DO-IT News January 2006: All Articles

This page features all the articles from the DO-IT News January 2006 newsletter. This newsletter can also be viewed article by article on the DO-IT News January 2006 page.

Director's Digressions

As our DO-IT Scholars become more well known, we receive questions from near and far about all aspects of the program. In this issue of DO-IT News I'll summarize the history and various stages of this award-winning program for teens with disabilities. The DO-IT Scholars program, which began in 1993, was originally funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under three three-year grants (HRD#s 9255803, 9550003 9800324); during these nine years Scholars came from all over the country. To continue operation of the program after the use of NSF start-up funds, the state of Washington began funding the DO-IT Scholars program for Washington residents in 1998. The Boeing Company has also provided financial support to the Washington program for the last few years and other funding agencies have supported the involvement of several Scholars from other states.

The DO-IT Scholars program prepares high school students with disabilities for college and careers in science, engineering, technology, business, and other challenging fields. DO-IT Scholars:

  • explore careers and the world of work
  • learn to select and use assistive technology
  • experience college life on the University of Washington campus during the summer
  • learn about reasonable accommodations at school and in the workplace
  • network with peers and working professionals with disabilities
  • gain prerequisite knowledge to enter and succeed in college and careers

Through a competitive application process, the DO-IT Advisory Board selects 20 new Scholars each year. Most are in their sophomore year of high school. The DO-IT Scholars program consists of three phases after which the DO-IT Scholars become DO-IT Ambassadors.

Phase I Scholars. Beginning with their acceptance date, Scholars are in Phase I. Phase I Scholars learn to use computers and the Internet to enrich their education and to explore careers. They communicate electronically from home using computers loaned to them by DO-IT and, if necessary, special assistive technology to enable their use. Frequent electronic communications and personal contacts bring Scholars together with DO-IT Mentors to facilitate academic, career, and personal achievements. Mentors are college students, faculty, and practicing professionals, many with disabilities themselves.

Summer Study I. During a two-week, live-in Summer Study at the University of Washington in Seattle, DO-IT Scholars participate in academic lectures and labs; live in residence halls; and practice skills which will help them to be independent and successful in a college setting. Once they have completed Summer Study I they become Phase II Scholars.

Phase II Scholars. Phase II Scholars are supported with information about college application procedures, entrance requirements, and additional tips and resources to help them prepare for their transition to college. DO-IT Scholars develop and practice communication and leadership skills by acting as peer mentors for incoming Phase I DO-IT Scholars. Communication occurs in-person during the Summer Study program and electronically throughout the year. Additionally, Phase II Scholars apply their interests, skills, and knowledge to design and complete independent and team projects with DO-IT Mentors and staff acting as resources.

Summer Study II. DO-IT Scholars return to the University of Washington campus for a one-week program. They work in small groups with a faculty member in a specific topic area and report to each other and the Phase I participants the results of their year-round project. Participants then become Phase III Scholars.

Phase III Scholars. This Phase continues until Scholars graduate from high school. After graduation they become DO-IT Ambassadors.

Summer Study III. Many Ambassadors return for their third summer as Summer Study Interns and/or participate in other exciting internship experiences coordinated by DO-IT staff.

Ambassadors. DO-IT Ambassadors help with program activities and continue to participate in electronic communications and mentor younger Scholars. DO-IT staff members work with participants to locate internships and other work-based learning opportunities.

A common question about the DO-IT Scholars program is, "When does it end?" The truth is that the Scholars program has a beginning but no ending. DO-IT Ambassadors continue to share their experiences with each other and the younger participants and support one another and DO-IT activities. Wherever they are, they contribute to making college programs, employment settings, and other aspects of adult life more accessible to individuals with disabilities similar to and different than their own. DO-IT Ambassadors are leaders in their generation. It's fun for all of us in the DO-IT community to get regular announcements of graduations, new jobs, travel experiences, marriages, and babies!

Goodbye, J.W.

Sheryl Burgstahler
Picture of J.W.
1999 DO-IT Scholar, J.W.

I am sad to inform you that J.W., a '99 Scholar, has passed away. J.W. graduated from Big Bend Community College and had planned to continue at a four-year school. He loved using computers and was interested in a career in computer-aided design or video game programming. We will always remember J.W. as a serious student, a sports-enthusiast, and a video game pro. After one year of participation as a DO-IT Scholar he said "The thing I like most about DO-IT is that it gives me more of a feel for college life such as living in the dorms." He will be greatly missed.




