College Success – Part 3: Orientation and Mobility

It's just me in the world trying to find my way.

Aired Date: January 07, 2020


KATE KATULAK: It’s just me in the world trying to find my way.

VALERIE WELLAND: Welcome to Perkins eLearning To Go. This is Valerie. Today is the third podcast in our College Success Series. Leslie Thatcher and Kate Katulak are back to discuss orientation and mobility, and how important these skills are for independent living. This is a big topic, so they brought along an orientation and mobility instructor, Huyentran Vo.

I have relinquished my microphone to them, and asked them to make the podcast their own. It was a very interesting conversation, and Vo is a wealth of knowledge. I hope you enjoy this.

LESLIE THATCHER: Today, we’re going to talk about orientation and mobility and how to get ready to be independent in college. And I know I keep talking about the word independence and confidence in a lot of the podcasts we’ve done so far, and this is one that definitely independence is critical for college to take advantage of all that college has to offer. We invited Vo to join us. She’s a certified orientation and mobility instructor, and has a lot of years teaching as a TVI as well– brings a world of experience and knowledge to bring to our conversation.

She works in our College Success program with our students, so she has a specific really particular experience in the last few years with some of the issues that students encounter, and the time it takes to build up those skills. So I’m really glad you joined us, Vo.

HUYENTRAN VO: Hi, everybody. This is Vo. I wanted to talk about just what is an orientation and mobility instructor, and what is the main purpose of their services so we are all on the same page. Orientation really just means to establish and maintain one’s position in their environment– so knowing where you are.

And the mobility part of orientation mobility is to be able to move safely, efficiently, and confidently throughout one’s environment. So the ultimate goal of orientation mobility services is for somebody with a visual impairment to be able to travel in any environment as independently as possible. And in order to reach this goal, instructions should start as early as possible.

So orientation mobility instructors, they work with all ages, from infants to adults, with all different types of visual impairments, including low vision, students with CVIs, students who are totally blind, as well as students with multiple impairments. So they have a wide range of skills. Some examples of skills that they might work on with their students are skills such as human guides, protective techniques, cane skills, street crossings, and public transportation.

Why is it important for someone to receive orientation mobility services when they’re heading to college? Most people, when they think of college, it’s more academic-based. So orientation mobility helps with just traveling from– or in and around your dorm, whether that be on campus or off campus– and dorm buildings are typically larger than most people’s houses, so just being able to navigate those.

Being able to navigate around big open campuses– it can be really disorienting to be able to travel between classes. And classes, most of the time, are within multiple buildings around the campus. One could be next door to each other. One could be all the way across campus. Understanding how to use the logistics of just being able to travel and get to class on time is a really big skill that orientation mobility can help with.

Being able to go around the dining hall is another skill as well too. And understanding the different classroom layouts that colleges will have, such as lecture halls, conference styles, and even standard classroom styles– so understanding all the academic needs for orientation mobility. Some of the other needs that a person might need, when they’re heading to college, for orientation and mobility training is just getting their basic needs done, such as going to the grocery store, shopping for new outfits, going to the pharmacies, and even going to doctor appointments.

Some career skills and community-related skills that orientation and mobility can help with as well too is understanding the logistics of how to get to– from point A to point B, understanding things if they’re living in the city, such as rush hour traffic and the real time it actually takes to get to the destination. Learning about their communities– what restaurants are around, what study areas, what cool cafes are around?

Using the public transportation in the area. Is there transit? Are there any blind access areas? Understanding the complex intersections, or if they live in a rural area or plan to go to a rural college area, understanding how to travel without sidewalks– and also understanding the different transportation options that the school offers as well too.

KATE KATULAK: So, Vo, you just mentioned a ton of skills that students who are preparing to go to college need to learn to be oriented to their environment and get around safely and efficiently. I’m just wondering, what does that process look like for a student who wants to go to college and needs to get those O&M skills. When does the training begin, and how do they go about getting them?

