Association for Travel Instruction Formed!
by Dona Sauerburger, COMS

May 1999 newsletter
Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA)

On May 16, at a conference in Kalamazoo hosted by Western Michigan University (WMU) and coordinated by Bill Wiener, an association was formed for Travel Instruction for people with disabilities other than blindness. This was the culmination of a landmark project funded by Project ACTION to develop standards for Travel Instructors for people with disabilities other than blindness, and a curriculum to train the instructors. This fall, WMU will start preparing Travel Instructors, using the curriculum.

There were 85-90 people at the conference altogether. They included Travel Instructors who had been teaching people with disabilities other than blindness to travel independent for more than 20 years, as well as those who were just getting started, employed by or contracting with transit companies to train their paratransit riders to use the buses. There were also several O&M specialists, representatives from universities interested in training Travel Instructors, and consumers.

Association Ends Isolation

We O&M specialists know what it’s like to feel unrecognized and alone -- it’s one of the reasons we like WOMA! Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how isolated some of the travel instructors felt when they developed their programs decades ago. With the exception of those in New York City (where the public school system has 40 Travel Instructors!), many Travel Instructors developed their programs without knowing that others were doing the same thing. Each of them learned the hard way what to teach, and how to teach it. Some of them met other Travel Instructors for the first time at this conference or in the Steering Committee that organized it.

Common Elements of Travel Instruction

Travel Instructors who have trained people with disabilities long enough learn that there are elements that are necessary for travel instruction besides teaching routes and street crossing and bus-riding skills. The programs of these experienced Travel Instructors have these elements in common, even though many of them were developed in isolation. These elements include “stranger approaches” (colleagues or plain-clothes police pose as “strangers” who entice students to be sure they respond appropriately and safely), and teaching problem-solving skills and how to cope with being lost or having their route blocked.

At the conference, Travel Instructors Patti Voorhees and Steven Garcia led a session on teaching problem-solving skills. One story that was shared at their session illustrates the importance of this professional training instead of simply teaching people how to get to their destination. It took place in suburban Maryland about ten years ago. A man who is cognitively disabled was trained by a Travel Instructor to get to and from work by bus. He learned it very well and traveled independently for several years without incident.

However one day he took the wrong bus. He had no skills to handle these contingencies, had never been taught how to problem solve or recover when lost, or even how to phone for help. He lived in the streets of Washington, DC for several days until he was finally found. He was then shown how to call for help, and how to handle unexpected events.

Banquet Award:

Photo caption reads: Jack Gorelick (left), considered by many to be the Grandfather of Travel Instruction, receives the Distinguished Career Award from Margaret Groce, coordinator of the New York City public schools travel instruction program. Becky Allen (right), Executive Director of the ARC of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, shared stories that illustrated the need for standards and personnel prep curriculum for Travel Instructors.

Saturday evening’s banquet was truly inspiring. Rebecca Allen, who had experienced travel instruction as a program supervisor and also as an advocate, talked about the need for the profession of travel instruction, relating her personal experiences.

Then the Distinguished Career Award was presented to Jack Gorelick, who is the first person we know of to establish a travel instruction program for people with disabilities other than blindness. He began more than 30 years ago. I was struck by the parallel between his work, at a time when he said everyone was convinced that people as severely retarded as his clients could never travel independently, and the work of Russ Williams twenty years earlier. Russ has told me that the administrators at Hines Hospital were very courageous to overcome the liability issues and concerns of other staff who didn’t believe that blind people could travel safely by themselves, and who thought that the blinded veterans should not be allowed to travel outside independently. Two decades later, Jack overcame similar ignorance.

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A Professional Association is Born

The morning after the banquet, Rick Welsh gave an articulate, inspiring overview of the need for a professional organization. The participants then unanimously voted to establish the organization. One of the Travel Instructors, who had taught people with disabilities other than blindness to travel independently for 15 years before realizing that anyone else was doing the same thing, was moved to tears when the vote took place. Others were also deeply moved; one dedicated Travel Instructor with 10 years’ experience explained later that she hoped that the formation of an association would help legitimize her beloved profession.

Sessions were then held to begin the process of establishing the organization with by laws, a newsletter, a code of ethics and a mechanism for awarding certificates of proficiency. It is hoped that this organization will be able to establish a certification program so that there will be some assurance of quality for people hiring and being taught by travel instructors.

Forms were distributed for charter members to join the association, and membership forms were taken for colleagues at home. The by-laws will be mailed to all charter members, and after they are approved, officers and board members will be elected.

To find out more about the association, contact Dr. William Wiener at Western Michigan University (616-387-3453;

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