Young quadriplegic has a dream

Hunter T. George

He's seeking a career through UW's DO-IT program

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND - Like any 19-year-old, Todd Stabelfeldt dreams big. He'd like to own a 1972 Dodge Charger and host a morning radio show, fixing people's problems with sage advice between songs.

But Stabelfeldt faces far more serious obstacles: He is paralyzed from the shoulders down, the victim of an accidental gunshot wound 11 years ago.

As he got used to life in a motorized wheelchair he operates by nudging a joystick with his chin, Stabelfeldt flirted with the idea of studying to become a psychiatrist.

He wasn't sure how he could achieve his goal, since options are limited for quadriplegics. The he discovered DO-IT, an award-winning University of washington program that links disabled high-school students interested in math and science with the computer technology that helps them overcome their disabilities.

Stabelfeldt credits DO-IT -- Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology -- with changing his life. His computer-aided independence helped him obtain a degree in computer programming, move out of his parents' house and land a job with a Bainbridge Island company that writes medical software.

"People just do not understand. They have no comprehension of disability," he said. "For disabled people, DO-IT is a wonderful, wonderful asset. It gives you resources. It gives you friends."

By this fall, 136 students from 30 states and Canada will have participated in DO-IT's summer scholars programs at the UW. More than half have gone on to college or technical schools, and at least 40 have found work, according to a program survey.

More than 1,000 students have learned Internet and college preparation skills during DO-IT presentations at disability camps for youths in Washington, Minnesota and Colorado.

However, the program's primary funding source -- a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation -- expires this year and cannot be renewed. The State Legislature kicked in $500,000 this summer, but that money was earmarked only for disabled students in Washington State.

Sheryl Burgstahler, the program's director at the UW, said she's talking to Microsoft and other computer related companies in hopes of landing a national sponsor that will help DO-IT expand, perhaps internationally.

"It would make sense for a company like that to adopt us. Technology really does provide opportunities for people that aren't there without it," she said.

Stabelfeldt is just one of a number of the program's success stories.

A blind student received a bachelor of science degree and got a job at Weyerhaeuser Co. A student with a debilitating skin disease also is studying at the UW and figures to find work in the computer field.

Founded in 1992, DO-IT recruits high school students with disabilities into science, engineering and mathematics programs and careers, with an emphasis on recruiting to the UW.

Students come with a variety of disabilities, including blindness, hearing impairment, mobility impairments, learning disorders, brain injuries and other health impairments.

Participants in the scholars program are loaned computers equipped with "adaptive technology" -- special hardware and software that makes cyberspace accessible to the disabled. The computers can be operated using the head, finger, knee or mouth, and can provide information through Morse code or Braille.

Stabelfeldt learned about the program while he was in rehabilitation at Children's Hospital in Tacoma after the shooting that paralyzed him.

He applied for one of 20 positions in the DO-IT scholars program and was accepted. Over the next few years, DO-IT loaned him about $10,000 worth of computer equipment. He says the program staff also helped him come to grips with his disability and build his self-esteem.

Since he doesn't have the use of his hands, Stabelfeldt maneuvers a long, hollow tube called a mouthwand across an electronic pad. He types by pointing the want at letters on the computer screen, and blows into the wand to make it click like a computer mouse -- one breath for a single click, two breaths for a double-click.

The hardest part, he said, wasn't learning how to use the new technology. It was changing his attitude. "I didn't want to be paralyzed. There was one other disabled guy in town. He was a quad. But I didn't want to be associated with that," said Stabelfeldt, who grew up in the tiny town of Grapeview in Mason County

"When I attended DO-IT, that all changed. I met 40 other gimps -- that's what I call them. I realized, hey, man, they're cool. They're real people, too.

"I want to be a success, a big success. You know, so people say, 'You met Todd Stabelfeldt.'" he said. "And I will be there someday."