Jennifer Siff places the blindfold over her eyes, shutting out the bright summer sun. With her sense of sight removed, the sound of car horns and the smell of exhaust become almost overpowering. She takes a moment to adjust to the darkness before grasping her white cane and setting off down Main Street.
Siff is a fast walker, and uses a longer-than average cane to ensure she has adequate time to avoid obstacles discovered in her path. As she sweeps the narrow tip back and forth, she detects cracks in the sidewalk and circumvents a metal trash bin. At Watertown Square, just a few blocks from the campus of Perkins School for the Blind, she pauses at a busy intersection to locate the pedestrian button. When the chirping signal starts, Siff listens for the sound of cars nearby, relying on her knowledge of the local traffic pattern to help her cross safely to the other side.
“You wouldn’t believe what’s noticeable with your cane,” Siff said. “There are things that are really obvious when you’re under blindfold that you would never notice as a sighted person – tilts in the floor, hills, inclines – those become almost immediately noticeable.”
As a newly minted orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor at Perkins, it’s Siff’s job to teach people with visual impairments how to travel independently and stay oriented in various environments. Understanding the mobility challenges her students face is crucial to her work, which is why Siff and other specialists-in-training are required to spend an average of 120 hours blindfolded, or “under occlusion,” as part of a rigorous two-year certification program. In the past year, Siff has made her way around downtown Boston and through the revolving doors of the Ritz Carlton Hotel – all without the benefit of sight.
The exhaustive training is meant to ensure that Siff and other O&M specialists can handle complicated areas like Watertown Square, which is spanned by seven crosswalks. Practicing under difficult circumstances helps instructors build confidence in their own skills, said Kathy Heydt, a certified O&M specialist and current assistant education director at Perkins’ Lower School.
“When I teach a student who is visually impaired I can transfer that confidence to them,” she said. “I can tell them, ‘This is going to keep you safe. This is going to help you be a more independent traveler,’ and I can really mean it.”
As a profession, orientation and mobility has existed since World War II, when soldiers blinded in battle were taught how to move around without vision. Since then, orientation (knowing where you are) and mobility (getting from point A to point B) have been taught to people of all ages who are blind and visually impaired through schools and government agencies.
The University of Massachusetts Boston, where Siff earned her degree, offers the only orientation and mobility program in New England. Its classes are small and eclectic. Siff graduated from the program with just 20 others, and one of her classmates worked on a farm in rural Maine.
“There is no one description of how I would describe who would go into mobility,” said Heydt. “They’re all very different, they’re all very unique individuals. It’s an interesting group of people.”
Students must complete online coursework, a student-teaching internship and the occlusion exercises before passing the ACVREP exam of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals.
At Perkins, O&M specialists teach orientation and mobility as part of the school’s Expanded Core Curriculum, a set of essential life skills that prepare students to live independently. Students are taught how to travel indoors and use staircases and elevators, how to walk down a residential street or a busy city thoroughfare using sensory clues, and how to ride a public bus or subway. They’re also taught what to do when something goes wrong.
“The nature of O&M is to adapt to your environment, but the world is ever-changing,” said Siff. “We need to teach you recovery strategies. You have to be able to keep your cool.”
While navigating blindfolded, Siff and her classmates had to practice staying calm in uncomfortable situations, many involving large crowds or curious members of the public.
“The mall was the hardest part for me,” said Siff. “There are so many echoes and so many people and nobody follows the natural traffic pattern – they just go wherever they want. At one point, I knew I was walking through a group of people and it was like when the shark goes through the school of fish – I could feel them kicking my cane.” Heydt had similar stories from her training days.
“One person in our class was feeling with his cane and he missed (the curb). The bus ran over his cane and bent it,” she recalled. “There were always mishaps like that.”
Fortunately, students in the UMass Boston program are graded on their teaching skills, not how elegantly they traverse a four-way intersection. Instructors are looking for effective coaching techniques during partner exercises, where students take turns navigating under blindfold while the other trails slightly behind. The bond that forms between partners is similar to the relationship between O&M specialists and their students, Heydt said.
“You always knew that your partner was there, keeping an eye on you,” she said. “It was the same type of thing that we do as instructors – giving students the room to interact with the environment and build confidence in their skills. But we’re there to grab them if they make a mistake.”
When Matt Edwards tells friends that he’s studying to become an orientation and mobility specialist, he’s often met with blank stares. Outside of Perkins, the profession is relatively unknown.
“It’s not a very common job,” said Edwards, who recently enrolled in the UMass Boston program. “Outside of this area a lot of people don’t know what that is.”
Despite its relative obscurity, the demand for O&M services almost always exceeds the supply, Heydt said, which is why Perkins encourages employees to become certified if they have an interest in O&M. Edwards and Siff both worked in the classroom at Perkins before enrolling at UMass.
They have one other thing in common: a background in athletics. Edwards played in a semi-professional football league in Australia, while Siff got her bachelor’s degree in athletic training. Both say the experiences played a role in their decision to enter a field that can be physically demanding.
“I really wanted a job that allowed me to be on my feet a lot, to be physically active,” said Edwards. “With this position you have to go out in the winter and navigate around snow piles. It’s not going to be easy, but I like a challenge.”
For Siff, her new position offers an opportunity to work one-on-one with students on specific skills that will help them become independent adults.
“As a profession I really believe in the principle of it,” she said. “Mobility is huge – for your self-esteem, for your quality of life, all of it. I like to see concrete results of the work I’ve done, or the goals I’ve helped people achieve.”