Summer Study '05: What Do the Phase I Scholars Do?

DO-IT Phase I Scholars participate in a two-week, live-in Summer Study session on the University of Washington campus in Seattle, Washington. They learn about college life; surf the Internet; interact with peers, staff, and mentors; and have fun. Below, '05 Phase I Scholars share some of their experiences. Articles by previous Phase I Scholars can be found in earlier newsletters at

Interns: Give a Helping Hand

by Phase I Scholars, Daren and Hunter

On our way to DO-IT Summer Study, those of us who were Phase I Scholars did not know what to expect. We were nervous and unsure. Right away when we arrived, the interns made us feel welcome. They showed us to our rooms, talked with us and introduced us to other people in the program. This made it easier for us to get comfortable. The interns also helped the Phase I Scholars get to know the University of Washington campus. We followed the interns around as we went to dinner and to classes. Eventually, we got used to the campus and didn't need the interns all the time when moving throughout the area.

Without the help of the DO-IT interns at the beginning of Summer Study, we would have been lost. Help from the interns taught us how we can help Phase I Scholars when we are interns!

Get to the Heart of It

Picture of the Heart Dissection Lab.
Phase I DO-IT Scholars participate in the heart dissection lab

by Phase I Scholars, Jennifer and Kayla B.

Our group of Phase I Scholars got to the UW and got busy. We opened the Summer Study program by diving right in and dissecting a heart. Some were squeamish but most were excited. This aspect of biology is creepy to some students. Fascinating, definitely, in fact biology was the best of the four science classes we were involved in, but it is also, not by coincidence, the creepiest. The hearts we worked on belonged to pigs from a slaughterhouse; instead of wasting them, we used the hearts to better understand the cardiovascular system. You might wonder, how would this activity affect students with disabilities?

People with learning disabilities had little problem with this session. However, there were some challenges involved in dissecting the heart for people who had mobility impairments that affected their hand motion. Thankfully, everyone had a partner to work with. We all gave the dissection our best shot. We took scissors, as in regular cutting scissors, and cut open a vital organ! Gah! What a great experience. Not everyday do you have an opportunity to see a heart and work on it.

This session also gave all of us a hint of what life science is all about. Who knows, maybe there is a future heart surgeon among us or others of us who are now more certain that we will stick to computer programming. Either way it got some of us out of our boxes and comfort zones. And you know what? It worked, and that's a good thing because trying new things will help all of us in the long run. So thank you DO-IT for this experience.

Lights and Lasers

by Phase I Scholars, Shavonne and Dulce

Lights, camera, laser! That's right, we said laser not action and that's just what we're writing about - the fantastic laser show at the Pacific Science Center. This trip took us to explore the world of science in a variety of ways, but the highlight was the laser show which took place to the smooth melodies of such Motown groups as the Temptations, Supremes, and The Jackson 5.

So what's a laser show like you ask? Picture a huge open room with nothing but a slanting carpet floor that everyone lies on to get a better view of the show above them. Once everyone finds their spot all the lights shut off and the room goes pitch black, perfect for the lasers to begin their work. The music, which this time was a Motown theme, starts, and then on come the lasers and the fun! For our show they started with some basic monochrome lasers that bent and twisted in various ways; then things got a bit more creative with more colors and more tricky twisting of the lasers. The show reached its pinnacle when they did something resembling a laser music video to the Jackson 5's song, ABC. This was really cool and probably took a long time to create just right to fit the room. The laser show was definitely the highlight of the Pacific Science Center trip!

Risk-Taking at the Pacific Science Center

by Phase I Scholars, Eli and Jesse

On Saturday July 31st the Phase I Scholars went to the Pacific Science Center. One of the more interesting exhibits was about risk; specifically, the probabilities involved in risk. In this exhibit, you could play a mock game show for fictitious prizes, lie down on a bed of nails, and try to find a single black bead among a million other colors of beads. Tying in with this theme was the IMAX movie we saw: Adrenaline Rush: the Science of Risk. As the name implies, it is a movie about the risks some people will take just to get a good adrenaline rush, though it focused primarily on sky-diving and base-jumping.

As far as accessibility was concerned, there weren't many problems for people with learning disabilities. However, some of the exhibits where sound (or sight) is required were inaccessible for people who are deaf (or blind) and need to be altered to accommodate them.

