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Mentors at work

Summer camps help kids with disabilities push the envelope

IBM camps and an NFB science academy give students an idea of how far they can go in technology and science

 

Natasha Montes, left, and Ariel Gaithar work with electronics.

Natasha Montes, left, and Ariel Gaithar work with electronics.

This was the third summer in a row that IBM (Armonk, NY) put on a camp program in September for middle school children at the Overbrook School for the Blind (Philadelphia, PA). And this year the company added another program in August for middle school and high school kids at Jawonio, a NY Cerebral Palsy affiliate agency (New City, NY).

"Our camps offer students the chance to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an exciting and highly tactile environment," says IBM's Donald McCoy, an engineer who develops content and helps facilitate the camps.

IBM also supports the National Federation of the Blind (NFB, Baltimore, MD, www.nfb.org), which has its own summer academy for blind middle and high school students. Interactive workshops show them the careers that can be open to them in science and technology.

The spark of leadership
"The camps not only create interest in technology and engineering, they ignite a spark of leadership in the students," says IBM's Guido Corona, who has been a frequent participant in these programs.

He's seen discouraged and disruptive young people become leaders as their energy is channeled into rewarding projects. "These camps discover and harness the human potential," he says.

Corona himself has been blind for more than twenty years. He's a software engineer in sales and solutions for IBM's WorldWide Accessibility Center in Austin, TX. It's one of a number of such centers "evangelizing, marketing and selling accessibility technology and solutions worldwide," Corona notes.

Life science and physics
The various IBM and NFB hosted camps are free to all participants; even travel expenses are covered. Highlights of the sessions are hands-on learning experiences.

"It increases their learning to get their hands in it," says Mark Riccobono, blind himself, who helped put on the science academy and camps as director of education for the NFB's Jernigan Institute (Baltimore, MD).

At the NFB summer academy, high school students build and launch a rocket. They learn physics, figure trajectories and put together sensors for temperature, light, acceleration and pressure. Then they travel to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia for the actual launch and telemetry tracking. As they work together, they're also learning something about managing projects and meeting deadlines.

Sending a new message
Isn't that a big order for any kid, let alone a blind one? Not at all, says Riccobono.

"Society sends out strong messages that blind people need special treatment," he explains. "If we're not careful, we'll get the idea it's okay to produce less."

The academy and camps can turn that all around. "They show students that they don't need to be any different from their sighted peers in what they contribute."

At the camps many of the staff members have disabilities and help mentor the students. At the NFB's science academy, both the children and instructors are blind. The kids can learn a lot from their mentors who are successfully negotiating life's challenges.

"This is okay," says Henry "Hoby" Wedler, who attended the science academy as a student in 2004 and returned as a mentor this year. "Until you do it for yourself, it's all theorizing."

A bridge to the working world
Last year the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was NFB's partner for its science academy. NASA continues to offer camp and academy grads six-week internships after high school or the first year of college.

Educational summer camp programs for young people with disabilities are "a bridge to the working world and practical experience for their resumes," Corona points out. "We are showing these kids that, while being blind is definitely an annoyance, it needn't bar them from positions of leadership."

Riccobono agrees. "The approaches we develop will help all learners, not just blind kids," he notes. "We're creating a new, practical approach to science education."

Making information accessible
Besides the great work done by its summer camps, IBM has a long history of advancing worldwide accessibility standards and developing assistive technologies, including screen readers, Braille printers and adaptive Web browsers. Its MentorPlace program (www.mentorplace.org) offers online academic assistance and career counseling for high school students who are blind or have other disabilities.

"Beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act legislation, the world is discovering there's a business advantage to making things accessible," says Corona. "It broadens the applicability of technology so everybody benefits."

Riccobono adds that NFB offers six- to nine-month immersion programs to help blind people master new accessibility tools.

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