PSU Visually Impaired Learner program celebrates 50 years

Professor James (Blue) Bickford

As the 50th year approaches for the PSU Visually Impaired Learner (VIL) special education program, the GSE renews an ongoing commitment to provide high-quality instruction to produce teachers for the critically needed field of blind and vision impaired. A new coordinator has been selected for the VIL program to replace Professor James (Blue) Bickford, who retires in June.

The VIL program at PSU began in 1964 with the receipt of a federal grant of $15,000 to fund a program for “Teacher Training for the Visually Impaired.” The same money also provided scholarships to students. Dr. Keith Larson, former special education chair, hired Madge Leslie from Portland Public Schools as the original coordinator. According to PSU historian Steve Brannan, Ms. Leslie was well-respected in the field and the PSU program soon received national recognition, attracting students from across the country.

Today’s PSU VIL program continues to fill a critical shortage of professionals in the blind and vision impaired field. Approximately 5,000 job openings exist throughout the US each year; 27 university programs produce a few hundred graduates. In the recent recession, education jobs have been scarce, but the VIL graduates find themselves in a situation where they can choose from many job opportunities. “Most of our students are already working in the field under emergency licensure,” says Dr. Bickford. “I’m in a position where when my students graduate in June, most will be already employed.”

The PSU VIL program was the first vision program to be delivered primarily online (with one two-week summer intensive). Dr. Bickford, who pioneered the distance delivery, knew it would be possible to attract students from states that had no such programs and to reach students in rural areas where access to specialized graduate programs is limited. That insight is directly responsible for the success of the VIL program today.

PSU VIL students are highly regarded and fill positions both near and far. “Dr. Jim “Blue” Bickford has done an excellent job in providing a pool of highly trained teachers of the blind and visually impaired through the PSU program, which will help meet the needs in the Pacific Northwest,” says Dr. Dean Stenehjem, superintendent of the Washington State School for the Blind. “I wish Jim the best in retirement and want to thank him for his dedicated service to the field, and want to also thank PSU for the continued support of this very important program.”

The PSU VIL program has trained hundreds of teachers to work with blind or visually impaired, many enrolling from out of state. These specialists typically work in a school for the blind, a school district, or an education service district program and may provide direct instruction or coordinate curriculum for classroom teachers. Fully one-third of the program’s current participants are, themselves, blind or visually impaired.

This summer the GSE will welcome Dr. Holly M. Lawson as the new coordinator. She is from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where she was the coordinator of the Virginia Consortium for Teacher Preparation in Vision Impairment, Helen A. Kellar Institute for Human disAbilities and taught graduate-level courses.

Learn more about the VIL program at PSU


Bickford will retire after 41 successful years in Special Education. He began at PSU as an assistant professor in the VIL program from 1987–1990. He left to serve as Director of Educational Programs at the Washington State School for the Blind for 11 years, returning to PSU as coordinator of the VIL program in 2001.

“Meeting Blue, and being a part of his program, only fueled my desire and passion to work with children who were blind,” says Emily Coleman, VIL Teacher for the Washington State School for the Blind. “Blue’s knowledge and dedication to our field were evident from day one. His sharing of personal experiences, professional advice, and high expectations for us were critical for our own success.”

In 1998, he was named Distinguished Educator of the Blind by the National Federation of the Blind. He has pioneered emerging technologies for student access to instruction, written nearly $3 million in grants, and published and presented extensively on the use of technology with vision impaired learners.


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