The Value of Technology

by Phase I Scholar, Daman

Technology levels the playing field for people with disabilities, from education to careers to social opportunities. Starting early in elementary school, technology has been a vital tool in my life. I have used a laptop since second or third grade to complete homework assignments and for entertainment. I will show you how technology has changed my life and how it can change yours.

In my early years, I just typed in Microsoft Word. At this time technology was still evolving and I had a laptop that had Windows 3.1! My early start with technology changed my life forever. By fourth grade I could do some customization of the computer. I was doing all my homework on the computer and starting to communicate by e-mail at this point. Whenever I did an oral presentation, I would make a PowerPoint presentation. One thing that helped me greatly was my teachers. In fourth grade, my teacher had us in the computer lab first thing everyday. Then, in fifth and sixth grade, I was in a multi-age class and one of my teachers was in a computer training program, which opened up a wealth of information.

By junior high I had a lot of knowledge about computers. I could do more than most kids my age. Halfway though my seventh grade year, I started a year-long high school computer maintenance class. Being the youngest in the class, I still managed to get an A-. By the end of that class, I had some advanced computer skills. In eighth grade, I took CADD, Computer Aided Drafting and Design. This class gave me some skills for my primary career interest, being an architect.

In ninth grade, I took three computer classes. First, I took a college level class, Cisco Academy, which is a computer networking class. Second, I took two classes in one period, Web Design and Maintenance, and Computer Applications. Web Design taught me a ton about the Internet and how to manage a large website. I became the school's Assistant Webmaster and had access to the web server. In my Computer Applications class, I received three Microsoft Office User Specialist Certifications: Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Also, that year, I received an Information Technology Award. In tenth grade, I took Store Management to learn about E-Commerce.

DO-IT has furthered my experiences with technology. DO-IT gave me access to the assistive technology I need. Also, it has given me the opportunity to help others with similar interests and to network with them. I think this is a wonderful program!

Where did all this training get me?

Last year, I was the Webmaster at my school. I also became the Student Manager of the Athletic Department, where I updated the sports websites daily, and I received my varsity letter. I also competed in DECA, an association of marketing students by creating an E-Commerce Business Management Plan, which placed 11th at state.

I also create personal, professional, and non-profit websites, including United Cerebral Palsy's (UCP) regional website. I have the opportunity to help others with technology, just like I was helped. I'm starting to speak at events, sharing the vital message that people with disabilities are no different than anyone else. I work with UCP, DO-IT, and local organizations to find places to speak. Maybe someday all people will look at others equally.

Overall, technology is vital for everyone, but especially people with disabilities. We need to know how to use technology to succeed in today's society. By getting started early, we can have the time to get the training and experience to succeed, not only in careers, but in education and social opportunities. If you start early working with technology, you will be able to get anywhere you want in your life. I hope you all have the opportunity to integrate technology into your life and/or someone else's life.

Summer Study '05: What Do the Phase II Scholars Do?

Phase II Scholars return to the University of Washington campus for their second Summer Study. They meet the Phase I Scholars as they participate in their first Summer Study, learn about college life and career preparation, and participate in a one-week workshop with postsecondary instructors.

Curbcuts in Cyberspace

by Phase II Scholars, Ashley, Carrie, Tracy F., Blanca, Daniel H.

At DO-IT Summer Study we learned a lot about Web accessibility - making the Web more accessible for people who have disabilities, some using assistive technology. One of the types of assistive technology that we learned about is a "speaking browser" called Home Page Reader™. People who use Home Page Reader™ are often people who have reading disabilities or visual impairments. We also learned that some people unable to use a mouse may just use the keyboard to navigate the Web using a variety of Web browsers, such as Internet Explorer™.

Picture of the Phase II Group.
Phase II DO-IT Scholars participate in a web accessibility workshop

We had opportunities to see some accessibility issues with specific websites. For example, some titles looked like headings but were not. When using Home Page Reader™ that meant we couldn't "skim" the page. After we added the proper html code, we were able to "skim" by navigating through the headings. We wrote a report describing accessibility issues and suggested repairs for each one. There are some straightforward fixes that can easily make sites more accessible. We presented our findings to the managers of a website and they seemed very willing to take our suggestions back to the company.

Caravanning Through Code

by Phase II Scholars, Lukas, Maryann, Bud, Michael, Andrew B.

