No Barriers to Science: Program Encourages Disabled Teens To Pursue High Tech Jobs

Barbara Brachti

The following article appeared in the August 19, 1994 issue of the Journal American. Reprinted with permission.

Picture of DO-IT Scholars working on the Polyhedron Puzzle
DO-IT Scholars work on the Polyhedron Puzzle.

For high school students with disabilities - say vision or speech problems, or perhaps lack of use of arms or legs - a career in science, engineering or math can seem like a pipe dream.

But these fields have begun opening recently to disabled students, thanks in large part to adaptive computer technologies which make computer communication possible for those who can't type or see the tiny letters on a monitor.

Even so, few of the new technologies were actually reaching the disabled, says Sheryl Burgstahler, assistant director of computing and communications at the University of Washington.

She decided to do something about it. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, she created a program - DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) - to encourage high school students with disabilities to pursue careers in scientific fields.

Now in its second year at the University of Washington's College of Engineering, it is the only program of its kind in the nation. It admits students from a six-state area who have an interest in science and the potential to go further in school. This year, two of those students are from the Eastside - Ryan Fleming of Redmond High School and Takuya Igarashi of Bellevue High School.

The program itself lasts for two weeks.

The 33 participants - 18 new students plus 15 back from last summer - attend classes that give them a taste of many different disciplines. For example, one morning this week, they performed coronary bypass and heart valve replacement surgeries on the hearts of sheep long since slaughtered for meat.

They work in a special computer lab where computers have been adapted to their various disabilities. One student with very limited use of his hands can type by talking into a headset-mounted microphone.

Another, who lost one arm and part of the other in a farming accident, punches the keys of his keyboard with a device attached to his remaining elbow. (He's up to 20 - 25 wpm.) Special software lets him punch two-key commands sequentially instead of simultaneously.

Students with impaired vision work at computers with software that displays words in larger-than-normal type.

The program offers sessions on dealing with a disability, getting into college, making the transition to college life and choosing a career.

"We encourage them to look at themselves as a whole person, including the disability and also their strengths," Burgstahler said.

Thanks to the Internet computer network, DO-IT will not end when the two-week on-campus session ends today.

Program participants who didn't have computers adapted to their disabilities at home have been loaned one. Before they set foot on campus this summer, the students were linked via Internet to some 35 scientists and engineers with disabilities who agreed to serve as mentors.

The computers also allow the students to receive ongoing information from the program, such as college application materials.

"They don't just stop by the University of Washington campus for a two-week shot of adrenaline; they become part of the community," says Burgstahler. "The Internet creates this wonderful opportunity to make this a year-round program."

For Bellevue High senior Takuya Igarashi, the program has been encouraging in a variety of ways. He has met students with other disabilities and concluded that his aren't so bad. He has some difficulty speaking and taking notes in class, but, as he says, he can walk.

Igarashi has been interested in science and math for some time. As a junior, he won a trophy in a math club contest, and he'll take engineering and advanced-placement calculus in the fall. He says the program will help him with going to college "so I can do what I want to do."