Giving Disabled Kids a Start In Science

Ellen Germain

The following article appeared in the May/June, 1994 issue of Technology Review.

A new educational program funded by the National Science Foundation and the University of Washington at Seattle aims to give disabled high school students a head start in science and engineering. "Just because individuals have different ways of functioning - they don't hear, don't speak, or don't use their hands - people think they can't do science and engineering," says Virginia Stern, director of the project on science, technology, and disability of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a consultant for the program. "But what many counselors and parents don't realize is that engineering and science are primarily intellectual professions."

To prove that disabled students can participate in these professions, program officials chose 15 high school sophomores and juniors from the state of Washington with disabilities such as blindness, deafness, and physical impairments from cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. Each student had also demonstrated an interest and aptitude in science.

The program - called DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) - began with a two-week orientation at the University of Washington last summer, where the students met mentors, took such courses as chemistry, oceanography, civil engineering, and astronomy, and learned to navigate the Internet, a worldwide computer network. The students were given home computers and whatever adaptive technology they needed to use them, as well as further training, regular house calls for technical support, Internet accounts, and contacts in scientific fields.

Sheryl Burgstahler, director of DO-IT, says she was inspired to initiate the program largely because adaptive technology is now both affordable and readily available. In fact, products such as enlarged displays for people with impaired vision, special input devices for those with limited motor control, voice synthesizers, and Braille printers are available off the shelf. And personal computers now come complete with many of the necessary hookups for adaptive technology; once a disabled person buys any extra equipment, he or she can simply plug it in.

Gary Moulton, manager of disability resources at Apple Computer, attributes the greater availability of adaptive technology to the effects of two pieces of legislation: Section 508, a 1986 revision of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which required the federal government to consider access for disabled users before purchasing electronic office equipment; and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Both laws greatly expanded the market for computer hardware and software.

DO-IT has since been able to accommodate even those users with severe handicaps. For example, one student who is unable to move his hands uses a mouth wand (a stick attached to a mouthguard) to tap the keys. Special software lets him type sequences that require holding down more than one key at a time. Another student who is unable to control either his hands or his head uses a sip-and-puff device to communicate with the computer in Morse code, blowing air out through a plastic straw for a dot and sipping air in for a dash. The device translates the Morse code into characters the computer can understand.

Such interfaces can be surprisingly efficient. Students using mouthwands and sip-and-puff devices can type 30 words a minute. Blind student Randy Hammer's speech-synthesis program takes about 50 seconds to read a screen of text, averaging only three mistakes per screen. Eliminating all mistakes would add about 30 seconds to the process. In the trade-off between speed and perfection, Randy says, "I live with the mistakes."

Internet access, which high school students rarely obtain, is also an important component of the DO-IT program. It allows students to tap into diverse references such as dictionaries and encyclopedias as well as myriad databases that can be useful for special projects. Internet's electronic mail service is also vital, enabling students to communicate with each other and their mentors.

Designed as an adjunct to a student's normal high school education, the DO-IT program has no formal curriculum of its own. However, Burgstahler often sends Internet messages containing special science projects for the students as well as activities that encourage them to explore the network. The real goal, Burgstahler says, is to get the students to stay in touch with their peers and mentors throughout high school and into college, at which point they will be encouraged to become mentors to new DO-IT students.

Participation in DO-IT has already heightened career expectations. For example, one student has become interested in virtual reality and now has a part-time programming job at the University of Washington's virtual reality lab. Another student hopes that by learning to write about his first love, astronomy, he can contribute to that field.

NSF is currently signed on to provide three years' worth of funding for the DO-IT program, which will add a new group of disabled high school students each year. The next group will be chosen from six Northwestern states; in the future, Burgstahler would like to see the program include the rest of the country.