Computers Key to Communications For Disabled Students

The following article is reprinted with permission from the March 1994 issue of the UW Computing and Communications publication #14.

Most of us depend on our computers each day to help us with our work, access our bank accounts, and amuse our children. If you have a disability, however, a computer may be more than just a convenient tool. A two-week program at the University of Washington demonstrated that a computer can provide the key to communication.

Last August, a group of high school students with disabilities came to the UW campus to study mathematics, engineering, and science intensively during a program sponsored by DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). Primarily funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, DO-IT is coordinated by the UW College of Engineering and Computing & Communications and directed by Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler of C & C. Among other things, DO-IT seeks to recruit and retrain disabled students in math, science, and engineering and to encourage them to pursue careers in those fields. Computers are a main component of that plan.

DO-IT purchases and installs computer systems for students enrolled in the program. Students receive equipment designed to compensate for their disabilities and then are trained to use the system. For example, a student who has only the use of some of his fingers has a special, contracted keyboard; another uses a sip-and-puff system to input Morse Code; another combines the use of a foot pedal and a joy stick to navigate the screen. blind students use voice output machines, low-vision students read enlarged images, and participants with learning disabilities use special software to check their grammar and spelling.

The adaptive technology used in this program helped the participants in the expected ways - writing papers (with the help of online dictionaries, encyclopedias, and research sources), playing games, and organizing files - but communication is where the power of the machine was most apparent. Participants were provided accounts on the DO-IT file server named Hawking (after Stephen Hawking, a brilliant physicist who himself is disabled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Here they immediately learned the benefits of the Internet network.

Students were matched with mentors who are post-secondary students or career scientists, mathematicians, or engineers. Communicating through email, the mentors and students built relationships as they asked and answered questions. Many of the mentors have disabilities themselves and were able to give students valuable encouragement and advice.

The students also corresponded with each other via email over the Internet. Friendships that developed over the course of the program have continued despite the distance between correspondents. Participants from Oregon can "talk" to their friends in Washington as easily as they can communicate with a mentor in Scotland.

Covering distance is not the only benefit of computer-aided communication. Removing barriers to communication is an added bonus. One participant explained why email was so important to him when he said, "The people I meet write me, not my disability. Usually the disability is the first thing they see."

For information about the DO-IT program, send email to