Getting Around: DO-IT program helps disabled teens overcome isolation

Steve Johnston

This article appeared in The Seattle Times on September 6th, 2000. The article has been edited to protect student identity.

It's tough enough being a teenager - all those emotions and feelings racing through your body and mind - so just imagine what it would be like to be a teenager with disabilities.

"There's a tremendous sense of isolation," says Sheryl Burgstahler, director of the University of Washington's DO-IT program. "They feel as though they are the only ones like that."

Partly because she wanted to eliminate those feelings of isolation, Burgstahler started the DO-IT program. DO-IT stands for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking Technology. With the help of a huge computer network, it connects hundreds of teenagers who have all types of disabilities.

Now in its eighth year, DO-IT has had more than 150 teens at its summer program at the university and hundreds more who are connected through its computers.

While the idea behind DO-IT was to get teens with disabilities interested in the sciences, engineering and mathematics, its larger goal was to get the teenagers with disabilities mixing with teenagers, particularly others with disabilities.

"I felt it was necessary for young people with disabilities to mix with other teens with disabilities," Burgstahler said. "Not the same disability, but different disabilities."

The program received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (the program is now financed by the state of Washington and the U.S. Department of Education as well as the National Science Foundation) and drew attention across the country. Several other states have similar programs.

To join, students have to be 16 and have an interest in math or the sciences. The teenagers also have to agree to help younger disabled students after they complete the program. Burgstahler said almost all of the students have stayed to help after finishing their training.

"That's the powerful piece of this program," Burgstahler said. "Kids can relate to other kids (with disabilities)."

Before access to the Internet, young people with disabilities were confined to their homes, especially when they lived in rural areas of the state. Now that the world is wired, these kids can communicate, do their studies and stay in touch with one another from their homes.

"At first I didn't think the DO-IT program could help me," said one participant, a 17-year-old high school senior in Bellingham. "Hey, I thought I didn't have a disability. I just couldn't hear."

But she changed her mind after attending the UW's summer program. "Now I use the program as a networking resource," she said. "I use it to meet people who understand the challenges that I face. Everybody is helping everybody else."

The senior said she plans to stay with DO-IT after she graduates from high school. "There is a valuable resource out there, and we are being taught to tap into it," she said.

The program accepts students with any disability, ranging from hearing loss, blindness and muscular dystrophy to cerebral palsy and speech impairment. In 1997 the program received the Presidential Award for Excellence "for embodying excellence in mentoring underrepresented students."

The program keeps track of the students as they go from high school to college to the working world. Not surprisingly, a lot of the students who have been through the program make a living with computers once they enter the work force.

One student, who went through the program in 1995 and went on to graduate from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, said he is now working in computer support for Weyerhaeuser.

"I am blind, with two glass eyes, and use a guide dog for mobility," one student wrote in an update on DO-IT graduates. "I use a computer with a speech synthesizer card and screen-reading software."

Another student, a quadriplegic, lives on Bainbridge Island. After earning his associate degree, he went to work for a software company on the island, where he specializes in medical products.

"I think we have a high number of kids going into computers because of where we live," Burgstahler said. "We're surrounded by the computer industry, and computers are something the kids can do."

No matter what disability a student has, the program can figure out a way to make a computer work for that student. Some said they operate their computers by blowing through a straw on the keyboard.

The students keep in touch through the Internet and offer one another tips on life. One student summed up the program by writing: "Technology: The great equalizer."

"Deaf people can do anything except hear," one student said. Another encouraged the others by writing, "Believe in your dreams . . . pursue your own destiny."

"I want to continue working with the DO-IT program after I graduate from high school," said another student. "They are working with people and providing them with a dream. They are saying you can do it."

To learn more about the DO-IT program, go to or call 206-685-3648.

Next month: Service dogs: They aren't just for the blind.

You can reach Steve Johnston at 206-515-5634, fax him at 425-453-0449, or write to him at The Seattle Times Eastside Bureau, 10777 Main St., Bellevue, WA 98004.