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Oregon Senate bill would expand higher education options for students with disabilities

Portland State University sign
Hanin Najjar
A file photo of the Portland State University campus. Portland State University’s Career and Community Studies program is the only inclusive, postsecondary education program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Oregon.

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Oregon could soon have more opportunities to pursue higher education.

The Oregon Senate Committee on Education had its first public hearing Tuesday for Senate Bill 572 which, if passed, would support and expand postsecondary programming for students with disabilities.

Currently, there’s only one inclusive, postsecondary education program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the state — Portland State University’s Career and Community Studies program, or CCS.

CCS is a four-year certificate program that provides students with academic and career coaching, volunteer opportunities and campus events. According to Portland State, the program only accepts four to six students per year. Supporters said the bill would allow more students with disabilities to benefit from postsecondary programming, but there was not an estimate of how many more.

If passed, Senate Bill 572 would direct Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission to work with Portland State along with the state’s community colleges to establish two-year programs for students with disabilities that could lead into PSU’s program. The bill would provide $600,000 to support the program at Portland State and $900,000 to the community colleges that want to establish their own programs.

Roughly 30 people testified in support of the bill, either in person or in writing.

“The students who are in this program need your help to expand inclusive postsecondary education to community colleges in Oregon to first-time college students who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, and to give students like me a second chance to succeed in life,” Carson Mitchell, a first-year student in PSU’s Career and Community Studies program testified to the education committee.

Before PSU’s program, Mitchell said he faced challenges when thinking about college.

“I had a teacher, a high school teacher, tell me, ‘You’re not good enough. You’ll never get into a good college because of your disabilities,’” he said. “And that really put fear in my way, and I fought to get my voice and my thoughts out there.”

Mitchell said the bill would be “life changing” for other students with disabilities across the state.

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.

“In doing so, Oregon can expand this model to young adults who are denied access to inclusive postsecondary settings leading to employment in [their] chosen career pathway,” she wrote.

K-12 educators are also supportive of the bill. Administrators with Hillsboro School District Student Services said in written testimony that before PSU developed the CCS program, young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities did not have the opportunity to enroll in college, earn competitive employment, have inclusive social experiences and live independently.

“When our students leave special education, they face many ‘nos’ from others who do not think it’s possible to attend a postsecondary program like PSU,” the administrators said. “This bill is a huge step towards something that would help others to lead fully productive and inclusive adult lives.”

PSU’s Morningstar said in partnership with vocational rehabilitation and developmental disability services, the program has had positive outcomes for its graduates, with 81% of them going on to working in competitive, integrated jobs.

Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser speaks on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Capitol in Salem, Ore.
Bradley W. Parks /
Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser speaks on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Capitol in Salem, Ore.

One of the program’s graduates, Massoud Beardsley, joined the committee meeting via Zoom — now living and working in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Beardsley’s father, Kurt Beardsley, said in his written testimony that the family had to move to Portland from Southern California to get Oregon residency for Beardsley to attend the CCS program back in 2016, as there were “virtually no good choices” in their home state. When the program began as a pilot, state residency was a requirement. The program is now open to in-state and out-of-state students, according to PSU.

“The success that I’ve had in life would not have been possible without the CCS program,” Massoud Beardsley told the committee. “They provided so much for me, such as advising, academic coaching and employment coordinators, as well as a stable job at the campus recreation center for four years.”

Now, Beardsley is busy with his life in New Mexico, where he holds down two jobs, working with kids with autism at an early childhood center and making pizzas at a restaurant. He said he’ll soon start work at a baseball facility.

The bill on post-secondary programs was not the only piece of legislation with the focus of supporting students with disabilities discussed on Tuesday. The Senate education committee also heard testimony on bills focused on K-12 students, such as Senate Bill 575 which would direct the Oregon Department of Education to develop an education plan for the success of younger students with disabilities.

Chief sponsor, Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, said making sure students with disabilities succeed early on will help set them up for success in postsecondary programs like PSU’s, and if SB 572 passes, in community college programs.

“The amount of work that all of you and your families and the people that support you did to get you to this place … is really, really hard,” Gelser Blouin said to the PSU students and graduates at the Capitol Tuesday. “And we need to make it less hard so that it just becomes an ordinary thing that a person with an intellectual disability is at a happy hour, or at an art history class, or working for a baseball team. You all are showing that that’s possible and I think set a very high bar for us as a Legislature and for our school systems to really open the doors for people.”

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Meerah Powell