Students With Disabilities Excell Together

Danyelle Robinson

The following article appeared in the January 5, 1994 issue of The Star, reprinted with permission.

Lloyd Gibson Jr., a senior at Lake Roosevelt High School, accesses the Library of Congress, NASA and the White House without ever paying the usual fees. He's not a hacker and he's not alone.

Lloyd, along with 15 other disabled students in the Northwest, are part of a computer network program called DO-IT, Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, Technology.

"When we work together, it doesn't seem like we have disabilities," Lloyd says.

The group is comprised of students with various disabilities: blindness, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and others. Lloyd and another member of the group suffer from hearing impairments.

Through DO-IT, the students are liked to each other and the growing world of electronic information. Ralph Rise, a math, science and computer teacher at LRHS, recommended Lloyd for the project.

"I felt he fit a lot of what they need - a student somewhat disabled, but bright and able to do the work," Rise said. "Apparently they agreed."

Lloyd and his parents also wrote letters as part of the application process. In June, Lloyd and the other students spent two weeks learning the network system, taking in the Seattle attractions and getting a taste of campus life at the University of Washington.

The program is sponsored primarily by the National Science Foundation and implemented by the university.

"The idea behind the whole thing is to get past the disabilities and use the technology," said Dan Comden, the project's adaptive technology consultant.

But being disabled isn't the only qualification for the program. students must show interest and ability in science, math or engineering and a strong motivation to participate, said Sheryl Burgstahler, director of the DO-IT program from the University of Washington.

The computer server, that links them to various networks, is named "Hawking" after Dr. Stephen Hawking. Hawking suffers from a degenerative disease that attacks the central nervous system, known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"He's probably the most brilliant physicist of our time, since Einstein," says Comden. "I wouldn't be surprised if we hear about some of these kids doing great things in the future. They're very bright. That's what got them here."

Each student is loaned a Macintosh computer, a printer and a modem. To make a great deal even better, DO-IT pays the access fees.

While showing a reporter the cyberworld he's linked to, Lloyd stops to chat with his friend across the state via the keyboard.

"Remember to show her UWIN, Newton and NASA," types Randy Hammer, of Lacey, Wash., before signing off. for students, like Randy and Lloyd, the network provides an opportunity to do things they might have only dreamed before.

Special components are added to each system to meet student's individual needs. Lloyd's computer screen flashes for a visual cue instead of making sounds. Randy is blind, so his computer is equipped with a voice synthesizer.

"It's the first time in his life Randy can read a newspaper by himself," said Burgstahler.

For Lloyd, DO-IT provides more information, easier access, and the opportunity to interact with other kids and mentors who understand what it's like to have a disability, he said.

"It's made such a difference to get the information I need without having to listen for it," said Lloyd. "It makes it easier."

Lloyd was born with his hearing impairment, but he doesn't let his disability stand in his way of success. He can read lips, in a one-on-one setting, and uses hearing aids for larger settings. Lloyd knows sign language - though he rarely uses it - and has been in speech therapy since kindergarten, he said.

"(Lloyd) has to have an FM system to follow classroom discussion," Burgstahler said. But few people realize how significant his hearing loss is. "You wouldn't know it, because he adapts."

The 17-year old student plays trombone in the school pep band, is a member of the junior varsity wrestling team, vice president of the SAFTYE (Stop Auto Fatalities Through Youth Efforts) club and working toward being an Eagle Scout.

Music is something that he enjoys fully - not by listening, but by feeling the vibrations.

"That's why I have a stereo with a bass booster," he said.

Many resources are available to help students work with their disabilities through the computer network. Recently, Lloyd found a "finger spelling font" program which reads, displays and prints the sign language alphabet. He also used the computer to locate information about an alarm clock.

"I need one that will wake me up. I can't hear that thing," Lloyd said pointing to a Big Ben on his headboard.

The Hawking system can access thousands of other computers, Burgstahler said.

UWIN, the University of Washington Information Navigator, provides an array of news and educational resources, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, an almanac of current events, a law library, sports schedules and even lyrics to popular songs.

While NASA accesses news and information about the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, Newton is a science program where students can "Ask-a-scientist" questions. The program also includes a chat file that's much like a Ham-radio operation, Burgstahler said.

"They can talk to other kids and adults across the world. They all generally have an interest in science," she added. "Their disabilities become unimportant. It's a great equalizer."

Just for fun, Lloyd accessed the latest regional earthquake record. According to the data, three earthquakes occurred near Kalamath Falls, Ore., on Thursday. They measured 7.2, 7.6 and 4.6 on the Richter scale.

According to information accessed from the National Weather Service, today's weather for Spokane and the vicinity is expected to be in the lower to mid 30s with scattered snow showers and southwest winds at 10 to 20 miles per hour. Tonight expect a few evening showers and partly cloudy skies with lows in the upper teens to low 20s.

"If you have any kind of interest at all, it's on here," Lloyd says.

The computer systems could conceivably follow the students through college, where students would have an opportunity to become mentors to others with disabilities, said Comden. "The students are loaned the computer systems as long as they participate in the project," he added.

Mentors are another important part of the project. Gibson's mentors include a professor of computer science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and a student of mechanical engineering in California. His Scotland mentor is deaf, while the California student grew up in a home with two deaf parents, Lloyd said.

The National Science Foundation is expected to make the Hawking program available at two other universities in the country. But the universities have yet to be selected. So far, the U of W is the only university to offer the program, Burgstahler said. NSF has committed funds to the U of W program for the next three years.

"We're hoping they'll continue to fund for an extended period after that," said Burgstahler.

For the university, the project serves as a kind of research study on the results of the technological interaction of the students, Comden said. This summer, the university is expected to add another 20 students to the program. Applications will be available soon from local high schools. The program is opened to 1994 sophomores, juniors and seniors.

Having had a taste of college life during his first trip to the university, Lloyd said he's ready to graduate from high school and continue his education. He hopes to attend the U of W in electro-engineering.