Portland State University O&M research published in British Journal of Visual Impairment

The Orientation and Mobility (O&M) program at Portland State University’s College of Education prepares educators to work with students with visual impairments. It is the only program of its kind in a region that includes six U.S. states: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Hawaii, and Alaska. Exploring what works and doesn’t with distance learning was the subject of new research by PSU’s Dr. Amy Parker, and O&M master’s students Matt Bullen, Faith Yeung, Angelica Inman, and Kelsey Ostrander. 

The PSU scholars received grant support from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education to pursue their studies at PSU, which made this research possible. “Perceptions on the use of distance learning by families of children with visual impairment and deafblindness,” (Bullen, Inman, Ostrander, Parker, Yeung, 2023) was recently published in the British Journal of Visual Impairment.  

Distance consultation and learning became ubiquitous in healthcare and education during the pandemic, but the pros and cons of the practice are of particular interest to families of blind and deafblind children.

“Before the pandemic, PSU had already been working on the need for ethical distance consultation as a way to supplement and extend in-person services for students with visual impairment, deafblindness and their families,” says Dr. Parker. She leads the Orientation and Mobility (O&M) program at Portland State in the Special Education department of the College of Education.

“This is because of the geographic spread of the population in the Pacific Northwest states and the dire need for qualified teachers of the visually impaired and O&M specialists,” she adds.

An ethical remote instruction training module is used to maximize O&M services to visually-impaired students/clients who live in rural and remote areas. The researchers spoke with families of K-12 students from age 5 to 19 to gather data about the effectiveness of distance consulting.


The purpose of our qualitative study was to explore what distance-based teaching and learning practices have been supportive to students with visual impairments and their families. Using purposive sampling, interviews, and qualitative analysis, we found that supportive approaches for distance learning (DL) included parental involvement and participation, as well as tailored instructional approaches and accommodations for the student. In some instances, DL was identified as being more supportive for immune-compromised children. Negative facets of the practice included diminished richness in socializing, and the lack of certain strengths of in-person education. Families’ experiences ranged from finding DL helpful, to considering the practice as unfit for their child’s education, as well as a poor fit for family life. Flags for future research include family preparation for future DL needs, including culturally-diverse families in research opportunities, and evaluating what DL supports lead to improved outcomes for children and families.


In addition to calling for more research, the PSU scholars gained immediately useful insight, as well as some things for O&M professionals to consider when working with families.

·        “We want to study how distance learning with all of its permutations can be done safely at home,” says Bullen, who previously worked with and for families at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “Who is assigned what role? Is the environment and the technology appropriate? It all comes back to safety. Sometimes distance learning is safer at home or in a controlled environment, in cases of immune-compromised children, for example.”

·        Yeung sees the importance of distance learning to fill an unmet need for O&M specialists in the region, especially for services to rural and remote areas such as Eastern Washington and Alaska. As a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI/TSVI) in Washington state, the research led her to a new understanding of families affected by distance consultation.

·        “My biggest takeaway is the importance of connecting with parents to discover what their concerns are,” says Yeung. “I’m doing that now to get a better idea of the full picture,” she says.

Technical difficulties and barriers for deafblind students

“I would agree with Faith [Yeung] and say the biggest takeaway we found in our study was the need for better collaboration between parents and service providers,” says Inman. “Parents loved that they were getting a better picture of what their children were doing during their O&M session. However, it also provided strain on some families because parents needed to fill in the role of the O&M as well as being a cameraman, so that the [remote] O&M could watch what was happening.”

·        Yeung shares another example in describing that an important part of O&M instruction is cane use. “It is easier in person and very difficult without being next to the person and supporting them in real time,” she explains.

·        Some types of distance learning for deafblind children, who learn in a tactile and hands-on way, were simply not very useful or even useless in some cases, the research showed.

·        In the real world, time is precious, and technical glitches can eat up the allotted time. Even though parents are interested in a hybrid form of distance and in-person instruction, ultimately, the home setup has to be tailored carefully to each student.

The PSU team presented the research to the Southeastern Orientation and Mobility Association (SOMA) in Tampa, Florida.

