For the second time, Amy Parker, founder of the annual Mobility Matters accessibility summit, found herself tasked with creating a virtual conference. In 2020, the conference had just days to pivot from in-person to online as the coronavirus pandemic shut down the nation. Ultimately, only 230 registered to attend. This year, registrations for the fourth annual event have already doubled.
Parker said teamwork has been a crucial part of successfully organizing another online conference.
“People think that remote learning takes less time than face-to-face learning and it really takes more time — it takes planning and it takes teamwork,” Parker said.
This year, the team also has more clearly defined roles in outreach, registration and hosting — an improvement that Parker said will make the event easier to organize.
Hosted by Portland State University College of Education’s Orientation & Mobility (O&M) and Visually Impaired Learning Programs (VIL), Mobility Matters is an annual interdisciplinary summit that highlights transportation and education accessibility for people with disabilities.
The February 26th event is open to anyone interested in accessible education, including K-12 students, special educators and parents, professionals, other educators and college students.
“It’s an exciting thing to be able to support someone in their independence,” said Becky Morton, an O&M and VIL graduate assistant who helps organize the conference.
In partnership with the Washington State School for the Blind, the American Printing House for the Blind and Fort Vancouver, this year’s summit will feature a virtual field trip of Fort Vancouver. To ensure an accessible and immersive learning experience, blind and visually impaired attendees will receive supplementary tools designed to supplement the tactile elements of an in-person event.
Morton was tasked with getting the materials — including replica artifacts and tactile and 3D printed maps of Fort Vancouver — delivered to registrants as the Feb. 26 conference approaches.
“The typical virtual field trip is very visual — so that's not necessarily engaging for a student that is visually impaired,” Morton said.
VIL Program Coordinator Holly Lawson worked with PSU graduate students from the O&M and VIL programs, as well as community members involved in disability access, to create and print the 3D maps of Fort Vancouver’s floor plans, which will be used along with audio descriptions to help attendees with visual impairments experience the space virtually.
Parker added that this event will also be beneficial to graduate students as they learn to put principles of universal design into practice as educators.
“Universal design is a design philosophy that embraces inclusion. It challenges us to consider the many ways that information can be presented and approaches for people to interact with information and ideas,” Parker said.
Thanks to the sponsorship of the Digital Cities Testbed Center (DCTC) at PSU, the event will also feature accommodations including live captioning and ASL interpreters, which Parker and Morton said they would like to see more often in online classrooms.
“We think that this kind of learning doesn’t only benefit students with visual impairments, it benefits all students; it applies to the way our brains are not just wired in one way,” Parker said.
Prior to the pandemic, the summit was held in-person and featured several guest speakers and rooms for various activities. For this event, attendees will visit stations, each hosted by a teacher, students, and a ranger, in virtual breakout rooms. Each station will be dedicated to exploring a different area of the national park, like The Blacksmith Shop.
Because people with visual impairments and other disabilities are often underemployed, Parker said the team is also focused on helping students develop networks and find career opportunities. Attendees will spend the latter part of the event learning from Fort Vancouver employees about careers in national parks.
“Mobility is not just about special education — it’s about being where you want to be, participating in the world how you want to, contributing, sharing your voice, and being able to get there to fully participate,” Parker said.
Parker also stressed the importance of showing students examples of other people with disabilities in leadership roles. For example, Jeff Bowler, an educator at the Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB), has low vision and will be leading the virtual tour with fellow WSSB teacher Steve Lowry.
“There's so much potential to create a more inclusive world if we just begin to include people with disabilities — it's not just a nice thing to do, it's a smart thing to do, it's a human thing to do, and it can make the world better,” Parker said.
For more information and to register, visit the Mobility Matters website.