HUYENTRAN VO: So the training begins– should begin as soon as possible. And a lot of students, typically, when they’re in high school, receive either weekly or monthly services for orientation mobility. But when you go to college, it’s– they no longer have an IEP, and services aren’t required to have. So students will need to actually request services in advance.

And it’s actually pretty hard to get services, just because there’s not as many orientation mobility specialists out there– so just not as much manpower. So if you want services, you need to get them as soon as possible. And when I say as soon as possible, that means at least a year out. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get just a few hours to get around and to learn your campus.

So it’s going to be really, really important for students to understand that they’re only going to get a few hours, if they are lucky, before they go to college to get oriented to their area. So doing a lot of background training and research prior to getting the lessons is super important. So that way, you’re not wasting the precious time that you have with your mobility instructor to just waste time going, I think I want to learn how to go from X– or A to B, or I think I want to be able to do this. So you don’t want to waste that time, because it’s precious time that you might not get again until a few months later, or the next year, or might not ever get again.

LESLIE THATCHER: So, Vo, let me ask you a question. And this is Leslie. So I’ve heard students say to me, I’m good with orientation mobility. I can get around my school all by myself. I ride the bus home. Things are good. I’m good for college. What would I possibly need to learn to be ready for college? What’s the difference? I don’t understand.

HUYENTRAN VO: So a lot of times with students in high school, they’re not exploring as much as you would in college. Again, we’ve talked about the academic basis of college, but there’s also all this fun stuff that college has to offer, as well as the independents of being an adult, such as social outings– going to different parties, not having your parents come with you, not having your parents drive you to those parties.

You’re going to have to go– finding different cool restaurants, or different bars, or clubs to go to– understanding how to navigate those. I’m pretty sure, students, if you’re listening, you do not want your parents to join you at the club. Just understanding different weather-related travel– if you are coming from the South and going to college in the Northeast, understanding snow and cold weather travel. Or if you plan to go to school in Seattle, you might have to understand more of rain travel.

Understanding how to travel home from break– right now, they’re going to school property less than 10 minutes away from their house, and they’re taking the local buses that they’ve been taking for the last however many years. Most colleges are a few hours away from the home, if not out of state or even out of country, so understanding how to travel from their dorm back to home for vacation–

LESLIE THATCHER: Oh, right. So actually hailing the Uber by themselves, knowing how to navigate an airport or a train station, and the logistics, the supports that would be in those places, learning how to request that help, manage the flight itself–

HUYENTRAN VO: Yeah. So there’s a lot of content-based knowledge that you will have to pick up, when you are on your own as an adult. So logistics is a big thing that I don’t think a lot of, just generally, 18-year-olds really understand have to be involved. So a lot of times, if you’re going on a family vacation, or just even a trip to the grocery stores, there’s logistics that are being planned by your parents, but not by the student.

So a lot of the students– I ask them, how long does it take to go to the grocery stores? And they say, maybe 15 minutes. I’m like, well, how long does it actually take to get there? How about buying the groceries, going back and storing your groceries? How about carrying all the bags? And a lot of the students, they never really had opportunities to do that.

They just joined the parents and just go whenever they’re free, but don’t think about the scheduling and a timing that has to be involved, if they were doing it independently themselves. And a lot of times, students are riding with their parents in their cars, instead of having to go independently of– OK, what’s the best way to get there? Do I even have enough money to take an Uber, if I wanted to go there by myself?

Or is it cheaper for me to take public transportation or to walk there? And thinking about the ins and outs of, if I get a lot of groceries, can I carry it all back? So if I decide to take public transportation, am I willing to carry all those groceries? So all these things that, a lot of times, parents think about for the students– that it might not dawn on them how much they will have to do on their own.

Something that I remember in college that I was shocked that I had to buy were salt and pepper shakers. I had no idea where to even get those, so understanding just where to get basic needs, like salt and pepper shakers, or bottles of water, or little things that your house might have or that you want your dorm to feel more like–

LESLIE THATCHER: Or cold medicine if you have a cold.

HUYENTRAN VO: Or cold medicine, yeah.

LESLIE THATCHER: Or going to find the campus health center.