(Above, left to right): Matt Bullen, Kelsey Ostrander, Faith Yeung, and Angelica Inman of PSU presenting the new research in Tampa, Florida. Photo: Amy Parker


By Sherron Lumley

Univ. of Hawaii’s Dr. Brett Oppegaard to share UniDescription research at #MobilityMatters2023 global summit

The University of Hawaii’s Dr. Brett Oppegaard leads a research team that is making the world a better and more inclusive place. As the Principal Investigator (PI) of the UniDescription Project, (“UniD”) he is taking groundbreaking steps toward media accessibility and location-based media for people with visual impairments. On March 10, he will be a featured speaker at Portland State University’s 2023 Mobility Matters, a virtual interdisciplinary summit supporting mobility innovation.

“For the past few years, Mobility Matters has focused on getting to places of interest. Well what happens when you arrive? Are those spaces inclusive? Is it a place where people can access the learning, the science, the history, or the beauty of the place? Brett’s team has focused on that aspect of inclusion and we are proud to host them at this year’s Mobility Matters,” says Dr. Amy Parker, coordinator of PSU’s Orientation and Mobility Program.

UniD’s audio descriptions translate visual media, such as maps, illustrations, and photos, into audible media for people who are blind or visually impaired. The UniDescription app is free to download on Android and IOS devices. For location-based media, Dr. Oppegaard’s team worked with more than 150 national parks including Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty, and the John Day Fossil Beds, a national monument in Oregon.

“Everyone should be able to fully love their national parks and feel welcome when going to them and learning about them,” Dr. Oppegaard says. “Accessible media ensures that all people, no matter how well they see, get a similarly enjoyable experience with public resources, which are meant for everyone.”

The $1.5M UniDescription Project is funded by a who’s who list that includes the U.S. National Parks Service, Google, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In-kind service for UniD comes from an ever-growing number of supporters throughout the U.S. and around the globe: American Council of the Blind, University of Hawaii at Mānoa, Blinded Veterans Association, Helen Keller National Center for Deafblind Youths and Adults, The Kennedy Center, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Montana Banana in the U.S.  In Canada:  Polytechnique Montreal, Parks Canada, Canadian Council of the Blind. In the United Kingdom: National Parks UK, Royal National Institute of Blind People (UK). In Africa:  Nigeria National Park Service.

Research assistant Sajja Koirala (photo above left) is a doctoral candidate working on a PhD in Media Accessibility. In her research, she found that there is now more of a performance element to audio descriptions, whereas in the past, it was a serious art and a science. “On the free mobile app, we audio describe, making the visitor’s brochure accessible so that people are feeling confident before going, and then going and doing it,” she says.

Together Dr. Oppegaard, Koirala, and the UniD team have collaborated on visitor’s brochures for national parks in the US, Canada, and United Kingdom, combining tactile and audio description. On the UniD Project website a “behind the scenes” page provides details of photos taken around the world while testing UniD audio description, from Athens, Greece, to Denali, Alaska. The description of the photo above at Minute Man National Historic Park provides important details:

Testing Audio Description: Minute Man National Historical Park: Massachusetts (2018)

“UniD researcher Brett Oppegaard, right, uses an audio recorder to capture the thoughts of Bob Hachey, center, as they walk across the North Bridge with NPS staff member Steve Neth at Minute Man National Historical Park near Concord, MA. Hachey, a former president of the Bay State Council of the Blind, and Neth, a museum technician at Minute Man, were collaborating on a field test of the UniDescription project at the site in July 2018. The North Bridge, which spans the Concord River, is the location of a key opening battle of the American Revolution, a moment Ralph Waldo Emerson memorialized in poetry as the “shot heard round the world.” In this image, the three are walking across that famous bridge, toward the viewer but to the left, like they are passing by on a two-lane path, with Hachey holding onto Neth’s arm for guidance and using his left hand to use his white walking cane. Oppegaard holds the audio recorder in his right hand, as close to Hachey as comfortable, to try to pick up his verbal comments about the environment and evaluations of the Audio Description in the UniD app that he had heard about it. Oppegaard wears a tan vest, with a NPS Volunteer logo on it, to indicate he is on official business. Neth has a lanyard around his neck, also as a form of identification. They both wear long pants. Hachey is wearing shorts and sandals, though, more reflective of the pleasantness of the sunny day. In the background of this scene is a forested area, where an obelisk of a monument rises on a small grassy hill and also tells the story of this place (although without sound). The dirt path is a bit muddy, indicating that despite the current weather, it had rained recently.” (Photo courtesy of Tia Oppegaard.)

To hear Dr. Oppegaard speak, register here for the all-virtual Mobility Matters Summit, coming March 10, 2023.

