun, reprinted with permission.
Picture of Katherine Powell by David Levesque Sun Staff

Katherine Powell, a Bainbridge Island High School junior, will read this sentence a little more slowly than most people.

It's not that she is savoring the presence of her name in print, but her learning disability makes the symbols of language hard to swallow.

But while each word may seem like a new adventure, it certainly gets digested by this bright 17-year-old.

"I always worked a lot more slowly than other kids in school. But I'm just as intelligent as anyone else," she said.

Powell is taking part in a University of Washington program that's designed to show disabled doesn't mean defective.

DO-IT, a two-week program sponsored by the College of Engineering, encourages high school students with disabilities to pursue careers in science, engineering or math.

The program is funded by the National Science Foundation, UW and private groups.

"It's really interesting to see the growth of the students from the first day they arrive to the day they leave," said Sheryl Burgstahler, assistant director of computing and communication and UW in Seattle.

There are 33 participants in this year's program from Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Oregon. Their disabilities run from blindness to hearing impairment to cerebral palsy to learning problems.

The program, now in its sophomore year, throws a range of engineering-related areas at the students, who will return next year to concentrate on a specific area of their choice.

"I think it is great because they give you a broad look at the different areas out there. It really opened up my awareness," said Powell.

Powell's learning disorder makes it difficult to recognize words visually or to put her thoughts down on paper.

"Reading for me is work. It's not a pleasure," explained Powell, who often puts in double the normal time doing homework.

Luckily, Powell has a flair for numbers. And UW showed her the many options out there for people interested in math.

The program will stick in her mind because it continues throughout the year.

"Year-round, DO-IT scholars use home computers and electronic mail to link up with each other and others around the world - mentors who hurdled similar obstacles before succeeding in their respective fields," she explained.

Today, Powell and her peers are learning the facets of evolution from UW zoology Professor Gordon H. Orians.

"It is very important to reach out and help these people and help them live more productive lives," said Orians. "Their energy and enthusiasm is just heart-warming."

Burgstahler said in addition to inspiring the students, the faculty gets a might nudge as well.

She said the professors learn new ways of adjusting a classroom to include disabled students - for instance, using large print for people who have sight problems or adopting computer technologies that cater to some students.

Along with an academic challenge, the students get a chance to meet others and not be the only "different one" in a classroom.

"It's finally good to see that people with disabilities can strive to succeed in life and have the same ambition anyone else has," said Ben Carroll of Richland.

Carroll has spinal muscle atrophy and cannot walk or raise his arms. He, like many of the students in the program, plans to go to college and enter a challenging career.

"People need to realize that, yes, there is a brain in there," said Powell. "So people may look different, but that doesn't mean they can't thing just like anyone else."