Breaking down the language barrier

When Lisa McMahon taught high school special education in Michigan, she said the administration did not believe her students could learn the intricate topics of biology.

She was determined to prove them wrong.

Tailoring her lesson plans to the many learning styles, McMahon said by the end of the term she succeeded in teaching the subject effectively. She said she accomplished this by rewriting the text in a more straightforward style.

McMahon became interested in creating curriculum that other teachers could use in special education programs as well. Three years ago, she set off for the West Coast and landed in Portland with the purpose of attaining her master’s degree in biology, in order to write textbooks that catered to the special education students and to use those books in her own classes.

Once McMahon came to Portland, she did not enroll in the master’s program. Instead, she began working in Portland State’s Graduate School of Social Work research branch as a research assistant.

McMahon started strong in the program and began project-managing a branch of the National Youth Leadership Network. The purpose of the NYLN is to empower and educate youth with disabilities. The first National Conference for Youth with Disabilities, held in 1997, instigated the establishment of the NYLN.

McMahon said PSU received a grant for the project and she is now developing a youth information center that provides general information in a clear and understandable fashion to youth. The topics range from healthcare options and employment to information about traveling internationally.

“This sounds cheesy,” she said, “but this is information by youth, for youth.”

McMahon also works as project manager with the National Youth Information Center, a web site that provides youth workers with research, funding and job and training opportunities. The National Collaboration for Youth, a 30-year-old organization that aims to improve youth life around the world, runs the center.

McMahon said working with the NYLN showed her that there are many individuals who share her philosophy about education for all.

“There are a lot of people out there who are pushing for similar ideas,” she said.

McMahon said she realized the broader impact that working with the organization could make, and her plans changed.

“On a daily basis, I’m less overwhelmed than when I was a teacher,” she said, adding that she is also more excited and hopeful.

Society has become increasingly aware of including individuals with varying disabilities, McMahon said, citing brail and wheelchair-friendly curb corners in sidewalks.

“That was the first stage,” she said.

McMahon said that the needs for cognitive diversity are starting to be addressed. For example, the Oregon Advocacy Center teamed up with the League of Women Voters, Oregon Literacy, Inc., and the Oregon secretary of state to create an “Easy to Read Voting Guide” for the primary election on May 16.

“It’s so valuable to have everybody able to participate in life,” she said of the developments.

On Monday evening McMahon presented a project proposal for PSU computer science students to create a computer program that will assist in preparing accessible documents as a capstone project.

“It’s amazing how big of a process this whole thing is,” McMahon said.

McMahon also works with the Oregon Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services, part of the National Alliance to End Homelessness that attends to the housing needs of individuals with mental illness and addiction disorders.