On Monday, August 1, 2005, a caravan consisting of three power chairs, three walkers, one hitchhiker, two dogs, and a skitcher headed off at 8:45a.m. to the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering on the UW Seattle campus for a week full of pictures and math. The common bond between us, besides sharing a disability, was that we were heading off to the DO-IT Summer Study "Game of Life" workshop, headed by UW professor, Dr. Richard Ladner. We kicked the week off by getting kicked out (we were so psyched about the Game of Life that we arrived too early!). After five minutes we were let back in and started our orientation, which consisted of demos in the Game of Life program.

Each student was assigned a UW Computer Science student to work with for three hours a day, every day, for the entire week. We studied and implemented a variety of image processing algorithms and different behaviors of cellular automata (cellular movement). Every one of us wrote code in Java! All but one of us hadn't written code at all before that week. All in all, the Game of Life workshop was filled a lot of imagination and determination.

Disability Mentoring Day, Oct. 19, 2005

Scott Bellman, DO-IT staff
Group Picture of Teachers and Mentors.
2006 teachers and mentors at the Federal Aviation Administration. Front row on the left is FAA employee and DO-IT '98 Scholar, Marissa

This year, 64 people in the Seattle area participated in Disability Mentoring Day (DMD). As part of DMD they visited employers to hear about the companies and to meet with mentors to learn about their careers. Participants, included nine college students, fifty-three high school students, and two job seekers with disabilities. They visited employers with diverse characteristics, including:

  • Boeing
  • University of Washington
  • the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • the National Oceanographic and Atmoshperic Administration
  • Children's Hospital
  • North Seattle Community College
  • the Transportation Safety Administration
  • the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • Microsoft

One of the teachers involved in DMD shared these comments when reflecting on her students' experiences:

"Our DMD Field Trip to the FAA was beneficial to all of my students. The primary benefit was that the students were able to see other disabled persons, not only at work, but at important jobs using a variety of skills and technology! The next benefit was that they were able to understand that many large employers have a number of careers available and that there are many options for them."

DO-IT Scholar Profile

Andrew, '05 Scholar
Picture of DO-IT Scholar Andrew
2005 DO-IT Scholar, Andrew

As you may or may not know,
My disability is one that doesn't always show,
It is apart of me as I am aware,
Making my personality something rare,
For my disability is something I must work with,
It is definitely real, not a tall tale or Greek myth,
What I ask from you is to be mature,
Treat me with respect that is pure,
For my disability has no cure,
And that is a lot to endure,

So when you see someone with any type of disability for that matter,
Try to embrace a healthy relationship instead of letting it shatter,
Making both your & their life more complete,
Instead of filling it with misconceptions, assumptions, & heat,
For as one learns to become more loving,
One can focus on getting through life with communication instead of violence & shoving,
Bringing the world together,
Into a resourceful community even in times of bad weather.

DO-IT Staff Profile

Picture of DO-IT Staff member Charity
DO-IT Staff member Charity

My name is Charity Ranger and I am a recent graduate of the UW. While a student i worked part-time in the DO-IT office. Prior to coming to the University of Washington, I rarely left my hometown community of West Seattle. As far back as kindergarten I was described by a teacher as "a free spirit" when, during a kindergarten concert, I decided that rather than sing, it would be more fun to play on the banister and refused to join my classmates in singing a merry song.

As a student at the UW, I enjoyed going to classes and getting involved in activism. I have a double major in communication and diversity & disability studies, a major that I designed myself, a fact that I am FAR too proud of. I also started the University of Washington's disability student group called Disability Advocacy Student Alliance (DASA).

At DO-IT, I stuffed envelopes, mailed out DO-IT information, answered the main phone line, and helped out with program activities. I am absolutely ecstatic about working with the wonderful people at DO-IT!

AccessSTEM Intern Completes NASA Internship!

Picture of Carson.
AccessSTEM Intern, Carson, completes NASA internship

The following excerpts are from email messages sent by Carson, a University of Washington student with a learning disability who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in summer (2005). This internship opportunity was coordinated through DO-IT's AccessSTEM project.

June 7: "Some people have asked me about where I applied to get the NASA internship. It is through a program called ENTRYPOINT at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). I would strongly encourage you to apply if you are a college student and have an interest in a career in science or engineering."

June 19: "It has been one week since I flew into New Orleans to start an 8-week internship at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. I'm living in New Orleans with three other guys, one of whom is also an intern. I'm working with Boeing engineers and technicians who have been contracted by NASA to test rocket engines. This first week has been a lot of fun. The plume of vapor is huge and produces heavy rain! Mainly this past week I have been meeting people and getting a feel for how everything fits together. One specific thing I did this week was to enter ultrasonic bolt measurements into a database. They keep track of every minute detail to the nth degree because even a small error can spell disaster. Last night we went to Bourbon Street in downtown New Orleans-it was quite a site to see."

