People with Disabilities Can Teach Orientation and Mobility: A Convert's Perspective
Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, January-February 1996
By Dona Sauerburger, COMS
The following essay was written as part of a "Point/Counter-point" column on the question "Can Persons Who Are Blind or Have Other Disabilities Safely and Effectively Teach Orientation and Mobility?" The column included two authors on each side of the debate. This essay responds to arguments in opposing essays that 1) blind O&M specialists would not be able to handle clients who, because of emotional problems, try to run away from the O&M instructor, and 2) the instructional program would require fundamental alteration because of the necessity of blind O&M specialists to teach only certain parts of the curriculum.
In 2002 the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) passed a resolution supporting blind Orientation and Mobility Specialists. Click here for the text of that resolution.
Until relatively recently, I thought that the only way by which students could learn to travel independently is to teach them the way I was taught 25 years ago. This includes a stage in which the instructor is at an intermediate distance (about 6-10 feet) from the student. At this distance, the sighted instructor can still monitor and intervene quickly if needed while the student experiences pseudo-independence. I also thought that O&M specialists must be able to teach all visually impaired students in all situations. Because I thought that a blind person could not monitor and provide for safety from an intermediate distance in all situations (for example where noises made it impossible to hear the student), I thought that blind people could not teach O&M.
I think that everyone, even those of us who teach blind people to use alternative techniques, has difficulty accepting that things can be accomplished effectively in ways other than those to which we are accustomed. During the last several years, however, I have slowly opened my mind, and most recently my thinking was rechanneled by working with a panel of three O&M specialists who have disabilities: Pam Matheson, who uses a wheelchair (see "Teaching O&M from a Wheelchair"), Harold Snider, who is blind, and Ray Van Zleer, who has a hearing disability.
We discovered that O&M specialists with various disabilities share certain strategies for teaching O&M. However, most of these strategies are really variations of what all effective O&M specialists do.
These strategies are that they:
1) carefully investigate the area where they are going to teach. In addition to environmental features that are needed for teaching, Pam looks for wheelchair accessibility, and Harold looks for hazards so that he can anticipate where a person who is at his student's level of competence could be endangered. The areas and conditions that I require in order to teach O&M may be different from those required by O&M specialists with disabilities, but we all have the same need to find and familiarize ourselves with areas where our students can learn safely and where we can teach effectively.
We all have weaknesses, as well as strengths and specialized skills and knowledge. None of us can be effective instructors for all students in all situations. Competent O&M specialists know their limitations, and when the student or situation presents special needs beyond their capabilities or expertise, they get assistance or consultation, or they refer the student to another specialist. For example, if my responsibilities included preventing clients from running away during our lessons, I would require assistance because I'm not physically capable of catching and restraining them. I also need more expertise to be an effective instructor for children who have multiple disabilities, and some O&M specialists refer or consult with me about their deaf-blind clients.
2) change or abandon their lessons in conditions where they are unable to teach and provide for safety appropriately. When loud noises from lawnmowers or construction begin while Harold is teaching sidewalk travel to students who still require monitoring for safety, he monitors them from a closer position or moves the lesson to another place. When the sidewalk where Pam planned to teach specific cane skills is made inaccessible to her because of temporary construction, she comes back at another time or finds another area to teach those skills. I have also had to change or abandon lessons in which I wanted to teach a particular skill because temporary conditions, such as construction, traffic, or weather, made it impossible for me to do so.
3) teach in conditions where they can monitor and intervene as needed to provide for the student's safety, until they judge that the student can be relied on to handle hazardous situations independently. Thus, until they judge that their students have reached this stage, Harold stays close to his students and Pam teaches where accessibility allows her to reach her students quickly, or she uses an assistant who can reach her student under Pam's direction.
We all must judge when our students can handle hazardous situations independently so that we no longer need to intervene for their safety. When I judge that my students have reached this stage and I observe them from a distance, I cannot intervene if they suddenly do something unexpected, and after they turn the corner, I have no way of knowing what temporary hazards (such as open manholes) they may be approaching. If our student has an accident, it will not be because of the condition of our vision, hearing, or mobility, it will be because we misjudged that we could allow that student to travel in situations where we could not monitor and intervene. And, even though blind O&M specialists may stay close to their students in order to provide for their safety in situations where I could do so from an intermediate distance, their students can nevertheless learn to be independent.
4) function skillfully with their disability and whatever adaptive equipment they use. For example, blind O&M specialists need to have excellent travel skills so that at the same time that they pay attention to what the student is doing, they know whether it is a safe time to cross the street and whether they and their student are veering. The O&M specialist who uses a wheelchair must be able to maneuver it skillfully while still concentrating on the movement and progress of the student. O&M specialists with hearing impairments need to be able to position themselves to simultaneously observe their student and the environment (including traffic), communicate effectively, and skillfully use any adaptive equipment, such as hearing aids.
5) find out from their students what they see or hear in order to teach them how to use that vision or hearing. I also rely on my students' telling me what they can see or hear in order to teach them to use it. Ray anticipates which sounds his students are likely to hear and use (such as traffic or other environmental sounds, and sources of echolocation) and then asks them what they hear; blind O&M specialists can use the same strategy to teach people to use their vision.
6) use an assistant when needed. These assistants are neither O&M specialists nor certified "O&M Assistants"; their role, function, and training are specific to the needs of the instructor and student. Pam uses assistants in situations where she is unable to accompany her students closely or ride the bus with them, and where they are learning to use stairs. She trains the assistants, and during the lessons directs them using hands-free communication equipment. Harold uses an assistant when he wants to monitor a student from a distance or expedite his familiarization of the area. Ray occasionally uses assistance to determine the nature of sounds that he is not able to fully assess himself.
I am now convinced that, even though their teaching strategies and techniques may differ from mine, people with disabilities can effectively teach their students to become independent travelers while providing for their safety.
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