by Sheryl Burgstahler
Exceptional Parent, November 2002, 32(11), 79-86
Individuals with disabilities experience far less career success than their non-disabled peers. However, differences in achievement diminish with more education. Only 16 per cent of people with disabilities with less than a high school diploma participate in the labor force, compared to 30 per cent of those who complete high school, 45 per cent of those with some postsecondary education, and 50 per cent of those with at least four years of college. Without a postsecondary degree or job experience, people with disabilities have a harder time finding challenging careers.
High tech careers are particularly desirable because of advancements in assistive technology that provide access to computers and scientific equipment for people with a variety of disabilities. This column shares information about a program that promotes college and career success, and lessons learned that can be applied by those who work with young people who have disabilities.
DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle sponsors a program that is creating leaders, mentors and role models for the next generation. The DO-IT Scholars program uses computers, the internet, assistive technology, summer study programs, internships and other activities to prepare young people with disabilities for college and careers. Most students begin participation in the DO-IT Scholars program during their sophomore year of high school.
DO-IT Scholars are provided with computer equipment, any needed assistive devices and internet access in their homes. They use information resources and communicate year-round with each other, project staff and mentors. When asked about the most valuable skills they gained through DO-IT participation, more than 80 percent of past Scholars rated computer and internet skills as the most valuable. These skills enhance their academic and career opportunities as well as their ability to communicate efficiently with mentors and peers. One Scholar summarizes the greatest impact of the program this way: "DO-IT has shown me that information is empowerment and that through computer and social networking there is virtually free access to information for everyone."
DO-IT Scholars use electronic communications and personal meetings to connect with postsecondary students and career "mentors." "Mentors [show] how you can be successful in your chosen field despite your disability," shares one Scholar. Most of the mentors have disabilities themselves. Through mentors, students learn how to be more independent, to advocate for themselves and to persevere.
Experienced Scholars mentor younger participants. The communication and leadership skills they develop extend beyond the Scholar program. One parent reports that her son, a Scholar with attention deficit disorder (ADD) 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."
DO-IT staff and mentors pose discussion questions to the group and share information about school, internships and other useful resources. Smaller groups focus on specific access challenges. For example, in the "doitvi" group, Scholars and mentors share technological and other strategies to compensate for a visual impairment. After participating in DO-IT for several years, one Scholar summarizes, "I've been prepared for my future in academic, social and employment aspects. I'm excited and eager to see what the world has to offer now that I've participated in the DO-IT program, not to mention all the great friendships and fun times I've had." DO-IT has shown that peer and mentor support, traditionally provided in person, can be delivered via a supported electronic community on the internet.
The DO-IT Scholars program involves summer study sessions held during two consecutive summers on the University of Washington campus. Scholars learn how to maneuver through a large campus, request disability-related accommodations, get along with a roommate and succeed in college courses. They begin to explore different career fields.
Scholars report developing social skills and self-determination skills that lead to success in academics, employment, and adult life. They also become more aware of the challenges other students face as they work with peers who have a wide variety of disabilities, including sensory impairments, mobility impairments, learning disabilities, chronic health conditions and psychiatric disorders. In a science lab, it is not unusual to find a blind student working with someone without the use of his hands to perform bypass "surgery" on a sheep heart. They learn quickly how, using the combination of skills they possess, they can follow the instructions and get the job done. Everyone needs to participate in DO-IT activities. One past Scholar says that participation in DO-IT helped him to realize "that I can have a normal adult life and that my disability really should not stop me from pursuing a career that is interesting to me."
DO-IT does not end on the last day of the on-campus program. As soon as Scholars return home, they log on to the internet to continue their friendships. "It's kind of like going to summer camp," reports one Scholar, "but to a certain extent I don't ever have to go home."
During the third year, Scholars have the option to return to the DO-IT summer study program as interns. They learn about all of the work that goes on behind the scenes to make the program a success. They participate on panels to share their experiences with the younger participants, and in other ways help them transition successfully to college. During the year, opportunities to participate in social get-togethers and conferences, as well as internships in high-tech companies are available to the Scholars.