“What I’m recommending is a more arts and crafts mixture of writing existing in a complementary form –better media, richer and deeper, something everyone can do,” says Dr. Oppegaard. “A computer can’t pull off this benevolence for humanity.  Accessibility is about inclusion. We are leaving smart, kind, generous people behind and that’s a travesty.”

Visit the UniDescription Project website to learn more about audio description (visual to audio translation), audio description training, scholarly resources, project management tools, and community engagement.


By Sherron Lumley

Belonging: Author interview with Dustin Bindreiff, EdD, PSU alumnus

Here is a book for every transformative teacher and educator: Dr. Dustin Bindreiff’s new book will be out in January, called “Belonging: How Social Connections Can Heal, Empower, and Educate Kids,” (2023, Corwin).

“With the publication of this book, Dr. Bindreiff strives to bridge the gap between research and practice by focusing on a topic of critical importance,” says Dr. Randall De Pry, Chair of the Special Education department at Portland State University. “His work exemplifies one of the critical features of our doctoral program, namely doctoral level preparation focused on preparing scholarly practitioners,” he notes.

Now a policy consultant for the California School Board Association, Dr. Bindreiff works with the state’s legislature to translate laws into policies applied by some 977 school districts. The former special education teacher and program consultant becomes a storyteller in “Belonging,” bridging theory to practice for readers. The research-based strategies for educators unfold in vignettes that show just how important community is to the development of trust and safety feelings that strengthen relationships, essential for positive intervention and support.

PSU College of Education alumnus Dustin Bindreiff, EdD, is the author of a new book: “Belonging: How Social Connections Can Heal, Empower, and Educate Kids” (2023, Corwin).

Dr. Bindreiff recently sat down for an interview with his alma mater, Portland State University, where he earned his Doctor of Education in the Special Education department in the College of Education. He shared some insight into his sources of inspiration for his new book:

PSU: How would you describe your book, and what inspired you to write it?

Dr. Bindreiff:  My book makes a case for wellbeing and learning. It took much more than being a researcher to be a storyteller. My background is in working with the most challenging kids who have trauma, mental illness and learning disabilities, the most difficult cases. I wanted to take a chance and help. I want to bring issues forward, and show how small, subtle shifts can make a big difference.

Seeing the value of community in my own life, and seeing how so much of that is gone for students with disabilities – that was some of it. It came out of researching growth mindset, and how differently we think, act and behave in a community when psychologically we feel safe. This book is for  transformative educators who make a difference in the lives of marginalized students.

PSU:  Describe your doctoral work at PSU. What were your areas of research? 

Dr. Bindreiff:  Positive behavior interventions and support. There are passionate educators in the Portland State doctoral program who demonstrate how to go from an idea to a product, and the discipline of learning how to research, find answers, and real resources. I was eager to improve implementation of behavior interventions, to find supports teachers can consistently use.

In the doctoral program, we learn how to understand the process, as well as the impact and power of policy for systems change. Now I am putting my practical experience into strategies and solutions by working at the policy level, and also by learning to become a storyteller, sharing the real experiences of the kids and teachers I have worked with. Kids are not just a label, they are doing the best they can.

PSU: Why did you choose Portland State for your doctoral work, and what was your experience?

Dr. Bindreiff: PSU is practitioner-based – representing the bridge from theory to practice. It was a fun time at PSU after some years in the field, being able to spend eight hours a day at the library, working on reading the most books on mental health and behavior that I possible could. I value my time at Portland State, learning to be a researcher.

A few times, I thought I wanted to quit, but the Chair of the Special Education program and my advisor, Dr. Randall De Pry wouldn’t let me. I never thought of myself as a writer. It was Dr. De Pry who taught me to be a writer. I speak very highly about the experience and the faculty, such as Drs. De Pry, Loman, and Borgmeier.

PSU: Ultimately, the community and support he received at PSU played a critical role in helping Dr. Bindreiff write an important book at a critical time.

On behalf of the department of Special Education, congratulations Dustin
on this tremendous accomplishment!


By Sherron Lumley

Alumna spotlight:  Jen King, Special Education, a view from rural Oregon

By Sherron Lumley

When Jennifer King began the online master’s program in Early Intervention Special Education, she was 43. What she didn’t realize then, was that having the wisdom of life behind her would be important to the work she does now with families in Hood River, Oregon.

“I went back later in life when my children were middle school and elementary age. I had taught pre-school at a private school and worked with kids of all ages struggling with at-risk behavior. I really enjoyed working with young kids and young families and wanted to help kids who were struggling,” she says.