KATE KATULAK: I keep hearing the word parents. So it seems to me that there’s a lot of work that has to be done by the students. There’s a lot of support that’s needed from an orientation and mobility instructor to teach skills. What advice do you have for parents who are trying to prepare their students to go to college?

HUYENTRAN VO: Parents should really step back and see that their child can be independent. And some tips that I have for parents that are getting nervous about stepping back, and to help relieve stress, is just talk to your child about, what type of tools do they have to help them, if they get lost? Or talk to the mobility instructor and see, what type of tools are there out there?

Talk about the estimated time of travel. So if you know it takes them about 15 minutes to get there, then check in after 20 or 25 minutes, if you haven’t heard anything back. Have your child start checking in, if you’re getting nervous. So they go off independently, and they can just send you a text message or phone call.

There’s also different technologies out there as well too. So if you’re getting nervous about your child riding an Uber for the first time independently, you can have them share their location. You can also do things such as Find My Friends on your phone so you can have– obviously, you’re asking your child if that’s OK– sharing their location so that you get live feedback of where they are.

So that way, you can still have your parent instincts of making sure your child is OK, but also, your child is being independent, because you’re not physically there. And the more that you do that– the more your stress will lessen a lot more, when you realize that your child is just as capable of any of their sighted peers.

KATE KATULAK: And we’re using the word child, but–

HUYENTRAN VO: But they’re young adults.

KATE KATULAK: They’re young adults, really.

HUYENTRAN VO: Yeah, they’re young adults. Yes.

KATE KATULAK: They’re getting ready for adulthood. And I often recommend to parents and other caregivers that they begin to offer independence– or opportunities to showcase independence or demonstrate their skills when students are younger than one might think. Vo, what’s your opinion on the age at which students should begin to take Ubers on their own, take public transportation on their own, and just get out there without their parents exploring the world?

HUYENTRAN VO: A typical age for students to start getting their permits or license is about 15 and 16, so I feel like that’s a really good age, because that’s when I feel like a lot of teenagers really want that independence away from their parents. If their friends are getting permits and license, and going to places like to the mall or to shopping– wait– that’s the same place– to the mall or to different restaurants, they should be joining their friends and meeting up their friends.

They shouldn’t have to ask for a ride from you. Practicing taking Ubers on their own, using the public transportation, or they’re walking to those destinations will increase their independence. And those are fun places that they want to be able to go to on their own. And asking your student or your young adult to run errands for you– this is going to be helpful for you as well as parents.

If you need toilet paper, don’t go get the toilet paper yourself. Ask your student to go get the toilet paper for you, because that’s helping them work on all their different skills, such as planning logistics, money management, soliciting assistance, if needed, shopping skills– all those different skills that they have been working on. So the more that they get the practice those, the more likely they’ll be applying those skills when you’re not there.

KATE KATULAK: I imagine that several parents are listening to this podcast going, what do you mean my 15-year-old is going to go to the store on their own? And they are not ready to begin independent travel. They’ve never taken public transportation. They’ve never taken a ride sharing program on their own. They’re not ready, and quite frankly, as the parent, I’m not ready

HUYENTRAN VO: I think the thing– the parents feeling not ready is more of what the fear is than the students not being ready. Most of times, the students are ready, but they are getting fearful because their parents aren’t ready to let them go. Your young adult is going to be OK. They have been working with the orientation mobility instructor to be– to use tools to figure out, what do I do when I get lost?

How do I stay safe in this environment? How can I take this public transportation? They will be working with the orientation mobility specialist to practice these skills. And you can’t practice it unless you actually practice it. And parents, just a reminder– there’s a first time for everything. So if it’s a failure the first time, try it again, because it’s going to be OK. And the more that they practice, the more successful they will become.

KATE KATULAK: The students work with the orientation mobility instructor, but is it ever the case that a parent can communicate with an O&M instructor as well to get tips on these types of things, and insight as to whether their student really is ready to begin this independent travel?

