Sheryl Burgstahler

Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking & Technology = DO-IT! Gaining access to science, engineering and mathematics

by Sheryl Burgstahler
in Exceptional Parent, November, 1994

[DO-IT featured on the cover of Exceptional Parent magazine]
Caption: Nhi Duong at home with her computer.

High school sophmore Randy Hammer was a good student who loved to participate in sports. Blind since birth, he was interested in foreign languages and science. However, all printed materials needed to be produced on tape or in Braille or read to him-all slow processes. He wondered if he would be able to keep up with academics if he went to college. Then, Randy became a “scholar” at the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) program at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. In this program, Randy gained access to a portable computer system with voice output, a scanner with optical character recognition, a Braille printer and a wealth of human and information resources on the Internet network. Using the Internet, he read a newspaper by himself for the first time in his life. He met engineers, scientists and university students on the net; some of them with similar disabilities. “My computer and access to the Internet have become my eyes to the world,” Randy reports.

In live-in summer programs at the university, Randy participated in science and engineering labs and discovered career options. He also had a firsthand taste of dorm life. “I learned what college life is all about and, most importantly, I learned that the early bird catches the shower,” Randy says.

Technology Opens Doors

Only a few years ago, careers in science, engineering and mathematics might have seemed like pipe dreams for individuals with disabilities. However, because of developments in adaptive technologies, more extensive use of computers and networks in these fields and an explosion of electronic resources, opportunities are growing.

Still, challenges remain. DO-IT provides students with the tools needed to face these challenges so they can pursue science, engineering and mathematics programs and careers. Funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, DO-IT began in 1992 in UW’s College of Engineering and department of Computing and Communications.

The DO-IT Scholars program allows sophomore or junior high school students with disabilities to study science, engineering and mathematics; experience campus living; develop self-advocacy skills; interact with mentors and use technology to pursue academic interests. The only comprehensive program of its kind in the nation, it admits students from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Alaska.

Caption: Ben Carroll, who has spinal muscular atrophy, is unable to walk or lift his arms. He uses computers through voice input.[Ben Carroll using computer]


DO-IT scholars learn to use computers and the Internet to explore academic and career interests. Computers and adaptive technologies are selected for each participant; local Internet connections are established and in-home training is provided.

Although Duchenne muscular dystrophy has slowly taken away one scholar’s ability to walk, dress himself and manipulate a fork, adaptive technologies have allowed him to interact with hundreds of people on the Internet. “I don’t see myself as disabled,” he says. “I see myself as playing football and baseball even though I don’t… Sometimes when I’m e-mailing somebody, I think of myself as being ‘normal.’ It kind of puts you on equal footing.”


DO-IT scholars use electronic communications and personal meetings to connect with post-secondary students and career “mentors” to facilitate academic, career and personal achievements. Mentors study or work in many fields, including computer programming, post-secondary education, statistics, physics, engineering, computer science, computer consulting and biology. Mentors “provide us with useful contacts in academics, career and personal areas… They help participants find their talents and interests, and confirm their goals,” one scholar says.

Experienced scholars learn communication and leadership skills as “peer mentors” for new program participants. A parent reports that her son, a scholar with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and a learning disability has helped another child with ADD “by taking the boy to register for high school and showing him around so he will know where things are on the first day of class.”

Summer Study

At live-in programs held during two consecutive summers at UW, scholars study science, engineering and math through lectures, labs, computer applications and the Internet network. Subjects include oceanography; heart surgery; chemistry; virtual reality; geophysics; material sciences; civil, mechanical and electrical engineering; mathematics; biology; physics and astronomy. As new scholars spent time getting to know students with disabilities different than their own, many were not sure where they would fit in. “Across disabilities there were some very exciting things to see, where students realized they could complement each other,” one instructor recalls.

In a computer lab held during this year’s summer session, an observer would see 33 students working:

  • A student with no use of his hands types by talking into a headset-mounted microphone.
  • A scholar who lost both arms in a farming accident types with a device attached to his one remaining elbow, at 20-25 words per minute.
  • A student with limited speech and no functional use of his hands uses an on-screen keyboard controlled with a foot switch.
  • A scholar with a learning disability uses spell-check and screen-enlarging software, along with voice output, to help with her reading and writing.

