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Friday, August 14, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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They've A Mind To Excel -- UW's Do-It Program Prepares Disabled Students For College Science Studies

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

Wes Majerus, who is blind, needed help to plunge his finger through a hole in a sheep heart.

"Gee! I think we just cut into some muscle," he said as lab partner Jessie Sandoval guided Majerus' hand into place. Sliding an index finger into the sandpaperlike right ventricle, he called the sensation "very wicked."

It was the sort of cool science project disabled students often miss - not because they can't handle it but because school faculties sometimes steer them away.

That's the reason for DO-IT, which stands for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology. Forty high-schoolers from Seattle to New York are participating in a 10-day academic boot camp at the University of Washington. They learn not only how to master computer skills and biology but also how to take charge of their careers.

Although about 9 percent of college students are disabled, only 1 or 2 percent of engineering majors are, says Virginia Stern, a representative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Some counselors wrongly assume math and science are too difficult for people with disabilities, she says.

Sandoval, a junior who lives outside Tacoma, studies at least three hours a night and plans a career in medicine or engineering. She detects skepticism among teachers, even though her cerebral palsy doesn't diminish her intellect.

"In every class, I have to prove myself," she said. Last spring, signing up for advanced-placement history, she was asked, "Can you remember what you read?" and "Are you sure you can handle the challenge?"

This Tuesday at the UW, she got to split open the sheep heart. In high school, she usually defers to others because her hands are shaky and slow. Sometimes the tables are too tall. "I do a lot of observation," she says. "It's not that much fun, but it's all right."

Her lab partner, Majerus, followed instructions using a Braille guide and poster of heart components. He says his public school in Nebraska gives him similar materials, so he doesn't feel left out.

DO-IT leaders recommend that at least one station in every science lab be low enough for students in wheelchairs and that each computer lab have at least one adjustable-height terminal for each type: Macintosh and PC.

Founded in 1992, DO-IT provides summer sessions for two years for each student, then helps him or her find an internship in college. This year, 160 applied for 20 openings. A committee reviews applicants' motivation and talents while striving to include those with a diversity of disabilities.

Each DO-IT scholar gets a home-computer system worth around $10,000; they link to each other using an e-mail system called "Hawking" after British physicist Stephen Hawking, who visited DO-IT scholars a few years ago.

By staying in touch online, scholars reduce the isolation that some disabled students can feel. "The computer is my best friend, says DO-IT scholar Amy Falk of Minnesota, who says her fellow hometown students have taunted her with obscenities and stood on her wheelchair, damaging the gears.

One benefit of DO-IT is that teens accustomed to using social services begin to meet other people with disabilities who are "service providers" as teachers or high-tech professionals, says Steven Nourse, one of the program's administrators.

Of the program's 79 graduates, 70 are in college, and some hold high-paying computer-industry jobs. More than 1,000 students have been to DO-IT computing camps in Washington, Colorado and Minnesota.

The program's National Science Foundation grant expires after this year, and officials are looking for a private group to continue funding out-of-state students.

However, the Washington Legislature allocated $560,000 this year for in-state DO-IT programs. Twenty teens attended a UW session last month, computer camps were held around the state, and the organization is making videotapes that show teachers how to better serve disabled students.

"We fund so many programs for people who see themselves as victims," says state Sen. Pat Thibaudeau, a Democrat who represents the University District. "These people see themselves as potential college students with a chance, with a crack at life."

The DO-IT Internet site is http://weber.u.washington.edu/doit

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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