June 23: "There are three different 'test stands', which are very large concrete structures that cradle the engines during testing. There are several teams who facilitate the testing process. The one I am assigned to is called 'ground support and maintenance'. Their activities include making parts for maintenance purposes. We also do load testing to make sure the equipment can properly hold the engine. The test results came in yesterday and it was found there were several blowouts in the coolant tubing which lines the nozzle. Today I went over to check out the damage."

July 3: "This week I worked on two different projects, one in the office and the other on the engine test stand. The office job involved tracking down and making a list of lapping tools. They are used to smooth down joints on the engine tubing. The engine we work on is called the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME). I have been trying to understand how it works. Looking at it's blue print is kind of mind boggling. The other job I'm working on is on the test complex. What I am doing there is helping a mechanic take down a bunch of old tubing and components used on a project that is no longer in service. This internship is a unique chance for me to mix with really different people."

July 27: "It was determined that a piece of foam that came off the shuttle's main fuel tank about two minutes into flight was very serious. Had it come off earlier, they said, it could have caused fatal damage to the spacecraft. This is a major setback to NASA because they have been working very hard on this issue. Hopefully this problem can be fixed soon. The current mission is not in jeopardy as far as anyone knows, but we did have a close call."

On August 9th, Space Shuttle Discovery returned safely to earth shortly after Carson returned home from his internship. Carson left New Orleans two weeks before hurricane Katrina.

Why Participate in Work-Based Learning?

Work-based learning experiences can help you:

  • Clarify academic and career interests.
  • Pay for your education and gain academic credit.
  • Develop human relations skills through interaction with co-workers.
  • Gain exposure to specialized facilities not available on campus.
  • Develop job-search skills, resumes, and cover letters.
  • Develop contacts for employment after graduation.
  • Practice disclosing your disability and requesting accommodations.

For more information about the value of work-based learning, read the DO-IT publication It's Your Career: Work-Based Learning Opportunities for College Students with Disabilities at:

Student Career Workshop at ACCESS Job Expo at Microsoft

Tami Tidwell, DO-IT staff

On November 1, 2005, high school juniors and seniors from as far as Wenatchee, Vancouver and Oak Harbor came with their teachers to Microsoft to attend the Student Career Workshop at the ACCESS Job Expo. The event included how to get and keep a job, as well as job tips from employers. A panel of employees with a variety of disabilities, varying levels of education, and different career stages shared their experiences and answered questions about education, securing employment, and experiences. After the workshop, students got to put what they learned to the test by visiting over 50 exhibitor booths, including Starbucks, Nordstrom, and Safeway, at the ACCESS Job Expo.

According to Denise Bergstrom, a teacher from Mt. Rainier High School, her students talked about their experience for days. Many of them collected job applications for the first time and are expecting calls for interviews soon. Other students have used the tools they learned and the knowledge they gained to apply for positions at local businesses. It was a wonderful event and we look forward to an even bigger turnout next year!

2005 DO-IT Trailblazer Awards

Sara Lopez, DO-IT staff

DO-IT Trailblazer awards highlight DO-IT community members who have forged new pathways which will benefit others. For this award we have selected individuals who, through their work and accomplishments, have changed the way the world views people with disabilities and their potential to succeed in challenging careers and activities. The 2005 recipients of the Trailblazer awards are listed below

Karen Braitmayer

Architect, DO-IT Mentor: For accomplishments as a business owner and in progressing accessibility efforts within the field the architecture.

  • Karen is a terrific role model as a person with a disability in a challenging career, business owner, and strong advocate.
  • She is active in DO-IT's electronic mentoring community and a participant on multiple DO-IT panels.
  • Karen worked actively to assist a specific Scholar, who was being discouraged from entering architecture, in learning about how she could be successful in her college courses and about what accommodations might be effective.
  • She created awareness about accessible housing on a 2005 episode of Extreme Makeover-Home Edition
  • Karen has had an impact on the field of architecture and design as an active member of Adaptive Environments, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to researching, gathering, and promoting the most current ideas on Human-Centered Design.

Mylene Padolina

Microsoft Sr. Diversity Consultant, DO-IT Partner: For accomplishments in the integration of disability in the diversity efforts of businesses and programs encouraging youth to pursue high tech career fields.

