Revised and updated from an article published in the July, 1990 Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association Newsletter

Orientation -- What is Our Role?
By Dona Sauerburger

In the May issue of the National Federation of the Blind's Braille Monitor, there was an article "Who's Able to Teach" written by Gwen Nelson. Concerning the orientation she received to the route from her new neighborhood to her job, she wrote:
Gwen Nelson's article raises a very interesting question:

What is the role of an O&M instructor when orienting a visually impaired person to a new area?

The O&M instructor should respect Ms. Nelson's right to make her own decisions about which route she prefers (see "Decisions, Decisions: Who Knows What's Best for Our Client?"). However, Ms Nelson also expects the O&M instructor to locate the bus stops ahead of time, including double-checking the information given by the bus company and the driver, so that the client doesn't have to waste time waiting at the wrong bus stop or learning one bus route when he or she would prefer another.

As an O&M instructor who is frequently asked to orient visually impaired newcomers to areas with which I am not familiar, and who believes that visually impaired travelers, during their O&M training, should learn how to orient themselves by getting information from people who are familiar with the area, I find this issue intriguing. I know that people have differing views on this subject. I have heard some O&M instructors express the opinion that only a qualified O&M instructor should provide orientation to blind people, and I have talked with several professionals (not O&M instructors) who would not orient a blind person because they might be held liable if something went wrong.

Yet many blind people orient themselves using information from people who know the area, and call the instructor only when they need to review their mobility skills. Other clients call an O&M instructor to be oriented to every building they need to find, and when they move they call to be shown where to shop, where the buses go, the location of the nearest swimming pool and community resources, etc.

Should it be the responsibility of the blind person, as it is with any newcomer, to find out as many such details as possible, rather than expecting the mobility instructor to make the phone calls or contact the people in the community for this information? Often in such a situation, I have oriented a client to a route through a campus or chosen a bus route, or found convenient shopping, etc., only to learn later that a neighbor or fellow student or co-worker showed them a better route which I had not noticed.

Philosophy regarding orientation
Over the years I've developed my own philosophy about orientation, and I'm sure each instructor has developed his or her own. I encourage the clients to take an active role in and have responsibility for their own orientation by accompanying me as I familiarize myself to the area, and informing me of their preferences as I report to them what I am observing about the area. Also, the client agrees to find out ahead of time the information we will need, such as calling the bus company for the choice of routes, asking neighbors about the location of the best stores, asking co-workers where the office is in relation to the bus stop, etc. This is no more and no less than any newcomer would do when moving to a new area or getting a new job.

My role then becomes that of helping them ascertain the information which visually impaired travelers might need for orienting themselves, such as landmarks, potential hazards, etc. that I observe of the routes they are considering, and helping them become confident of their ability to travel the area safely. I don't consider it my responsibility to make decisions about which is the best route -- travelers usually know their own abilities, limitations, and preferences. If I observe anything that I consider unsafe about their travel techniques or the routes, I inform them (and document in my notes that I informed them), but I feel that they will decide their own priorities and preferences, and will decide whether to try to correct any unsafe techniques.

Clarification to avoid problems

It would help avoid problems like those experienced by Ms. Nelson and her instructor if there was a clear understanding of what is expected during an orientation. This could probably be clarified and agreed upon by the instructor and client when setting up the appointment.

Let's hear from you!
I'd like to hear the various perspectives and philosophies of other O&M instructors and visually impaired travelers and hope this can be a topic to discuss at a future WOMA meeting. Meanwhile, if you have any ideas or would like to respond to this article, I hope you will contact me.

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