Jonathan VanSteenburg: Computer science student has limitless possibilities

Erica Martin

Jonathan VanSteenburg proves a disability doesn’t have to limit you.

Jonathan VanSteenburg portrait for web

Jonathan, who has cerebral palsy, uses adaptive communication devices to interact with people in person and online. He hopes to use a degree in computer science through the FSU distance-learning program to design software that is more user-friendly for people with disabilities.

“I hope to make the world of disabled people better as I strive to bring them into the age of computer programming,” Jonathan wrote in a bio to classmates.

Cerebral palsy is a condition that can affect speech, body movement, coordination and balance. It generally is caused by neurological disorders in infancy or early childhood that affect the part of the brain that controls muscle movement, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“I never know what my arms and legs are doing until they do it,” Jonathan noted. 

With his current computer system, Jonathan types using a single button rather than a full keyboard. A communication program scrolls through rows of characters, actions and program shortcuts on the screen in half-second intervals. When the desired row is highlighted, Jonathan pushes the button nestled between his knee and the chair’s arm. He then repeats the process through sections within the row and finally single characters, requiring three or more pushes to the button for a single keystroke.

“It takes twice as long for me,” Jonathan said of the process.

Jonathan’s affinity for computers developed while exploring his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

“What he figured was that he could get in space and CP wouldn’t matter as much,” his father, George VanSteenburg, said. “He figured out that he was probably not going to be a pilot but could be a mission specialist.”

While in grade school, he began testing adaptive communication devices through a school lending closet. Jonathan quickly learned which options work best for his unique needs.

Since then, technology has helped shaped Jonathan’s life and interests, making him more of an advocate for people with disabilities.  

 Jonathan designs websites and blogs about his experiences. He also hopes one day to open an assisted-living facility.

“My mission for my assisted-living facility is to have a fun and relaxing atmosphere for people with disabilities,” he said. “They do not have to be in their wheelchairs all day.”

To release the tension in his muscles, Jonathan swims as much as he can during the warmer months and does daily floor stretching exercises with his father. He is scuba-certified, has zip lined and hopes to be able to try a zero-gravity treadmill. He relies on his computer daily for education and social interaction via Facebook.

Working through the distance-learning program, Jonathan has the flexibility to work from home with occasional help from an aide to type homework assignments. He often begins working on coursework before the semester begins, asking for the syllabus early to learn material early.

“The distance-learning option allows him to deal with other students in the class on a totally equal basis,” said computer science professor Steve Leach, Ph.D. “Other students in the class typically have no idea he has a disability.”

Although online courses help ease transportation strains on the family, Jonathan sometimes misses interacting with students and instructors in the classroom. He previously took face-to-face classes, graduating from Rutherford High School in 2009 and Gulf Coast State College in 2014.

“You’d think that somebody who had speech and CP issues would go to class and just sit there and listen. Not him. He’s in class, and he’s trying to really participate,” his father said. “He’s kind of oblivious to the fact that people have a hard time understanding him. He’s just trying to communicate and be a part of the class.”

Jonathan VanSteenburg for web

“He is a very strong student. He communicates regularly with his instructors, often with challenging questions that go beyond the current material that is being covered in the class,” Leach said. “His passion for technology is inspiring. There is no doubt in my mind that he will get a job in computer science.”

Jonathan said he is just like anyone else.

“Even though I have CP, I'm a normal student,” Jonathan said. “Disabled people can and will do anything they desire or dream of.”