The DO-IT Scholars program has demonstrated success in helping young people with disabilities pursue college and careers. Of the 168 Scholars who have graduated from high school, 151 (90 per cent) are currently attending or have attended college. Twenty-six have graduated from college and five are enrolled in graduate school. Two have completed Masters degrees. Their fields of study and employment include business, mathematics, biology, chemistry, computer science, ecology, engineering, nutritional sciences, pediatric psychiatry, physical therapy, physics, pre-medicine and speech and hearing sciences. One Scholar who is blind completed degrees in mathematics and computer science and is now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.
When Scholars were asked which specific skills the DO-IT summer study program helped them develop, 65 per cent reported social skills, 59 per cent reported career/employment skills and 47 per cent reported academic skills. When Scholars were asked what specific skills computer and internet activities helped them to develop, 67 per cent reported academic skills, 61 per cent reported career/employment skills and 51 per cent reported social skills. One Scholar summarizes, "I think the greatest impact for me is, it helps me to understand more about myself and the people in the real world. I have learned how to adapt to society without thinking that I am disabled, that I am useless."
When parents were asked to what degree DO-IT enhanced their children's lives, the highest ranked items, beginning with the highest, were interest in college, perception of career options, self-esteem, and self-advocacy skills. They ranked social skills highest, followed by career/employment skills and academic skills as those most developed through summer study; as far as the computer/Internet aspects of DO-IT, they ranked career/employment skills highest, followed by academic skills and social skills. As summarized by one parent, "My son has benefited greatly from the DO-IT program. He was able to realize that many other students had to struggle through school. DO-IT camps allowed students to bond and the computer networking allowed them to continue to support each other through the year. He did not dwell much on the future until he attended DO-IT Camp. He came home talking about his college plans, with confidence that he could manage it. DO-IT has also helped my son get a part-time job for his first year of college. ... he has achieved a level of independence we never thought possible."
What lessons can be learned from the DO-IT experience that can help educators, program developers and families help young people with disabilities transition to college studies and careers? Successful strategies include:
Give students with disabilities access to computers, assistive technology, electronic communication and internet resources at an early age. Make sure computing resources in schools, such as computer labs and educational software, are accessible to students with disabilities.
Help connect college-capable young people with disabilities with other teens who have disabilities. Encourage relationships among students with a wide variety of disabilities; these connections can help them understand their own challenges and solutions and gain insights into the potential and accommodation needs of others. Being more aware of challenges faced by other people can help them become leaders and mentors to others.
Create situations where young people with disabilities can gain access to role models who have disabilities and are successful in challenging careers. Promote mentoring relationships between young people and adults with disabilities. Employ the internet to sustain these relationships.
Have students visit college campuses, learn about resources and become experts on the assistive technology and other accommodations they need before the end of their high-school years. Offer programs that bridge the gap between high school and college, between two-year and four-year schools, and between undergraduate and graduate studies. Encourage them to take high school courses, such as math and science, that will maximize their options for academic majors when they go to college.
Provide opportunities for young people to participate in paid and unpaid work experiences. Through internships, job shadows, volunteer work and other work-based learning experiences, they can prepare for future employment, learn how to self-advocate for accommodations and practice job-related skills. Seeing their potential for careers will also motivate them to succeed in school.
Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler is the director of the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) program. DO-IT is funded by the US Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the state of Washington and many other organizations. DO-IT serves to empower young people with disabilities as they transition to college and careers through the use of computers, assistive technology and the Internet.
DO-IT has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Labor, the State of Washington and corporate and private sponsors to increase the representation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs and careers. DO-IT projects have helped 1) students with disabilities gain access to empowering electronic and information technology and develop the academic preparation, self-advocacy skills, mentoring relationships, and technology skills to make successful transitions to college and careers; 2) precollege and postsecondary educators develop programs, instructional materials, and facilities that are accessible to students with disabilities; and 3) employers more fully include individuals with disabilities at work. Specifically, the DO-IT Scholars program, once sponsored by the National Science Foundation, is now funded by the state of Washington for Washington residents only. However, several foundations have supported Scholars from other states. DO-IT has received many awards, including the National Information Infrastructure Award in Education; the Golden Apple Award in Education; an outstanding program award from the Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD); and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.