  • In her role as the Senior Diversity Consultant at Microsoft, Mylene is working to create a corporate environment that is responsive and supportive for employees with disabilities. She is a true champion in the effort to keep disability highly visible and maintain its proper place in the diversity mix.
  • She is an enthusiastic partner of DO-IT supporting field trips to Microsoft, job shadows, encouraging internship applicants, facilitating access to software for Scholars, and recruiting employees with disabilities to participate on panels.
  • Mylene has tirelessly worked to assist DO-IT in connecting with other organizations and networking to increase the inclusion of students with disabilities in other diversity efforts. She is active with the Washington Business Leadership Network, Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities, and the ACCESS Job Fair.


DO-IT Ambassador and '98 Scholar: For accomplishments in increasing access and support on the UW campus and providing a strong role model to students with invisible disabilities.

  • In her third year at the UW, Jessie is pursuing a challenging major in informatics and has been active in pursuing incredible internship opportunities. Jessie turned a high school senior project experience in the UW HIT lab into a summer internship working wtih virtual reality technology. She was selected for the highly competitive AAPD/Microsoft IT internship in Washington DC, and the following year was selected for another D.C. internship with the World Bank Information Solutions group.
  • Articulate and engaging, Jessie participates in DO-IT videos, presentations, panels, and the electronic community. Of tremendous value is Jessie's willingness to disclose and discuss her learning disability, which is not readily apparent.
  • She has recently taken a leadership role in DASA (Disability Advocacy Student Alliance) a new student group here on the UW campus.

Suzanne Weghorst

Assistant director for research, UW Human Interface Technology Lab: For accomplishments in research and providing numerous opportunities for students with disabilities to explore the field of human interface technology.

  • Suzanne is a leader in providing a Phase II workshop and Phase I tour for numerous Summer Study since its early years. These tours and workshops are some of the most highly rated activities on the Summer Study schedule!
  • She is incredibly supportive in establishing HIT Lab internship opportunities for both high school and college students.
  • Suzanne is a leader in research on science applications for students who have disabilities. Her interests and professional work focus on the role of virtual reality in the world of medicine.

Tech Tips: Are You Talking To Your Computer Again?

Terry Thompson, DO-IT staff

I'm writing this installment of Tech Tips while sitting in the airport waiting for a flight. The man sitting next to me says "The airport sure is crowded today." I agree with him, and then I realize he's not talking to me: He's talking on his wireless phone. As I glance around at my fellow travelers at the gate, I notice that over half are carrying on conversations, but none of these are with people next to them. Wireless phones have done much to reduce peoples' inhibitions about speaking openly in public. This leads me to wonder if someday people will be equally comfortable about operating their computers by voice, and verbally composing documents using speech recognition technology. 

Picture of two DO-IT Scholars using a computer.
DO-IT Scholars at a computer

Speech recognition technology has been around for decades. Researchers in AT&T's Bell Labs began trying to get computers to transcribe human speech in 1936. The first company to release a commercial speech recognition product was Covox in 1982. That same year, Dragon Systems was founded by James and Janet Baker, two former IBM researchers who had been working on speech recognition at IBM. In 1990, they released Dragon Dictate™, the first large-vocabulary speech-to-text system for general-purpose dictation. Their primary market for Dragon Dictate™ was individuals with disabilities, particularly those with mobility impairments who otherwise had difficulty typing text into the computer. Since these early days, speech recognition has caught on in mainstream markets, and people with disabilities are rarely even mentioned in product marketing materials. Nevertheless, speech recognition technology can benefit people with limited use of their hands or limited dexterity, people with repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and people with learning disabilities who have difficulty writing. It allows people to speak naturally, and transcribes what they say, or at least, what it thinks they say.

Accuracy and ease-of-use are the greatest obstacles to speech recognition being a perfect solution for everyone. Speech recognition products make mistakes-you say "It's right for us", and "his arthritis" appears on the screen. Fortunately, speech recognition products can be trained to understand their users' pronunciation. I have personally known people with severely compromised speech who have successfully trained their computers to understand them, but it required extraordinary patience and time.

To be a successful user of speech recognition, you need to be able to identify when the computer has made a mistake, and you have to correct it. Otherwise its mistake gets reinforced, and it learns incorrectly. Think of speech recognition as an infant - it's preprogrammed to understand language, but doesn't understand anything yet, and won't understand anything until its parent (you) works with it, teaches it, and corrects its mistakes.

