Technology Eases the Transition to College for Students with Disabilities

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.
in Learning and Leading with Technology, 23 (1), 39-41.

At the end of his Sophomore year in high school, a blind student "reads" a newspaper independently for the first time in his life. He uses a computer, screen reader software, a speech synthesizer, and the Internet network.

A hearing impaired student who lives in a remote area on an Indian reservation "talks" to a deaf professor of computer science at the University of Edinburgh about his academic interests. He accesses the Internet network with a computer which provides visual feedback instead of the typical computer beeps.

A high school senior with Muscular Dystrophy talks with technical support staff at the University of Washington about how he is losing function in his right hand, making use of his mini-keyboard difficult. The consultant helps him transition to a Morse code input system with a breath-activated sip-and-puff switch, allowing him to continue to communicate with his peers and mentors over the Internet network.

A recent high school graduate and computer whiz applies for summer work in a University of Washington computer lab. He types his application on his computer and submits it via electronic mail. He has no use of his hands and operates his computer with a mouth stick. He's hired!

A student who is blind receives a four-year academic scholarship to the University of Washington. The news spreads fast via an electronic discussion list and her friends congratulate her.

Participants in DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) have many stories to tell. In DO-IT, a project based at the University of Washington, high school students with disabilities communicate electronically with each other and with DO-IT staff and mentors. Some people refer to this group as a "virtual" community. But, for the participants this is a real community.

The DO-IT Scholars Program

People with disabilities face a variety of barriers to education and employment. These barriers include lack of encouragement; underdeveloped self-determination and self-advocacy skills; little access to successful role models; social isolation; lack of awareness of and access to technology that can increase independence and productivity; and low expectations of family, teachers, counselors, service providers, and faculty. These conditions result in fewer high school students with disabilities attending colleges and universities than the number capable of college-level work, high drop-out rates, and under-representation of individuals with disabilities in careers that require college-level preparation.

Project DO-IT includes a variety of programs designed to recruit students with disabilities into science, engineering, and mathematics academic programs and careers by helping eliminate or reduce the impact of the barriers they face. The National Science Foundation provides most of the financial support for DO-IT.

Most students begin participating in the Scholars program during their Sophomore year of high school. Juniors are included on a space-available basis. They all have an interest and aptitude in science, mathematics, or engineering; plan to attend college; have disabilities; and live in the Northwest region (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington).

The DO-IT Scholars Program consists of three phases. Admissions to Phases II and III are based upon successful completion of previous phases and a desire to continue participation as a DO-IT Scholar.

Phase I

Phase I Scholars use technology to access people and resources and participate in a live-in summer study program at the University of Washington.

Internetworking: DO-IT Scholars learn how to use computers to enrich their education and explore career opportunities through information access and communications with college students, faculty, and professionals, on the Internet network. Participants communicate electronically from home using computers, modems, software, Internet network connections, and, if necessary, special adaptive technology. Participants who do not have the required technology are loaned equipment and software for the duration of their participation as DO-IT Scholars.

Mentoring: Through electronic communications, personal meetings, and joint projects using the Internet, DO-IT Scholars are brought together with mentors to facilitate academic, career, and personal achievements. Most mentors are college students, faculty, and practicing engineers and scientists with disabilities themselves. Participants are matched with mentors who have similar interests.

Summer Study: During a two-week, live-in, summer program held on the Seattle campus of the University of Washington, DO-IT Scholars study science, engineering, and mathematics and are introduced to college dorm life and campus services. DO-IT Scholars participate in lectures and labs using computer applications, educational software, electronic mail, and resources on the Internet network. Meals and housing are provided for participants and personal care attendants. Accommodations to facilitate a successful academic experience, such as interpreters for those with hearing impairments, are provided.

Special Events: Throughout the year, DO-IT Scholars and mentors are invited to participate in science-related activities hosted by the University of Washington, corporations, and other organizations.

Phase II

Upon admission to Phase II of the DO-IT Scholars Program, participants apply their skills and knowledge to independent science projects and return the following year for a one-week summer program on the University of Washington campus. Phase II participants also act as mentors to incoming DO-IT Scholars.

Individual Projects: Phase II DO-IT Scholars design and complete science projects based on their individual interests. DO-IT mentors and staff act as resources and provide assistance for participants in planning and completing projects.

Summer Study: Phase II DO-IT Scholars return to the University of Washington campus during a one-week, live-in summer program. Participants are given the opportunity to develop knowledge, skills, and interests gained in the previous year by working on joint science projects with faculty and other professionals.

Mentoring: In addition to continuing their current mentor relationships, Phase II participants are given opportunities to develop and practice communication and leadership skills by acting as peer mentors for Phase I participants, face-to-face during the summer study program and electronically.

Phase III

DO-IT Scholars who complete Phases I and II are eligible for Phase III which includes opportunities to contribute to the DO-IT program through activities agreed to by each participant and DO-IT staff. Specific mentoring responsibilities, scientific resource management, system administration, newsletter editing, working in the summer programs and other DO-IT sponsored events are several of the options.

The First Group of Scholars

Eighteen Scholars began their work and participated in the campus summer study program in 1993. They studied oceanography; heart surgery; chemistry; virtual reality; adaptive technology; geophysics; material sciences, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering; mathematics; biology; physics; astronomy; and climatology. Of the students in this group four were blind, two had low vision, two had hearing impairments, four had specific learning disabilities, one had attention deficit disorder, two had speech impairments, and six had mobility impairments. Several had multiple disabilities.

Fifteen continued with Phase II. Special events during 1993 and 1994 included the University of Washington Computer and Health Sciences Fairs, the Westinghouse Science Competition, a transition to college workshop, and a personal visit with Dr. Stephen Hawking. Phase II participants continued to work on projects throughout the academic year. Projects included planning and organizing a tour of Batelle Pacific Laboratories; designing a computer-based CHAT system; working on virtual reality projects; evaluating software; and contributing to an electronic information service. They communicated with each other and mentors and access Internet resources year-round and returned for their Phase II summer program in August of 1994 where they were joined by twenty new Phase I Scholars. Four Scholars graduated from high school in 1993 and moved on to college. They continue to correspond with the younger students, sharing their experiences as they meet the day-to-day challenges of college life.


DO-IT helps eliminate or reduce the impact of some of the barriers to education and employment faced by individuals with disabilities. Participants learn about science, engineering, and mathematics academic programs and careers; develop self-determination and self-advocacy skills; meet successful role models, socialize with students who have common interests and concerns, learn about college life and campus resources; and use technology to increase independence and productivity. DO-IT Scholars discover that, when it comes to reaching their goals in the fields of science, engineering and mathematics, they can DO-IT!

For further information contact DO-IT, University of Washington, JE-25, Seattle, WA 98195. PHONE: (206) 685-DO-IT, FAX: 685-4045, EMAIL:

About the Author

Sheryl Burgstahler is an Assistant Director within Computing & Communications and a Research Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the University of Washington. She directs DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology), a project to recruit students with disabilities into science, engineering, and mathematics academic programs and careers which is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Sheryl Burgstahler
Last updated: Feb 4, 1998