Disabled Fulfilling Dreams Via Computer

Linda Shaw

The following article is reprinted by permission from the August 21, 1993 issue of The Seattle Times.

One student used a computer by blowing Morse Code into a tube. another typed 30 words a minute with a mouth wand - a pencil attached to what looks like a football mouth guard.

Along with 16 other disabled students, they've just finished summer camp at the University of Washington, where using computers and taking part in other projects gave them a taste of what it might be like to be oceanographers, geophysicists, chemists.

For two weeks, they sent files to a Cray supercomputer, designed bridges and grew crystals. All proof, their instructors say, of technology's ability to empower children with disabilities.

The camp was part of Project DO-IT for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology), financed primarily by the National Science Foundation. It's the first program of its magnitude in the nation, said Lawrence Scadden, director of NSF's effort to recruit disabled students for careers in science, mathematics and engineering.

Rodney Lewis, soon to be a senior at Rogers High School in Puyallup, has no use of his arms or legs and needs a mouth wand to operate a computer. He began using a computer at age 6, and learned to read and write at a terminal.

Now he publishes his own newsletter on the Seattle music scene, called The Curmudgeon.

When asked a question, Lewis balances his wand on a box strategically placed near his terminal. He lets the mouthpiece slip out of his mouth and gently rests it against his chin. It's a gesture done as easily as others cross their arms.

For him, a computer "is sort of like running water. You don't know what you'd do without it."

A few rows away, Shane Babel, a junior at Wilson High School in Tacoma, blows Morse Code into a long, thin tube attached to his terminal. It's called the "sip-and-puff" system, another way students with limited mobility can enter computer commands.

Hollis Shostrom, sitting in front of Babel, uses a combination joy-stick and foot pedal to operate his computer.

His speech is hard to understand; it comes out in fragments with long pauses in between. Even those used to it must listen carefully.

With the computer, however, his thoughts come across more clearly. Wearing a T-shirt that says, "I'm not as innocent as I look," he draws elegant bridge designs. He wants to pursue a degree in civil engineering.

Through DO-IT, Randy Hammer, who is blind, got his first computer modem. Now he can call up Internet's on-line newspaper, and his computer software reads him what's on the screen.

Sheryl Burgstahler, DO-IT director, says computers can't do everything these students need to realize their dreams. But they can play a big part, especially as the equipment gets less expensive and more sophisticated.

As part of the DO-IT program, those without computers at home will be loaned the equipment. They'll also be connected to Internet, the international network of linked computers.

The program doesn't end with summer camp. The students will attend science-related activities and keep in touch, via electronic mail, with each other and their mentors, including physicist Stephen Hawking, who has Lou Gehrig's disease.

DO-IT organizers and the NSF want not only to encourage the individuals involved in the project, but also to document their successes.

"It will be good for the high schools that the kids come from, as they go back and the schools recognize that students with disabilities can participate fully in scientific fields," said Scadden.