UW News

May 17, 2023

DO-IT Center celebrates 30 years of championing students with disabilities, building community

UW News

A decade ago, Dustine Bowker went to a pizza party at the Husky Union Building.

Then a junior at Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Bowker, who identifies as being on the autism spectrum, came to the University of Washington to learn about a program designed to help people like him. He’s had to learn to recognize social cues, he said, and adapt to fit into many situations.

But at the HUB that day, he felt a sense of belonging.

“That was my very first event where I saw dozens of people with disabilities in the same room, and that was a new experience for me,” said Bowker. “It’s a type of community, I guess, that I didn’t even realize was there.”

After attending the event at the HUB, Bowker became a DO-IT Scholar, joining a cohort of other Washington high school students with disabilities who come to the UW to learn about going to college, the different ways technology can work to help them achieve success, and the power of friendship, mentoring and leadership.

Bowker, who is now 27, returned to the HUB earlier this year for another pizza party, this time to welcome the newest DO-IT participants.

Now in its 30th year, the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology Center —DO-IT for short — has provided support and mentoring to more than 500 students with disabilities who have gone on to graduate high school and pursue four-year degrees. The DO-IT Center provides a roadmap for students with a variety of disabilities to transition to college and ensure the students have the accommodations they need on campus. Over the years, DO-IT also has created a larger community of professionals with disabilities.

In honor of UW Global Accessibility Awareness Day on May 18, the UW is launching a new UW accessibility website, which will serve as front door to accessibility at the UW.

Many participants, like Bowker, return to give back. Since 2021, he has worked as a student assistant in the DO-IT Center while pursuing a career as a disability rights attorney. He’s on track to graduate from the UW School of Law next year.

“I’d say that DO-IT really helps empower us, and I do mean ‘us’ as people with disabilities,” Bowker said. “Because at the end of the day, people with disabilities want to live with the same rights and privileges, the same sense of belonging as anyone else. That’s the overarching goal,” he said.

Using technology to provide access

In the early 1990s, DO-IT Center founder and Director Sheryl Burgstahler, who already was working in desktop computing at UW, recognized the potential of a nascent technology to help students with disabilities: the internet.

She saw that some of the region’s biggest companies already were using the technology, and that UW’s computers had the bandwidth to allow some users — like a student who was quadriplegic — to start tapping into the innovation.

Burgstahler used grant funding from the National Science Foundation, and later the state of Washington, to help establish the program that’s endured and evolved. She advocated early on to use emerging technologies as a way to provide access to people with disabilities, and DO-IT has adapted to the newest platforms and devices. (Burgstahler also works with UW-IT to help provide accessible technologies on campus.)

For example, when COVID forced students to learn online, DO-IT participants already were accustomed to remote learning and using tools like Zoom.

DO-IT Center staff also work with students in high school, sometimes advocating for their individual education plans, and then in college to ensure that the students are supported with technology to allow them to fully participate.

But it’s the core project — the DO-IT Scholars program — that best exemplifies how the Center helps bring students with disabilities into higher education and STEM fields, and fosters community.

Each summer, about three dozen high school students with disabilities spend a week at the UW, experiencing life in campus housing and learning what it takes to go to college.

“I tell the students that I’m going to be very happy for them if they’re successful,” Burgstahler said. “But I’m going to be a lot happier if I see that they’re contributing to a more inclusive world.”

Like everything else, the in-person component was moved online during the COVID pandemic. The three cohorts of DO-IT Scholars who began during the COVID years didn’t meet each other in person until the pizza party at the HUB earlier this year.

“The impact that our program has is building that community, number one, so students can actually feel like they belong somewhere with other people like them,” said Kayla Brown, a DO-IT program coordinator who was a DO-IT Scholar in 2005. Like Bowker, Brown went on to become a DO-IT ambassador. She earned a master’s in social work from the UW, and then returning to DO-IT to help others.

Brown is a first-generation college student who uses a motorized wheelchair. DO-IT staff helped her learn to advocate for herself, clearing a path for the transition to college.

“I felt less alone,” she said. “There are a lot of things any student has to do, but I felt like I was just a little bit behind everyone else.”

Building community

Brown’s job includes coordinating projects and programs as well as speaking publicly about disability advocacy and culture. She helps maintain contact with DO-IT ambassadors, cultivating the community and reinforcing the peer-to-peer relationships that are important during college years and into the professional world.

Learn more about the DO-IT Center here.

The work goes beyond people with disabilities, she said, pointing to the way universally designed environments open doors for all people. Building wider doorways, sidewalk curbs with ramps, text on screen or video captions are some of the ways that expand access whether a person uses a wheelchair or has trouble carrying a heavy book bag, has dyslexia, or some other disability.

And it’s important for the DO-IT Scholars to enjoy themselves, participants say. There was no academic agenda for the recent pizza party at the HUB. Instead the goal was to bring students together, get to know one another, play card games and have fun.

Over rounds of Uno, the students talked about their schoolwork and college aspirations, and listened to stories from DO-IT ambassadors about navigating life with a disability at college and in the professional world.

“One of the biggest influences with DO-IT is learning about disability, how to interact with people with disabilities, knowing about areas like the disability rights movements,” Bowker said. Through DO-IT, he’s made lifelong friends and now better understands that, when it comes to disability rights, he’s building on the legacy of earlier advocates. “I wanted to give back to that community in a way, and I think DO-IT has been one of the most profound sources of that.”