Research to Practice Brief
Improving Secondary Education and Transition Services through Research
September 2003 • Vol. 2, Issue 3
DO-IT: Helping Students With Disabilities Transition to College and Careers
By Sheryl Burgstahler
This publication summarizes research on issues related to positive school and
employment outcomes for students with disabilities. Second, it describes one
program, DO-IT Scholars, that successfully applies research findings in a cohesive
set of interventions for students who have disabilities. Last, it shares lessons
that can be applied to other college and career preparation programs for teens
Individuals with disabilities experience far less career success than their
non-disabled peers, however differences in achievement diminish significantly
for those who participate in postsecondary education (Blackorby & Wagner,
1996; Yelin & Katz, 1994). A bachelor’s degree or higher is a prerequisite
for many challenging careers, including high-tech fields in science, engineering,
business, and technology. Few students with disabilities, however, pursue postsecondary
academic studies in these areas, and the attrition rate of those who do is high
(National Science Foundation, 2000; Stodden & Dowrick, 2000). Lack of job
skills and related experiences also limit career options for people with disabilities
(Colley & Jamieson, 1998; Unger, Wehman, Yasuda, Campbell, & Green,
Success stories of individuals with disabilities in high-tech fields demonstrate
that people with disabilities can overcome barriers imposed by inaccessible
facilities, curriculum materials, equipment, and electronic resources; lack
of encouragement; and inadequate academic preparation and support to bridge
between academic levels and employment (American Association for the Advancement
of Science, 2001; Burgstahler, 2002a; National Center for Education Statistics,
2000; National Council on Disability and Social Security Administration, 2000;
Schmetzke, 2001). It is no surprise that the Presidential Task Force on Employment
of Adults with Disabilities (1999) recommended that immediate steps be taken
to ensure that students with disabilities fully participate in postsecondary
education programs and are adequately prepared to secure meaningful employment.
Steps to challenging careers for students with disabilities include preparing
for, transitioning to, and completing a college education; participating in
relevant work experiences; and transitioning from an academic program to a career
position. Research studies have identified successful practices for bringing
students from underrepresented groups into challenging fields of study and employment
(Cunningham, Redmond, & Merisotis, 2003; National Science Foundation, 2001).
- access to technology;
- programs that bridge academic levels to school and work;
- work-based experiences;
- peer support; and
Furthermore, comprehensive programs, such as the Advancement Via Individualized
Determination (AVID) in California; Rhode Island Children’s Crusade; and
Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) in Washington,
have been found to be more successful in recruiting, training, and retaining
students with disabilities than isolated efforts (Benz, Yovanoft, & Doren,
1997; Burgstahler & Kim-Rupnow, 2003; Cunningham, Redmond, & Merisotis,
2003; National Science Foundation, 2001; Phelps & Hanley-Maxwell, 1997;
Unger, et al., 2001).
Research to Practice: The DO-IT Scholars
DO-IT at the University of Washington applies research findings in preparing
young people with disabilities for college and careers in the DO-IT Scholars
program. The National Science Foundation and the State of Washington have funded
this program since 1992. After being accepted into the DO-IT Scholars program
through a rigorous application process, most students begin participation during
their sophomore year of high school.
DO-IT scholars are provided with computer equipment, assistive devices, and
Internet access in their homes. Assistive technology includes speech output
systems for people who are blind or have disabilities that affect their reading
ability, and speech input and alternative keyboards for people who do not have
full use of their hands. Scholars rank computer and Internet skills as the most
valuable skills gained from DO-IT for supporting their academic and career goals.
One scholar reported, “I learned that I could really use computers effectively.”
Another scholar stated, “… the technology really helped me at the
time because there was no way I could afford a computer then.” Another
summarized, “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.” In terms of the computer and Internet activities within
DO-IT, parents and scholars both rank their value in developing career/employment
skills highest, followed by academic skills, and then social skills (Burgstahler,
2002b; Burgstahler & Kim-Rupnow, 2003).
Mentoring and Peer Support
DO-IT scholars use electronic communications and personal meetings to connect
with peers as well as adult mentors, most of whom have disabilities themselves.
Through mentors, students learn about career options and how to be more independent,
to advocate for themselves, and to persevere. “Mentors [show] how you
can be successful in your chosen field despite your disability,” shared
one scholar. Experienced scholars mentor younger participants. The leadership
skills they develop extend beyond the scholar program. One parent reported 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 via electronic
mail and share information about school, internships, and resources. Smaller
groups focus on access challenges for specific types of disabilities. After
several years of participation, one scholar summarized, “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 demonstrates that peer and mentor support, traditionally
provided in person, can be delivered within a supported electronic community
(Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001).
Summer Study With College and Career Preparation Activities
DO-IT scholars attend study sessions held during two consecutive summers at
the University of Washington. They learn how to maneuver around a large campus,
request disability-related accommodations, get along with roommates, and succeed
in college courses. One DO-IT scholar summarized the program’s impact
this way: “It showed me that I really can succeed in a college setting.”
Scholars report developing social 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 student with vision impairment
working with someone without functional use of hands to perform bypass “surgery”
on a sheep heart. They learn quickly, using their combined abilities, how they
can complete the lab assignment.
When parents were asked to rank which skills the summer study developed in
their children, they ranked social skills highest, followed by career/employment
skills, and academic skills (Burgstahler, 2002b). When scholars were asked which
specific skills the DO-IT Summer Study program helped them develop, they rated
social skills highest, followed by academic skills, and then career/employment
skills (Burgstahler & Kim-Rupnow, 2003). When they were asked what summer
study experiences were most valuable for their personal, academic, and career
development, computer and Internet use was a clear leader, followed by activities
related to college preparation, development of personal relationships, and career
skills. One participant said, “I’m...learning skills needed to succeed
in college.” Another reported, “I learned how to advocate for myself.”
