Donka Inc.—Changing the Lives of People with Disabilities Through Technology

February 2016 View more

Leanne Stavenger-Vos, Executive Director

Leanne Stavenger-Vos, Executive Director

Technology has come such a long way in the last 30 years that it’s hard to imagine how working in DOS or Windows 2.0 on a 286 computer with only 20MB of storage could be productive. But back in late ‘80s that was the groundbreaking technology that enhanced our lives. And for a group of people living at the DuPage Convalescent Center, it forever changed theirs.

The Early Days

Donka, Inc. was founded in 1987 at the Convalescent Center in Wheaton by a long-time volunteer, Don Van Haveren. “Don was very forward thinking,” says Executive Director Leanne Stavenger-Vos. “He saw how technology could help people in the Center stay as active as possible and become much more self-sufficient.” Van Haveren chose to name the program Donka, which means thanks in Dutch, as a reflection of his gratitude to the residents for allowing him to help them. Since its inception, Donka has grown from a two-computer startup into a state-of-the-art lab providing skill-training and computer accessibility to residents throughout DuPage and Kane Counties.

Helping Those in Need

Donka serves clients who are 16 years and older who have been either visually or physically disabled since birth or have become so later in life. “While everyone we work with has very different needs, they all are striving to accomplish a goal that would be a personal gain for them,” Stavenger-Vos says. One Donka client, for example, was a student who suffered a severe head injury. Unable to return to school, he achieved his goal of learning to write again through Donka’s programs. Another client, a businessman who suffered a severe stroke, was told he would never leave his bed. Donka inspired him to take classes where he regained his ability to communicate.

Assistive Technology

“What makes us unique is that we provide very customized assistance to our clients,” Stavenger-Vos explains. “We fit people with assistive technology that meets their needs and create a curriculum that meets their personal goals.” Assistive technology can include voice recognition software, text-to-speech programs, screen reading and magnification software, accessibility apps, and online keyboards. It can also include devices such as puff switches, which send signals to computers using air pressure sipped or puffed through a tube, or head controllers which allow the user’s head movements to control the movement of the computer mouse. Donka works with motivated individuals regardless of their physical or visual disability. “Even if you are only able to move your eyebrow, you can still use a computer,” insists Stavenger-Vos.

Clients can either visit Donka’s main facility in Wheaton or their satellite office at the Illinois WorkNet Center in North Aurora. They also provide onsite assistive technology training at a client’s workplace through a mobile services program. “We want to help as many people as we can become more independent,” Stavenger-Vos states. In addition, through its Train-the-Trainer program, Donka works with local universities to teach future educators about how assistive technology can help their students enjoy greater success in the classroom. The program also trains teachers and other professionals who employ people with disabilities.

Paying it Forward

Stavenger-Vos has been working at Donka for more than 24 years. She learned about the organization while helping her sister who was disabled after a car accident. Van Haveren saw her passion for helping others and personally recruited her to work there. In 1993, after his passing, Stavenger-Vos took over as the Executive Director. “We live in a world of amazing technology that we mostly take for granted. Our clients, however, depend on it to help them be independent,” she says. “It’s inspiring to see how motivated they are to succeed.”

Photo by Robyn Sheldon