Gaining confidence for college, careers

David Wickert

Do-it program: Camp lets disabled high school students try out UW

When Tynesha Wilson's high school guidance counselor encouraged her to apply to the University of Washington's DO-IT program, Wilson wanted none of it.

Wilson didn't think she had anything to gain by enrolling in a program that encourages disabled high school students to pursue high-tech careers.

"I didn't know anything about computers," Wilson said. "I didn't know anything about science."

But at her counselor's urging, Wilson applied and was accepted. Three years later, she still has little interest in a high-tech career. But she's changed her mind about the program.

"I think it's one of the best programs I've ever joined."

Wilson is one of more than 40 students participating in this month's Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT) summer camp at the University of Washington.

The camp gives students a chance to learn more about college and about careers available to people with disabilities. They live on campus, learn what it's like to attend college and develop skills that help them become independent.

This summer students discussed handicapped-accessible computers with Microsoft employees, critiqued accessibility at the Experience Music Project and met disabled workers in various fields. They also created music videos, rode customized bicycles and dissected a sheep's heart.

Since it began in 1992, nearly 200 high school students have attended.

"It gave us confidence you could go to college," said Crystal Better, a three-year DO-IT program participant who attends Wenatchee Community College.

Better has a speech impediment and a reading disability. But she recently received her license to become a phlebotomist and is studying to become a medical laboratory technician.

Better said the DO-IT program prepared her for college and helped her gain access to campus services for the disabled. But for many participants, the program provides a needed boost of confidence that goes beyond college preparation.

Corinna Lang, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, said panel discussions with disabled workers have encouraged her to pursue a career as a real estate agent. A Granite Falls resident who graduated from high school this year, Lang already works in a real estate office and plans to attend school to earn her license.

In addition, Lang cited the social benefits of the DO-IT program.

"I've gotten a lot of good experience with dealing with people."

Nathan Proudfoot, a high school senior from Edmonds who has dyslexia, said he's also learned a lot.

"You get to meet a lot of people with other disabilities and how it is to deal with them," he said.

Indeed, one aim of the program is to encourage participants to become role models for others with disabilities.

"Part of what we're doing here is creating leaders for the next generation," said Sheryl Burgstahler, the program director. "We aren't satisfied if they're just successful. We want to know what they're going to give back."

Some of this year's participants already are giving back. Lang works with a nonprofit group in Snohomish County that benefits the disabled. And Wilson attends Seattle Central Community College, where she is studying to become a sign-language interpreter for the hearing impaired.

Eventually, Wilson, who has spina bifida and a learning disorder, plans to enroll at UW. She wants to produce and direct plays and movies.

Wilson said the DO-IT program has helped her become more independent. But it has also reminded her of her responsibilities to others with disabilities.

"Somebody may need help one day, and I may be able to help them."