With each new version, speech recognition products become more accurate. Given the potential consumer market for speech recognition, and the potential boost to productivity (we speak 150 words per minute - very few people can type that fast), the federal government and many private companies are dedicating extensive time and money to continued research and development. Someday, everyone will be talking to their computers, and their computers will understand them, or will be intelligent enough to ask for clarification.

Until then, we still have to put in considerable time and effort to get speech recognition products to work for us, but doing so can save considerable time in the end, and allow many individuals with disabilities to create documents much more quickly than they otherwise could.

Twenty-three years after it was founded, Dragon continues be the leading consumer speech recognition product, though it has bounced around a bit over the years. In 2000, Dragon Systems was acquired by Lernout & Hauspie (L&H). In 2001, L&H's speech recognition products (including their recently acquired Dragon products) were acquired by Scansoft. On October 18, 2005, Scansoft changed its name to Nuance. Despite the name change, speech recognition continues to be at the forefront of Nuance's product offerings. The latest version of Dragon Naturally Speaking is version 13, which comes in three primary versions: standard, preferred, and professional. The price goes up with each of these versions, but so does the functionality. The Nuance website includes a Feature Comparison so you can see which version is right for you (

Speech recognition is also available in Microsoft Office 2002 and higher. It's not as feature-rich as Dragon Naturally Speaking, but it allows you to dictate text into any Office program, as well as select menus and other Office program features. It isn't installed by default, but to try it, select Tools > Speech from the Microsoft Word menu. You will be prompted to install speech, and to train Microsoft Speech to recognize your voice.

For Mac users, Mac OS X provides speech recognition abilities out of the box, though it is only capable of understanding spoken commands for controlling applications. It doesn't do dictation. For dictation you have to buy a separate product such as iListen™ ( or IBM ViaVoice™ for Mac OS X (

In his keynote speeches, Bill Gates is known to hype the Conversational User Interface (CUI), pronounced "cooey". Like many technological visionaries, he believes that someday we will all be interacting conversationally with our computers as if they were human beings. Today's speech recognition products are not particularly good at conversation. But they are useful tools, which given an investment of time and patience, can make a significant difference in the ability of many individuals to use the computer and efficiently compose documents.

The Thread-Practicing Problem Solving

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

A DO-IT Ambassador recently posed the following question within our Internet discussion forum. I will share with you some of the responses so that you can get the flavor of the many rich conversations the DO-IT community has online.

Should students be expected to take long examinations in one sitting? A few days ago, I took an accounting examination in the disability resource center that was 47 questions long. After about 3 to 3.5 hours, I started losing concentration and reached the point where I could not complete the examination. Should I be expected to take long tests in 1 sitting? What are your viewpoints on this?

DO-IT Ambassador: I think you should be given as many sittings as other students. So if they get only one sitting you should too. More than one could give you an unfair advantage. But perhaps you need to look into why the test is taking you that long.

DO-IT Ambassador (who posted original question): The main reason my examinations take so long is that in accounting my examinations usually require me to perform calculations. The tests contain a lot of multiple-choice questions. I use my portable PC to do the calculations. It's equipped with both Excel™ and Windows Calculator™. For a multi-step problem I like to use Excel™ to perform the calculations for two reasons:

  1. It allows me to check my work and see what steps I have already taken.
  2. I can edit my formulas and reduce the chances that I will have to start the problem all over again.

Even with all those features, all too frequently, my calculations don't match the answers I have to choose from. Sometimes, it takes me several tries to determine where I am making my mistake.

DO-IT Mentor: How much time did the other students get for the exam? How long do you think it would have taken you to complete the test? It seems that the fact that your answers don't match the choices is not a disability-related problem, but one that every student could run into. Traditionally, a common reasonable accommodation is for the student with a disability to be given twice the amount of time the other students get. If you need even more time than that, you might reconsider whether you are using the most efficient method.

DO-IT Mentor: The fundamental question you have to ask and answer is whether or not you're taking longer on the test is a direct result of your disAbility and is something that can be reasonably accommodated. You'd want to prove that your accommodation is resolving a problem created by your disAbility and is not artificially compensating for a lack of knowledge to answer the questions.

The second thought I had was on test taking strategies. Sometimes with multiple choice tests, it is not necessary to work out every answer down to the last digit. Often, by estimating, looking at orders of magnitude, or the units that answers are presented in, the answer can be found without completing all of the calculations. If the professor is presenting some questions in multiple choice format rather than asking you to show your work and present all of the steps of your calculations, they may be expecting you to use more general knowledge of accounting to determine the correct answer. It might be helpful to discuss this with the professor or the TA [teaching assistant] and get some advice on test taking strategies.

