New program to educate teachers for the visual-impaired

Portland State has won a federal grant for $1.2 million to develop a certification program for orientation and mobility specialists to instruct those who are blind or visually impaired.

Awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Certified Orientation and Mobility Educators in Training program, or Project COMET, will train 38 specialists in skillsets that will enable the visually impaired to travel safely, effectively and purposefully in their environment.

COMET will be associated with PSU’s Visually Impaired Learner program, a nationally accredited graduate program through the Graduate School of Education that prepares teachers of students with visual impairments along with other disabilities.

VIL Director Holly Lawson and Kathryn Botsford, a VIL research assistant professor, will lead COMET. They will also allocate grant money to different aspects of the project, 65 percent of which will fund most of the tuition for the 38 specialists to receive training.

“This new grant is a big deal, not only for the amount of money, but really because this is the first time PSU has been able to offer the orientation and mobility certificate,” Botsford said.

PSU has the only program to offer training for teachers of visually impaired students, when compared with other Pacific Northwestern states including Washington, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii and Alaska.

Most of the five new courses will be taught online and will focus on orientation and mobility methods, assessment, child- and adult-centered instruction and mobility techniques. The program will also offer an Orientation and Mobility internship.

“Orientation and mobility is about understanding where you are, where you want to go and how you want to get there,” Lawson said. “Orientation and mobility skills have been correlated to positive outcomes for people who are visually impaired, namely in work and employment.”

New students will be able to achieve an orientation and mobility certificate through VIL. The program will also enable instructors to add endorsements to existing visually impaired teaching licensure. A third program will focus on students who seek to work primarily with adults.

Adam Gilbert is an incoming student enrolling into VIL. Through the program, Gilbert hopes to become a teacher of students with visual impairments.

As a student who is visually impaired, Gilbert has first-hand experience with the importance of orientation and mobility training. Gilbert said that learning how to travel safely is crucial for any blind individual and that it is an essential part of being truly independent.

“I want to become a teacher for the visually impaired because I want to help other blind/visually impaired individuals realize their own potentials and become more independent,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert wants to use his own life experiences coupled with his education to relate to his future students and lead by example.

Five years ago in Eugene, Oregon, Gilbert received orientation and mobility training as a client of the Oregon State Commission For The Blind. Gilbert’s biggest take-away from receiving the orientation and mobility training was “the freedom and ability to once again be able to get out and travel independently.”

“[It was] about three months after losing my sight, the process was very frustrating, difficult, and intimidating at first,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert questioned why orientation and mobility training is not included in most curricula, and he is not the only one. Both Lawson and Botsford commented on the lack of teachers and educational resources for students who are visually impaired.

One in 1,000 students are identified as having some sort of visual impairment in the United States, according to the Department of Education. Botsford pointed out that its relative rarity creates a disparity in resource availability for students.

“[Visual impairments are] rare, so people don’t see it; they don’t realize that there’s a need for that kind of speciality,” Botsford said.

Botsford estimated that there are between 4,000 and 5,000 visually impaired children in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Alaska. Because of the fact that it is considered a low occurrence disability, she said there is a critical and longstanding shortage of teachers and assistants who are trained to address the needs of people with visual impairments.

Children who have additional disabilities often have a vision problem, but they are not assessed, Botsford said.

“It’s one of those cycles that they don’t realize they have students with visual impairments, so they don’t think they need a teacher, they don’t hire a teacher and the students never get assessed,” Botsford said.

Lawson added that there are parents now who are going through VIL programs and becoming orientation and mobility Certified because their children are not getting the services they need.

“They are very eager and in many cases, desperate to know more, and often this drives them to this new career field, [becoming] a teacher of the visually impaired, because their kids aren’t getting this service,” Lawson said.