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.” Year-round online
communication enhances the value of summer study activities.
Applications of Lessons Learned
What lessons can be learned from the DO-IT Scholars program to inform
others as they help young people with disabilities transition to college
studies and careers? Successful strategies include:
Computer and Internet Access
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 youth 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 in which 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. Use 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 (Burgstahler, 2002b).
During summer study, the scholars begin to explore career fields. In addition,
employment preparation experiences year-round give students opportunities to
develop résumé writing, problem-solving, and interviewing skills;
apply academic, vocational, and computer skills to work situations; and learn
to work with supervisors and coworkers. Students practice disclosing their disabilities
as well as negotiating and testing the effectiveness of specific accommodations
in job settings.
During their third year, scholars have the option to return to the DO-IT Summer
Study program as interns. They help with the work that goes on behind the scenes
and share their experiences with younger participants. Opportunities to participate
in internships at high-tech companies are also available to scholars. They report
value gained from these experiences, including enhanced communication skills,
greater confidence and motivation to study and work towards a career, job-related
skills, and an understanding of how best to work with supervisors and coworkers
(Burgstahler, 2001). For one scholar, participation helped him 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.”
Overall Signs of Success of the DO-IT Scholars Program
A total of 218 students with disabilities have participated in the first 10
years of the DO-IT Scholars program. Of the 168 scholars who have graduated
from high school, well over 90% are currently attending or have attended college.
Twenty-six have graduated from college, and five are enrolled in or have completed
graduate school. Two earned master’s degrees, one in physical therapy
and one in audiology. Scholars’ 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 DO-IT scholars were surveyed to determine the long-term impact of key
program components, respondents reported growth in their level of preparation
for college and employment and their self-advocacy skills. One scholar reflected
that participation in DO-IT “helped 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.” Another said, “I’m
less shy now that I know there are more people out there that are just like
me!” Others reported that DO-IT helped them keep their expectations high
(Burgstahler & Kim-Rupnow, 2003).
When parents were asked to what degree participation enhanced their children’s
lives, in descending order, their responses were interest in college, perception
of career options, self-esteem, and self-advocacy skills (Burgstahler, 2002b).
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 them. DO-IT has also helped my son
get a part-time job during his first year of college…he has achieved a
level of independence we never thought possible.”
Input from DO-IT scholars and parents suggests that Internet and computer access,
summer study with college and career preparation activities, on-line peer and
mentor support, and work-based learning have had a positive impact on postsecondary
academic and career outcomes for people with disabilities. For suggestions on
how to apply DO-IT strategies to other programs, review the shaded box, “Applications
of Lessons Learned.” Results of previous and current research suggest
that such efforts will, ultimately, improve the postsecondary academic and career
outcomes for people with disabilities.
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of a diverse science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce.
Washington, DC: Author.
Benz, R. B., Yavonoff, P., & Doren, B. (1997). School-to-work components
that predict post-school success for students with and without disabilities.
Exceptional Children, 63(2), 151-165.
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youth with disabilities: Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition
Study. Exceptional Children, 62, 399-413.
Burgstahler, S. (2001). A collaborative model promotes career success for students
with disabilities: How DO-IT does it. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation,
Burgstahler, S. (2002a), Distance learning: Universal design, universal access.
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Burgstahler, S., & Cronheim, D. (2001). Supporting peer-peer and mentor-protégé
relationships on the Internet. Journal of Research on Technology in Education,
Burgstahler, S., & Kim-Rupnow, S. (2003). Impact of Internet and other
transition support activities on the postsecondary education and employment
outcomes of students with disabilities. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Colley, D. A., & Jamieson, D. (1998). Postschool results for youth with
disabilities: Key indicators and policy implications. Career Development
for Exceptional Individuals, 21, 145-160.
Cunningham, A., Redmond, C., & Merisotis, J. (2003, February). Investing
Early: Intervention programs in selected U.S. states. Montreal: Canada Millennium
Scholarship Foundation. Retrieved March 5, 2003, from http://www.millenniumscholarships.ca/images/Publications/investingeng_web2.pdf
National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). What are the barriers
to the use of advanced telecommunications for students with disabilities in
public schools? (NCES 2000-042). Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved May
2, 2003, from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2000042
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the gaps to postsecondary education and employment. Washington, DC: Author.
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disabilities in science and engineering. Arlington, VA: Author. Retrieved
May 2, 2003, from http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf00327/
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(PPD): Regional alliances for persons with disabilities in science, mathematics,
engineering, and technology education (NSF 02-25). Arlington, VA: Author. Retrieved
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for youth with disabilities: A review of outcomes and practices. Review
of Educational Research, 67(2), 197-226.
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Recharting the course: If not now, when? Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved
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Stodden, R. A., & Dowrick, P. W. (1999, Winter). Postsecondary education
and quality employment for adults with disabilities. American Rehabilitation,
Unger, D., Wehman, P., Yasuda, S., Campbell, L., & Green, H. (2001, March
7-9). Human resource professionals and the employment of persons with disabilities:
A business perspective. Paper presented at Capacity Building Institute,
University of Hawaii.
Yelin, E., & Katz, P. (1994). Labor force trends of persons with and without
disabilities. Monthly Labor Review, 117, 36-42.
Consult the following Web pages to learn more about:
DO-IT Scholars Program
DO-IT Snapshots: Bios of the DO-IT Scholars
Author Sheryl Burgstahler is the Director of DO-IT at the University of
Preparation of this publication was funded, in part, by the National Science
Foundation (cooperative agreement # HRD-0227995). Any opinions, findings, and
conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily
reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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