HUYENTRAN VO: Yeah. For high school and younger, you have your IEP, or individualized education plan, where you can add on something called consultation services, where on top of getting direct instruction one-on-one with your student, parents can also get extra feedback and instruction from their orientation mobility specialist.

Your state agencies– a lot of them will come out and be able to answer any questions that you may have prior to receiving services. And I personally think that, when you get older and the parents are not sure what type of skills your student’s learning– is just asking the student so then they are being more responsible to actually say what skills they are able to do, instead of pretending that they can’t.

Parents, if you feel like you’re not getting a truthful message from your student, you can always reach out to orientation mobility instructors. We love being able to answer any questions, especially when you’re asking, how can my child be more independent? We will be more than happy to be able to answer.

And I know, as all the orientation mobility instructors I know, we don’t mind taking the extra time before lessons or after lessons to be able to show you these techniques. And now, because of all the technology, we can do things like show you a video clips of your student doing certain skills to prove to you that we. Can also share recordings of notes as well too. If you want something, then ask.

LESLIE THATCHER: This is Leslie. I think of this as building independence in a young person, and being able to create the skills in them to take on the world on their own terms, based on their own interests. The self-determination that’s in the ECC is such an essential part, a foundational part of everything we do.

And what I’m hearing is that the earlier we can start empowering people with independent problem solving skills– resilience if you get off of the wrong bus stop, resilience if it starts raining on you when you’re walking to the store and you don’t have bags to bring home the groceries– or whatever the issue is– that it takes time to build up those problem solving skills to know which tools to reference and use in a particular situation to travel independently.

And it starts with basic layers, and you layer more things on so a student can begin to engage in the world on their own terms with confidence and independence, right?


LESLIE THATCHER: So when we think about getting ready for college, when we say, start as early as you can, you may not know where that college is. And that’s OK, because the college process typically starts really, in terms of selecting a college, mid junior year– and visiting colleges, identifying local or maybe more distance colleges that might meet academic goals or location goals.

But you don’t know where you’re going to get in until about a year later. So how does one maybe conceive of asking for services while still in high school? How does one define, I’d like to work on A, B, and C to get me ready to be independently problem solving when I’m in college? Does that make sense? What are some questions students and parents could ask at appropriate times in their IEP cycles? I would think of, what are some technology tools– some apps I could learn how to use independently to travel by foot, or travel by public transportation, or–

KATE KATULAK: Why am I only getting when O&M services at my school? When are we going to begin going into other neighborhoods, and when am I going to learn public transportation, and when am I going to learn street crossings, and when am I going to get to that college campus where I want to attend?

HUYENTRAN VO: And I feel like, in order to develop those questions, you need to actually get out and explore more. So if you’ve never been to a college campus, you might not know what you need to know. So you might be like, oh, yeah, I’m fine. I can go to college, because I am able to navigate this high school. I’ve been here for the last four years, and I’m super independent doing that. Well, college is a whole other beast, so if you’ve never been there, you might not know the questions to ask.

LESLIE THATCHER: So, Vo, what you’re saying then is, even if I don’t know where I’m going to college I could go to my local– any college that’s near me– a local community college, a local state college, a local private college– maybe go on a tour, maybe sit with a Disability Service office, walk around the campus– maybe even see if I could hang out in the cafe and see what that was like as a student– I could do that?

HUYENTRAN VO: Yes to all those questions.

LESLIE THATCHER: OK. Could my orientation and mobility instructor possibly take me to one of those locations?

HUYENTRAN VO: Yes, if you ask. A lot of times, the mobility instructors– especially when you get older– they’ll come in and say, this is my game plan, but what do you want to work on? And if you don’t know, then we’ll just work on some boring things, like working on your cane skills, working on your street crossings, working on what we– some basic skills that we know that you will need.

But if you come in and say, I really want to explore College of Awesomeness and I want to be able to go in October to explore, because I really want to know how– whatever– we will go with you. We want to go. That is the fun part of our job is to go to all these new places. And that will make us more excited to be able to teach you as well too– just to go to all these different places.