DO-IT Mentor: I get time-and-a-half to take my tests, and I'm considering asking for double time because I have difficulties with both coordination and severe test anxiety. I personally don't like the idea of breaking the test up into two pieces because it's too tempting to take a peek at notes during the interim-an unfair advantage (and probably cheating which is not cool!). That said, I take breaks during my tests, especially the long ones! At [my school], we're allowed to take our tests to the proctor/DRS (Disability Resources Servies) staff person and take breaks, and break time does NOT go on our time. For me, breaks are a must because I get so worked up that either my head will explode or I'll have a "nervous breakdown" and start crying... neither situation would be pretty! :) I take a break and eat something in the DRS office or talk to one of the DRS people for a while; then, when I feel better, it's back to work.

On the other hand, you bring up a good point about fatigue. I'd probably go take a nap in DRS or in the lounge near DRS, but many people are not as informal as I am. Thoughts???

DO-IT Ambassador: In college I have never had to take breaks. However in taking the SATs (SAT>>>>spelled out) I was able to take breaks as part of the accommodations. I'm not sure if it transfers over to college, but it should be allowed if it is an appropriate accommodation.

DO-IT Mentor: One possible solution to the problem of the student having a chance to look at notes between test sessions would be to set up ahead of time that the test would be given in two parts. Then the student would only be given half of the questions at each test session. Do you think a professor would go for that kind of an arrangement?

DO-IT Ambassador: I think that would depend a lot on the makeup of the exam. Sometimes one question offers clues to other questions. Thinking back, I believe I would have had a difficult time convincing professors that an exam needed to be taken over two periods. There just seems like too much opportunity to have a second cram session. I am not saying anyone would do that; we're all honest responsible people. However, it is my opinion that the less suspicious situations one can be in the better.

DO-IT Ambassador: As far as calculations go, if your problem is related to using the calculator, you could ask the person proctoring the test to help you. I recently took a math test in the DSS office, and the test proctor typed into the calculator what I told her to, and then she read off the answer for me to write on the test.

DO-IT Ambassador (who posted original question): I think the main problem is keeping track of the steps I have taken during calculations. This is why I never ask the person proctoring the examination to enter information into a calculator for me. There are several advantages to using a program like Excel or Windows Calculator:

  1. I can more easily keep track of information, especially when using Excel. I can look at the last calculations I did and find out what I need to do next.
  2. I can write down the numbers as the procter is reading them to me. This is faster than having the procter read the test several times and trying to remember what to tell him to enter. Even with programs like Windows Calculator or Excel, I still lose track of information. This is what slows me down during examinations.

DO-IT Mentor: Perhaps you can arrange to take a five-minute break every hour or a 10 minute break every two hours before you take your next long exam.

Also, have you been able to determine the main reason you are unable to get an answer that matches one of the choices? For example, are you making typographical errors when entering the numbers or formulas? Or are you making a thinking error when first deciding how to approach the problem? Knowing the reason for the mistakes might help you figure out how to prevent them.

DO-IT Ambassador (who posted original question): I have not completely determined what is keeping me from getting an answer that matches the options on the examination. However, I have a few theories:

  1. It could be a problem working with formulas.
  2. Another part of the problem could be with the order of operations.
  3. Part of the problem could also be drowsiness. If I spend too much time working on an examination, I start getting drowsy and have trouble concentrating on what I'm doing.

DO-IT Mentor: One thought would be to sit down with a TA and go over your problem solving process. That would help you identify where exactly the issue is coming from. That would probably help you determine if the answer is #1 or #2.

DO-IT Mentor: There aren't many people on the planet that can concentrate for 3+ hours straight without losing concentration-whether at work or in tests. In those situations I find it works best to periodically take 30-second breaks. Put down the pencil (or step away from the computer), focus on deep breaths, and do some stretches. You can determine whatever works best for you. The other skill learned here is to monitor yourself, to know when your lack of concentration is crossing a line where you become less effective, then addressing that.

Sometimes people think this kind of technique slows them down too much to get the work done. Maybe it does for some, but for me it actually makes the rest of my time much more efficient. School teaches a lot more than just literal knowledge; it also forces someone to learn more practical skills. That's not to say there aren't disAbilities that make this kind of long testing difficult and thus very justifiably accommodated.

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