The mother of one scholars who has a learning disability says the summer program boosted her son’s “belief in himself and his abilities… This experience has changed the course of his life.”

DO-IT does not end on the last day of the on-campus program. Back at home, scholars log-on to the Internet to continue their conversations and friendships. “It’s kind of like going to summer camp,” says one scholar, “but to a certain extent I don’t ever have to go home.”

Caption: (Left to right) Ryan Fleming, who has a specific learning disability and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, works alongside Randy Hammer, who is blind. [Ryan Fleming and Randy Hammer at computer]

Special Projects And Events

Scholars also have opportunities to pursue special projects, including collecting scientific resources, administrating systems, editing the DO-IT newsletter and teaching in the summer program. Scholars as well as other pre-college and college students with disabilities and their families, teachers, counselors and service providers can participate in special events, including the UW Computer Fair booth, presentation and reception; the UW Engineering Open House and the UW Health Sciences Open House. Events attract children with disabilities and their parents who, after meeting DO-IT participants, are encouraged to use technology and to pursue science, engineering and mathematics interests.

Signs Of Success

It is too early to measure the ultimate impact of the DO-IT project, but evidence has begun to appear in the successes of many DO-IT scholars:

  • Four scholars who graduated from high school in 1994 are pursuing college programs in genetics, computer programming, electrical engineering and general studies in preparation for more advanced scientific studies.
  • One scholar won a four-year NASA scholarship to attend UW; she became aware of the scholarship program during a DO-IT summer study session.
  • One scholar won an award for his essay about the Internet in a national contest sponsored by the National Science Foundation, National Center for Education Statistics and NASA; he was subsequently invited to speak at the Washington State “Governor’s Technology Conference.”
  • One scholar works part-time at Microsoft and in UW’s Adaptive Technology Lab.

For the scholars, the most important two words in their vocabulary may be “do it.” One scholar with health, mobility and speech impairments says DO-IT gives him the skills “so I can do what I want to do.”

Caption: (Right to left) Rodney Lewis, who has arthrogryposis, describes lab visuals to Randy Hammer, who is blind.[Rodney Lewis and Randy Hammer talking together]

Tips For Parents, Schools and Employers

Many small steps taken locally can have a substantial impact and move us closer to a world where people with disabilities have equal access to opportunities in science, engineering and mathematics:

  • Give students with disabilities access to computers, electronic communications and network resources at an early age.
  • Make facilities, computers, science equipment and programs accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Assure that scientific and mathematics publications are available in appropriate alternative formats.
  • Encourage students with disabilities to take high school and college math and science classes.
  • Establish positive, motivational and lasting interactions between high school and college students with disabilities and engineers and scientists who have disabilities.
  • Facilitate transitions to college and employment.
  • Help educators and employers appreciate the potential of people with disabilities and create learning and working environments where skills can be developed and productivity can be maximized.

The historical impact of technology on people with disabilities cannot be over-estimated. Computers and networks help them to access resources, communicate with others and perform academic tasks independently. Such tools are required if individuals with disabilities are to compete with their peers without disabilities.

“In the beginning, when they let us work, persons with disabilities were pigeonholed into positions involving basic manual skills such as basket weaving and chair caning; then we got computer smart,” says one DO-IT mentor who is blind. “Now we have the information superhighway and we reach out to connect with each other and with the world.”

Sheryl Burgstahler is the director of the DO-IT Project. With a Bachelors and Masters degree in mathematics and a Ph.D. in higher education, Burgstahler is an assistant director in the Computing and Communications Department and a research assistant professor at the University of Washington.


DO-IT Resources

DO-IT has created two videos:

  • DO-IT Scholars follows many of the program participants through 1993’s summer session (Free).
  • Working Together: Faculty and Students with Disabilities helps college and university faculty become aware of the academic potential and access needs of students with disabilities ($20 for tape alone, $30 if includes written presentation materials).

To obtain either video, or for more information about DO-IT, contact: DO-IT, University of Washington, Box 354842, Seattle, WA 98195, (206) 685-DOIT, (Internet:

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Sheryl Burgstahler
Last updated: Feb 4, 1998