A Great Equalizer: Computers Give Disabled Kids Opportunities Once Unimaginable

Lynda V. Mapes Staff writer
Picture of Kristin Sederstrom using Screen Enlarging software on her computer

Kristin Sederstrom uses Screen Enlarging software on her computer.

The following article appeared in the August 22, 1994 issue of the Spokesman-Review.

Computers let Kristin Sederstrom of Spokane work around her disabilities at a UW camp Count on Kristin Sederstrom to ask one of the best questions in the class.

The 17-year-old from Spokane is one of 18 teenagers enrolled in DO-IT, a science camp that teaches disabled kids to use computers to overcome physical problems and pursue science careers.

They compensate for their disabilities with mental prowess - using computers to read, analyzed data and communicate.

Legally deaf and blind, Sederstrom keeps up with camp classes through a sign language interpreter and reads with help from a large-screen computer.

Today's topic, undersea volcanos, draws questions from her classmates: How hot are the volcanos? What are they made of? Where are they found?

But Sederstrom, of East Valley High School, cuts to the heart of the matter: "Do they kill the fish?" she blurts.

Turns out they do, resulting in great sea creature barbecues of the deep, the teacher says, and everyone has a laugh.

The program, conducted by the University of Washington, is paid for by a three-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant.

The camp means "You don't have to sit around being bored with nothing to do," says Sederstrom, tossing an elfin grin. "Or listen to my sister bugging me."

The encouragement at science camp has helped too, says Sederstrom, who has undergone surgery for a brain tumor and suffered a stroke. "Science is kind of hard. It's a subject with too many things to remember. I need brain glue, to make everything stick."

She battles doubts. "I don't have good enough eyes to be a scientist. And you need to have good hearing to be a doctor, right?"

But then, she's no quitter. She explains her hand-lettered T-shirt, which reads "Kristin, hospital hero." Yanking it out of her shorts to show it off better she says: "I got it because I go to the hospital so many times but I don't give up."

The goal at camp is to hatch practical solutions to disabilities, says program director Sheryl Burgstahler.

Blind kids learn to use computers that speak. Others learn to use devices to touch the keyboard if they don't have hands, or their hands don't work.

"It's not easy. but the problems can be worked out," Burgstahler says. "You just have to jump in there and do it. We don't paint some glorious picture of 'you can be anything' because that's not true for any of us. They're probably not going to be astronauts. But how many people are?"

Students from five states are enrolled in the two-week camp, which is in its second year. When the teens go home, they are loaned a computer and the equipment to customize it for their needs.

The program pays for a telephone line to the student's home, so the student can dial up the Internet, the informal, international network of computers. The university arranges a hookup with the nearest local access to the Internet, so there are no long-distance charges.

The computer network provides an electronic community of support to encourage and guide students along their way to a job. Camp participants can stay in touch with each other throughout the year by electronic mail. They also can communicate with mentors they are matched with in the scientific field of their choice.

Computers offer disabled kids opportunities unimaginable less than a generation ago. "Without the technology, we are where we were 30 years ago: it's difficult to learn and its difficult to get jobs," says Dan Comden of UW.

"But technology is the great equalizer. A student's physical disability just no longer is an issue. If someone doesn't know them, they don't even need to disclose that they are disabled. It's a whole new freedom that opens a lot more doors."

And resources. For someone like Sederstrom, reading newspapers or books means waiting for them to become available in large print - and few are. But on the Internet, she can dial up anything from "Alice in Wonderland" to encyclopedias on a screen big enough for her to see.

Travis Hartwell, 17, of Monteview, Idaho, wears braces on both legs and has trouble walking. But he knows no boundaries on the Internet. "I've tel-netted to Germany. I've been around the world. It's really neat."

The students learn as much from each other as from their teachers. "I've learned a lot from being around other people and seeing the problems they have," says Hartwell, the only disabled kid at his school back home.

"Even having a disability myself, I have the same prejudices everyone else does. I think, 'Oh that guy's blind, I don't want to talk to him.' But that's not true. I can get along with everyone."

And it feels good to be around kids with similar interests and challenges.

"Some of my problems I wouldn't even discuss with my best friend," Hartwell says. "But I feel more comfortable with these kids. At school, most of the kids are into sports. These kids are into science, like me."