“It is a two-year program that is all online, and it is very approachable and attainable for a working mom.”

PSU College of Education Alumna jen King, on the online Master’s program for Early Intervention Special education

She began her Master’s of Education program at Portland State University in 2018 while living in White Salmon, Washington. “It is a two-year program that is all online, and it is very approachable and attainable for a working mom,” says King. “At first I didn’t have a strong technology skill set, and that was daunting – how to post and navigate and use the library online – it was a steep learning curve that was empowering.”

Her cohort’s group research involved working virtually with children and families in the country of Georgia, near Turkey and the Black Sea. The group later traveled to meet the children and families in person. “We flew into Istanbul, and it was a great adventure. When we met the people we had been working with, it widened my perspective and made me realize the challenges. It was an amazing opportunity in our program to work with Hollie Hix Small, whose background is in international intervention, in support of young children everywhere.”

King finished her master’s degree doing her student teaching in Hood River, Oregon, a rural town on the Columbia River about an hour east of Portland. The agricultural region is known for producing some of the country’s finest apples, and its natural beauty and high winds inspire world-class windsurfing tourism. The Hood River School District hired her upon graduation from PSU to work in Special Education.

“Our program is in an old elementary school that is a part of the school district, and I work with families that are very vulnerable,” says King. Of the school district’s 3,794 students, 38 percent are English-language learners and 59 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Thirteen percent are students with disabilities.

Pine Grove Elementary School is a hub for Early Intervention and Special Education, and due to the rural location King wears many hats rather than specializing in just one area. She collaborates with occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech-language pathologists, and coaches pre-school teachers, as well as working with families.

“I am able to witness true grace, seeing how much they love their children and want the best for them,” says King. “I’m witnessing a lot of good in the world. You see people rise up.”


Graduate spotlight: Kathleen Mahurin shares the joy of overcoming at 2022 COE Commencement

By Sherron Lumley

This Saturday soon-to-be graduates, faculty, friends, and family will gather at Providence Park for the first in-person commencement of the College of Education since 2019. Kathleen Mahurin, a graduate student in the Visually Impaired Learner (VIL) master’s program, will deliver the COE’s student speech, and it promises to be inspiring. 

Kathleen Mahurin is the graduate student speaker for the 2022 College of Education Commencement

“Ableism in our society puts limits on people based on what they can and can’t do. Our culture is embedded with it.  I have always been motivated to help others achieve. Getting the Orientation and Mobility certificate will allow me to serve people of all ages.”

~ Kathleen Mahurin, Master’s in Special Education, Visually Impaired Learner program, Portland State University

“I knew when my youngest was a freshman in high school that I wanted to do more work,” says Mahurin. “I had been teaching music for 30 years and P.E. for 13 years working part-time in a private school in Beaverton. I always thought Special Ed would be great, so I shadowed some teachers I knew.”

She got excited about the Visually Impaired Learner (VIL) master’s program and Orientation and Mobility (O&M) graduate certificate in the COE’s Special Education department, among the best and oldest in the country.

“This is a rare program and one of the most rigorous in the nation. It has the most credits and highest practicum hours, which speaks to the College of Education and PSU making sure people are well-prepared to help those with visual impairments and people with multiple disabilities,” she says. 

The program is almost all online, she notes, with some in-person time required. In June of 2020, Mahurin was in the first everything-online cohort ever, which came about due to the pandemic. For her, this turned out to be a blessing.

“I had two teenage daughters and was going through a divorce that was hard, not making a lot of money. One of my daughters who has medical special needs required special medical attention along with her expensive medical equipment. The federal financial aid really helped us stay afloat, eat, pay rent, have medical supplies, and stay alive. Portland had a food box program and I would get three boxes to share with my neighbors. Many other typical services for low income people were not available at the time,” she recalls. “It was so hard.”

Mahurin has a very unexpected source of inspiration that helped her through some of her darkest days.

“I kept motivated by Dwayne Johnson, a former WWF wrestler, and now a kind of mogul, who speaks about staying true to your goals and values. I’m beginning my commencement speech with a quote from him: ‘When you walk up to opportunity’s door, don’t knock, kick [that door] in, smile and introduce yourself.’” 

In addition to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, she thanks the incredibly supportive leadership from faculty members Dr. Holly Lawson (VIL) and Dr. Amy Parker (O&M) for helping her figure it all out. 

