The group of students gathered around a conference table at the U.S. Department of Transportation are prospective interns, here to find out what's in store for them.

But first, Vanessa Scurlock wants to dispel any self-consciousness or fear among them.

Using a wheelchair? No one is going to care. Hearing-impaired? The department has interpreters and special text telephones. Scared of the elevator? Well, she tells them, so are a lot of her co-workers.

"No one is going to laugh at you," Scurlock tells them. "These are the kind of fears that we work with."

The students, from Prince George's and Montgomery counties, are part of the expanding area High School/High Tech program. Through it, learning disabled and physically challenged teenagers with an interest in technology are offered summer internships at government agencies and private corporations. The program has become a model for others across the country, including two now starting in the Baltimore area.

By the end of summer, many of the students will possess skills beyond those of their peers in regular education classes: knowledge of HTML computer code, for example, or the ability to write grants.

But those who work with the teenagers see other, more subtle changes.

Chins are a little higher. Backs are a little straighter. Eye contact is much more frequent. It's not just that the students have learned to design Web pages or plot the position of satellites, teachers say. It's that they are finally beginning to define themselves by something other than their disabilities.

"Some of them, they come out of the dark and into the light," said Bill Minter, one of the program instructors.

High School/High Tech, currently in its seventh year, serves about 250 students from 12 area high schools. It's one of nearly 50 programs of its kind throughout the country, all initiatives of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

What sets this one apart, committee officials said, is the high level of community-based internships and mentoring programs, as well as the emphasis placed on teaching youths employment skills, such as dressing professionally and arriving for work promptly.

Students are picked for High School/High Tech as sophomores and stay with the program through their senior year. They start out taking behind-the-scenes tours of agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the Food and Drug Administration, and choose an internship for the summer after their junior year.

The program provides a "coach" who helps the teenagers figure out how they're going to get to work, rides with them on the Metro the first day if need be, and checks in each day to make sure the job is going smoothly. The various agencies also provide in-house mentors. And, administrators say, though many of them are self-conscious when they start their jobs, they soon find that in the workplace, their disabilities aren't much of an issue.

"A lot of these kids have experienced school as being generally negative," said Charles McNelly, director of United Cerebral Palsy of Prince George's and Montgomery counties, which administers High School/High Tech. "Here, we try to tell them, 'You're going to make it.' It's just a very high level of expectation for all of them."

Some pursue careers in technology, which is one of the program's ultimate goal.

Hugo Moreno, a sophomore at Montgomery College, works part time at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration creating Web pages for the habitat conservation department.

He remembers his first day on the job, when he was still at Montgomery Blair High School and, because of a learning disability, part of the school program. Moreno hadn't had any computer training before--and anyway, he had always found computers boring. He decided to work at NOAA strictly out of convenience. The building is a short walk from a Metro stop.

"They told me that we were going to keep up the Web page. I didn't know what they were talking about," Moreno said. But within weeks, he was hooked.

"You learn so much in two months, three months. The first day you get on the Internet, you never want to stop," he said. The experience propelled him to major in information systems networking, and he's looking forward to the money he'll make as a programmer once he's out of college.

Stories such as Moreno's warm Larry Scadden's heart. Scadden, director of the National Science Foundation's program for people with disabilities, has found that students with special challenges tend not to wind up in fields that involve science and high technology. His department recently commissioned a study to learn why.

The findings weren't earth-shattering. They simply reinforced what Scadden said he already knew: Disabled children start out with as much interest in science and math as their nondisabled peers. But something happens along the way to quash their drive.

Sometimes they are dissuaded by well-meaning teachers and family members who want to shield them from failure. Sometimes it's a lack of access to computers and other materials. Sometimes it's the absence of a mentor.

For Scadden, who is blind, it was all three. As a student, he was told there would be no place in science for a blind man. His friends and family thought he was crazy, setting himself up for disappointment. There was no one around to show him it could be done. So, Scadden said, he keeps close tabs on programs like High School/High Tech, and every success story is a small personal victory.

"This is keeping their interest up, their motivation up. They're learning that they can do it if they wish," he said.

Shirley Thorne, 16, said she got a dose of motivation when she spent a recent afternoon with a disabled employee at the Department of Transportation. Thorne, who has cerebral palsy, helped create brochures and write a letter to the department director outlining some of the needs of workers with physical limitations.

"It opened my mind to see people with disabilities can do more than sit at home and say, 'I can't do that,' " the Parkdale High School junior said. "I want to show people if you try hard, you can accomplish your goals. You don't have to let anything hold you back."