It was not your average career panel.
A software developer told the teenagers about teaching sign language on the first date. An architect talked about braving building sites in her wheelchair. A systems analyst gave tips on how to do laundry with limited mobility.
"Once you get the courage, that's the key," said Ann Nelson, a recruiting consultant with rheumatoid arthritis, who has learned to ask for help when she needs it.
A group of Puget Sound professionals gathered at the University of Washington this week to share the survival strategies they developed as adults living and working with disabilities. The panelists talked honestly about the tough transition from high school to college to career, duly noting the barriers: inaccessible buildings, insensitive employers, inadequate resources.
The barriers are significant: About 44 percent of this state's working-age adults with disabilities were unemployed last year, according to a state survey. But the panelists sent a simple message to the audience of teenagers with disabilities: You can make it anyway.
It was all part of the summer session of DO-IT, a program designed to prepare students with disabilities for college and careers. A former math and science teacher, Sheryl Burgstahler, created the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology (DO-IT) program a decade ago. The idea was to use technology as a tool to connect teenagers who have disabilities and get them interested in science and technology — fields where people with disabilities have long been underrepresented.
The state-funded program has attracted national acclaim for its stress on high expectations, survival skills and self-determination. More than 200 high-school students have passed through it and moved on to college and careers. Last year, the National Science Foundation gave the program funds to create an alliance among students, educators and employers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.
Nationally, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is sobering. Only 32 percent of adults with disabilities were working in 2000, compared with 81 percent of people without disabilities, according to the National Organization on Disability. And while discrimination still exists, advocates say the bigger barrier to employment is a culture of low expectations and poor preparation among people with disabilities.
"Some kids come into the program with a lot of confidence, but they have no idea what it will actually entail," said Burgstahler. "It definitely opens their eyes to the reality of college."
For DO-IT scholar Justin Fleming, of Redmond, the question is not whether to go to college; the question is where. An award-winning athlete, he is looking for a campus that has wheelchair-sports programs.
"I think basically, I'm just another student — who has really weird legs," said Fleming.
For Lauren Johnson, of Issaquah, the goal is to become a library scientist. Johnson, who copes with short-term memory loss from a brain tumor, said she doesn't know how that disability will play out in her career but said she was confident that she would push on through.
The DO-IT program matches students with mentors from various companies, maintains an online forum for student concerns during the school year and wraps it all up in summer sessions, where students learn everything from how to write a résumé to how to interview for a job.
Even after students complete the three-year curriculum, they are encouraged to keep connected to the program, as interns during summer camp and later as mentors.
Programs like DO-IT can make all the difference for teenagers with disabilities, who are not always encouraged by their teachers and parents to consider ambitious careers, said Toby Olson, of the Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment.
"It's really wonderful to see the horizons open up for these kids," said Olson, who helps run a Youth Leadership Forum for teenagers with disabilities. "A lot of them thought living on Social Security was going to be their future, or that they would end up in a nursing home."
In Washington, various programs have cropped up to prepare students for careers, from the statewide Youth Leadership Forum to a King County initiative that connects teens with disabilities to summer internships.
Next week, dozens of students, including DO-IT scholars, will descend on Evergreen State College's campus in Olympia for the Youth Leadership Forum. The forum has college preparation as its goal. But like the DO-IT program, it sometimes serves a more basic function: to bring together teenagers who have never before met others with their specific disabilities.
"When I was growing up, I didn't have anyone who I could point to and say, 'They've done what I want to do,' " said DO-IT panelist Karen Braitmayer, a wheelchair user who founded an architectural firm, Studio Pacifica Ltd., in Seattle. "You feel like you're sailing uncharted waters."
Braitmayer said she "fell in love" with architecture years ago and never looked back. But there were challenges: She was a woman working in a field dominated by men, and using a wheelchair in a workplace that demanded mobility.
Braitmayer found her own set of solutions, she told the audience on Wednesday: Speak up, ask lots of questions, and never stop pushing your case.
Earlier in the day, Jamie VanderVeen, 17, mulled over possibilities for his future: a computer programmer, he said, or maybe a technology reporter. But first, college — maybe even the University of Washington.
"I'm kind of excited and nervous," said VanderVeen, who has cerebral palsy.
Nervous because the UW looks pretty big from where he sits.
But excited, he said, because there's a challenge: "taking care of yourself and seeing if you can do it — with a little help."
Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or firstname.lastname@example.org