Her eyes now sparkle with an inner light. Both of her daughters started college this year, she shares, one in Washington and one in Montana. She beams with pride, adding, “I want to help my daughters, and getting my master’s degree means working at a wage that reflects my earning potential.” 

There is a high need for quality teachers in Special Education trained to work with visually-impaired learners –essential and hard to find in every state. Mahurin reinstated her teaching license in Washington and accepted a new job in Bellingham Public Schools, moving two hours north of Seattle while finishing the VIL program online in the evenings.

“I loved the last place I worked, but after having experienced making poverty-driven choices– and those choices are real—I’m so grateful to be working full time. Bellingham is the place I will stay, constantly transforming. I love the people, the place, and that the school district is focused on helping humans. It is a beautiful space for my students. Some are highly academic, and some are learning to use their eyes to make choices,” she says. 

 “What I love about working in a positive public school environment is the collaboration. I collaborate at least three times a day. Every student has a team of people. I always wanted to help people achieve their goals in a way that is meaningful to them. What I can say is that I didn’t expect to be this happy, to love my professional and personal life as much as I do.”

After graduation, she plans to travel with her children and enjoy time with her family. 


LEAD grant for Special Education leadership awarded to Sarah Willsie, who works with Visually Impaired Learners

By Sherron Lumley

The College of Education at Portland State University announced a five year $1M grant from the U.S. Department of Education in September to fund tuition and fees for doctoral candidates specializing in Special Education leadership. Sarah Willsie is one of 17 recruited for the program, funded by the LEAD grant (Leading for Equity through an Applied Doctorate).

Willsie is a supervisor and clinical lab instructor in the Orientation & Mobility program at PSU’s College of Education, providing field-based teaching in the Advanced Cane classes to pre-practicum students. She also works with visually impaired, blind and deafblind students in a magnet program in Washington State, as well as children with autism who are not visually attending. As a new LEAD grant recipient, her next four years of doctoral study at PSU will position her to champion a major cause.

“Sarah is a dynamic practitioner leader who brings her best to the students and families she serves,” says Dr. Amy Parker, who leads the Orientation and Mobility (O&M) program. “When we started the O&M program at PSU, we reached out to Sarah as someone who could model great teaching for our students as well as share what is possible when people have access to mobility. We are proud of Sarah for being selected as a LEAD scholar.” 

The grant is made for professionals who want to continue to work in their field of Special Education. “That’s perfect for me. I love my career and making change,” says Willsie. 

“There is limited curriculum available for knowing how to evaluate and teach Orientation & Mobility for students who are deafblind. It is a huge hole in the field.”

Sarah Willsie, supervisor and clinical lab instructor, Orientation and Mobility, PSU College of Education

“There is limited curriculum available and as an equity issue, this is huge. Their lives are not equitable,” says Willsie. “There also needs to be more awareness identifying students who are visually impaired at an early level, so they can gain the skills for independence that they need. Policy is inevitable and needed so that no one falls through the cracks.” 

PSU has a single certification for Orientation and Mobility, which is a part of the Visually Impaired Learner program, one of the oldest teacher of the visually impaired preparation programs in the country. Both O&M, led by Dr. Parker, and the VIL program, led by Dr. Holly Lawson, have options for online instruction with specific face-to-face workshops and community-based learning opportunities.  

Dr. Chris Borgmeier, Director of the Educational Leadership doctoral program and a professor of Special Education at PSU notes overwhelming support from special education leaders and stakeholders across the state. “There is an urgent need to address the complex real-world challenges of special education,” he said. “PSU is excited for the opportunity this grant provides to prepare leaders in special education to partner with stakeholders throughout Oregon.”

The program provides doctoral training for professionals who want to work as special education leaders serving schools and early childhood programs. It addresses collaborative, culturally responsive improvement processes and practices in special education in programs that serve children with disabilities.

When it comes to the children she teaches, and their families, Willsie wants them to know that they are not alone. The dissertation work, which will be done in the second half of the four-year doctoral program, will propel change, Willsie says. “I’m really excited that I will gain the authority to bring attention to the need for curriculum for the deaf and blind at the local, state, and federal level.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) makes a free public education available to children with disabilities, including special education. “We have IDEA as the federal law that every state respects and follows,” she says, “but not every state requires certification or training for teaching visually-impaired learners. I would like to change that,” says Willsie. “PSU started that awareness.”