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

In the news: PSU Career and Community Studies program featured in Senate Bill 572

March 15, 2023 —(SALEM, Ore) On Tuesday, the Oregon Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Michael Dembrow, heard testimony from students and alumni of Portland State’s Career and Community Studies program in support of Senate Bill 572. Written testimony was submitted by PSU leaders, faculty, special education experts, K-12 educators, students, and parents. Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin is the chief sponsor of the bill, which would provide $1.5M to develop postsecondary programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities based on PSU’s model.

The 82nd Oregon Legislative Assembly convened​ Jan. 17, 2023. 

Senate Bill 572 in the news

Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) and the Oregon Capital Chronicle featured Senate Bill 572 following Tuesday’s hearing in Salem.

  • Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB): “Oregon Senate bill would expand higher education options for students with disabilities,” by Meerah Powell, March 15, 2023. Excerpt: “Mary Morningstar, a professor at Portland State in the department of special education and the director of the Career and Community Studies program, said in her written testimony to the committee that PSU has been developing and testing the program model since 2016. She said there’s now a proof of concept that can be adopted at other schools, like the state’s community colleges.”
  • Oregon Capital Chronicle: “Slate of bills address unequal outcomes, opportunities for students with disabilities,” by Alex Baumhardt, March 14, 2023. Excerpt: “A number of graduates of the program submitted testimony describing the experience of being on campus as life changing. Students felt part of a student community and as if they had greater career opportunities after. Among the 27 people who submitted testimony in support of the bill was the executive director of student services for the Hillsboro School District. Elaine Fox wrote:  ‘When our students leave special education, they face many ‘no’s’ from others who do not think it’s possible to attend a post-secondary program like Portland State University. The Career and Community Studies program is a game changer for our students.’”

Student spotlight:  Mayra Gonzalez, Special Education, will lead braille events for children, families, and educators at Hillsboro’s Brookwood Library in January

Mayra Gonzalez and Frances, Brookwood Library Inclusive Storytime, 2022.

Mayra Gonzalez works with children ages three to five during an inclusive storytime designed for children with and without disabilities, led by Dr. Melissa Pebly at Hillsboro Public Library, Brookwood. In January, Braille Literacy Month is coming to the library with several events organized. She has ordered books and art projects in braille to share. 

“I want to reach out to the families who are not aware – maybe because of a language barrier, so they know there are bilingual people here. I hope this is the beginning of something wonderful,” says Gonzalez. [Readers interested in Spanish braille may find more information from Paths to Literacy: https://www.pathstoliteracy.org/spanish-braille-and-english-language-learners/ ]

In addition to the inclusive storytime at Brookwood, she is working with the Bilingual Early Literacy Specialist at Shute Park to make sure bilingual storytime is more inclusive of children with disabilities. She is also supporting work on an inclusive Oregon Battle of the Books group at the Beaverton Public Library, enabling children who may not have participated in this statewide event before.

As a graduate student in Portland State University’s Visually Impaired Learner (VIL) and Orientation and Mobility programs, she is training to become a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TSVI). “My experience in the program has been great,” she says. “My son is 11 and he is legally blind. As a mom, I wanted to learn everything I could to help.” Portland State offers the only program for TSVI training in the Pacific Northwest, serving Oregon, Alaska, Washington, Hawaii, Montana and Idaho.

Since October, she has been working with Project LIBROS, a grant directed by PSU’s Dr. Amy Parker with co-Principal Investigator Dr. Holly Lawson. The grant is focused on providing accessible literacy opportunities for children with low-incidence disabilities, including those with sensory and extensive support needs. LIBROS is a personnel preparation grant from the federal Office of Special Education to recruit, fund, advise, and mentor diverse scholars, expanding inclusive literacy at local libraries. [LIBROS stands for Low-Incidence Interdisciplinary Scholars Building Reading Opportunities for Social-Emotional Resiliency.]

January is Braille Literacy Month / Enero es el Mes de la Alfabetización Braille 

Braille Literacy Month Events in January at Brookwood Library:

2850 NE Brookwood Parkway, Hillsboro, Oregon, 97124 (Tel. 503.615-6500)

Thursday, January 12, 2023:  The Inclusive Storytime Team is hosting an event to create adapted books for learners with sensory, motor and/or language support needs from 4 to 6 p.m.

Fridays, Jan. 13 and 27, 2023:  An Inclusive Storytime is held every 2nd and 4th Friday at the Brookwood Library at 10:15 a.m.

Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.:  Families of children with disabilities ages 0 to 3 are invited to an event with adapted books to take home. Teachers are invited to a model adaptive storytime that Gonzalez is helping to organize in partnership with the Early Intervention Program at PSU and the Hillsboro Early Childhood Center.

Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023:  A special family event will share braille history and crafts from 1 to 3 p.m.

“Braille is a code, not a language,” explains Gonzalez, “for many they may only have access to literacy through braille.”


By Sherron Lumley

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.”


College of Education Alumna Kamala Arumugam, Master’s in Special Education, 2021

By Sherron Lumley

Special Education is a highly satisfying career that makes a positive impact on the lives of children with learning disabilities.” 

~Kamala Arumugam, Master’s in Special education, 2021

After graduating from Portland State University’s College of Education, Kamala Arumugam was hired to be the Learning Specialist and Individualized Education Program (IEP) case manager at William Walker Elementary and Barnes Elementary Schools in Beaverton.

“I came to PSU because of the multicultural values of inclusion and diversity at the College of Education. The faculty consists of culturally and linguistically diverse members, making PSU a more equitable place for all. That was extremely important to me coming from another culture,” she says. 

Alumna Kamala Arumugam, Masters of Special Education, PSU College of Education

Arumugam, whose first language is Tamil, earned a master’s in accounts and economics in India in 1999 before coming to the U.S. in 2004 with her husband and daughter. Her father was a professor, and that may have influenced her decision to change career paths, but she notes that she always had an interest in teaching. “Coming to college after 20 years, it’s all real again,” she says.

“I ran math and reading groups for the Talented and Gifted program, volunteering in the Beaverton School District, but becoming a teacher was a big transition from my background in economics and accounts. Many parts of my personal journey led me to Special Education,” she says.

“Being  the first in my family to attend a university in the U.S., navigating the admissions process was overwhelming at first. Thanks to the faculty and staff of the College of Education for their constant helpfulness and guidance throughout, I was a recipient of the DICE Grant. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Brown and Dr. Loman for their work in preparing bicultural and bilingual special education teachers. It’s an important step to address cultural obstacles many students face in school. Cultural representations matter in school and benefit all learners, both academically and socially.

“In the future, I would like to pursue a doctorate in Special Education. My research interests revolve heavily around how schools and instruction can better serve and promote success for culturally and linguistically diverse children receiving (or who are in need of) special education services. I look forward to furthering my knowledge in the field of special education so that I can help pave the way for new educational systems that better serve our culturally and linguistically diverse students and families.

“I imagine an educational setting that would reflect the real world of diverse abilities, experience,  languages, and cultures. An inclusive classroom is one where students grow to be more compassionate and responsive, and become caring citizens.”


New Grant Awarded for Project KITE

By Sherron Lumley

Portland State University’s College of Education is pleased to announce the award of a new $812,500 grant from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), part of the U.S. Department of Education. The Early Childhood Intervention Personnel Preparation program at PSU will collaborate with PSU’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, Oregon Health Science University (OHSU), and Columbia Regional Program (CRP).

This important grant will fund two cohorts of students including 14 speech language pathologists (SLPs) and 20 in Early Childhood Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education (ECI/ECSE). PSU’s Dr. Amy Donaldson, Speech and Hearing Sciences, and Dr. Hollie Hix-Small, Early Childhood Intervention Program Coordinator, will co-lead the grant-funded Project KITE, Knowledge through Interdisciplinary Training and Experience.

Applications are currently being accepted. Please email askcoe@pdx.edu or visit PSU’s College of Education website for the Early Childhood Intervention Program. https://sites.google.com/pdx.edu/psuecip/program-overview

PSU anticipates this project will result in up to 2,000 additional children and families in Oregon receiving adequate, high-quality EI/ECSE support over the next five years. Another 2,450 children and families in Oregon will receive adequate, high-quality EI/ECSE speech language pathology (SLP).

Specifically, the grant supports preparing professionals to work with children with elevated service needs and their families, focusing on those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds from high poverty, rural and urban areas.

“This is truly a remarkable achievement,” said Dr. Jose Coll, interim dean of the College of Education. “It is an opportunity to make a strong, positive impact in the lives of young students and their families across our diverse community in Oregon.”

Project KITE students will develop their knowledge and skills through 480 hours of shared coursework, seminars, and joint experiences delivered by OHSU’s Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) training program. CRP will deliver 10 case-based seminars regarding children with high-intensity, low-incidence needs. CRP is one of eight statewide regional programs established by the Oregon Department of Education, working in collaboration with local districts and EI/ECSE programs to support service delivery.

Project KITE students at PSU will also participate in a four-week inclusive summer experience for children with high-intensity needs at CRP, which will enable them to deepen their implementation of evidence-based interventions that improve outcomes for children and families. These authentic, experiential activities designed for Project KITE will complement already rigorous field-based requirements for the respective programs at PSU’s College of Education.