DO-IT Mentoring: A Promising Practice in Creating an Accessible Electronic Community
DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) is housed at the University of Washington in Seattle. DO-IT provides computers, assistive technology, and Internet connections in the homes of college-bound teens with disabilities accepted into the DO-IT Scholars program. Participants have many different types of disabilities, including those that affect the ability to hear, see, speak, learn, and move.
DO-IT staff explored options for year-round electronic communication between participants and adult mentors. It was imperative that the method of communication be available worldwide; compatible with assistive technology; usable independently by individuals with disabilities, including those who could only type at a very slow speed; and available at any time. Communication methods considered included phone conferencing, face-to-face sessions, video conferencing, online chat rooms, bulletin boards, and electronic mail. Phone conferencing and video conferencing were eliminated as possibilities because they are expensive, not easily accessible for people with speech or hearing impairments, and difficult to coordinate around time zone and personal schedule differences. Chat rooms, even if designed to be accessible to those with visual impairments, are difficult or impossible to use by those with slow input methods. Chat discussions are also difficult to coordinate between people with varying schedules. It was agreed that face-to-face interactions are of great value to mentors and proteges but are possible for some DO-IT participants only during limited time periods and require sign language interpreters and other accommodations that can impede personal communication. Although a bulletin board could be accessible to all participants, DO-IT staff did not want to require students and mentors to learn a new system and to take an extra step after logging on to their email in order to locate mentoring messages.
DO-IT staff chose email as their primary vehicle for communication because it allows students and mentors to correspond without all having to be in one place, is compatible with all assistive technology used by participants, can be used independently by those with hearing impairments, does not require a certain rate of input, is inexpensive, is easy to use, and does not require that participants be online simultaneously. With email, participants can compose messages at their own speed without having to worry about missing the conversation or causing a significant lag in the conversation. It is recommended that other mentoring programs use a similar process in selecting technology for communication between participants. Using accessible information technology and considering unique characteristics of the community are key.
For more information about the DO-IT electronic community, consult Peer Support: What Role Can the Internet Play? published in the journal Information Technology and Disabilities.