But it’s not just colleges that you can think about. It’s the whole college community and the whole experience. So going to all these different restaurants, all these different shops, all these different environments, going to rural areas, city areas, going into public transportation– bringing up these questions the things that you want to try. But if a student isn’t taught about all the different options that they will have, they might not know that they have all these different options and all these different areas that they have to learn.

LESLIE THATCHER: I almost hear that– and I know this about students and I know this about humans– is we don’t know what we don’t know.


LESLIE THATCHER: And a student may have a false sense of confidence about their travel abilities because of some of the things you’ve identified about not understanding the logistics parents put into travel planning, to fly somewhere, or even just going out to dinner, and that– I keep coming back to independence and independence living and the student, and not someone else creating that sense of independence.


KATE KATULAK: And we want to create these opportunities for students– again, this is one of my favorite sayings– we want to create the opportunities for students to fail successfully. And so let’s make that happen when there’s a safe environment, like being in high school, having someone who can teach directly those skills that they need to learn. Throughout this conversation, I keep thinking of a turning point for me.

I happen to be blind, as I’ve mentioned in another podcast. And I went blind when I was in high school. I remember it was my senior year, and I was preparing to head to college. And I found myself walking to– between buildings to classes one day. And it started to snow, and like I do, I got disoriented.

I ended up in a parking lot. And it was in the winter. It was like 20 degrees. And I got really scared, but I thought, no, it’s fine. I’ll just use my phone and I’ll call someone at the school, and they’ll come and find me. So I pull out my phone, and it was dead. So I couldn’t call anyone. So I thought, well, I’ll use my voice. I’ll scream. So I did. No one came.

So there it was, snowing, cold. I was alone, afraid. And I will tell you what– eventually someone did come and find me, because I was late for class, so they sent out this whole search party. I’ll tell you what– from that moment on, I never forgot to charge my phone. When I go out and I travel on my own, I make sure that I have all the resources I need.

And I took orientation and mobility training a whole lot more seriously, because it was an opportunity for me to learn. I have to rely on my own skills, because when it comes down to it, it’s just me in the world trying to find my way.

HUYENTRAN VO: Yes. That’s a really big thing that I try to emphasize on the students. Don’t rely on others, because you’re the only one that can control what you need to do, and where you need to go, and how you’re going to get they’re. If you’re relying on a friend to with you to classes, and they’re sick that day, are you going to miss class just because your friend is sick, and you get a lower grade because of that? That’s not a reliable thing. But if you are independent and you can get out there and go yourself, then you have charge of your own destiny.

KATE KATULAK: And if students say, I’m good– my O&M skills are where they need to be and I’m ready for college– that’s wonderful, but have them show you. Have them demonstrate the skills they say they have, because their confidence may wane, if they’re in an unfamiliar environment.

HUYENTRAN VO: Yeah, that’s a big thing is being in unfamiliar environments. Throughout high school, most people typically, again, live at home. They have been that same environment for multiple years, or even their whole life, so of course, you’re going to know that environment and be really confident in it. But if you go to, just let’s say, a different street, a different school, a different restaurant that you’re not familiar with, how does your child do in those environments?

And a lot of times, when we start teaching different tools, such as using technology, we do start off in a familiar environment, so that way, you learn how to use those tools. But students won’t really know how to apply them until they are actually lost and go, holy smokes what am I going to do?

KATE KATULAK: I got to learn this.

HUYENTRAN VO: Yeah. I actually have to apply these skills.

VALERIE WELLAND: This has been great so far, but we need to take a small break for some important business.

SPEAKER 2: Perkins eLearning To Go as a production of Perkins eLearning at Perkins School for the Blind. Perkins eLearning partners with school districts and agencies to provide customized training for educators of students with visual impairments and additional disabilities. Training agreements with Perkins eLearning give you the school-wide range you’re looking for without having to take on the logistics of managing your program.

We are and ACVREP-certified provider, and are approved for continuing teacher and leader education– CTLE– requirements by the state of New York, in addition to providing professional development points and continuing education credits. Certain titles are eligible for ASHA and AOTA credits. Contact us at [email protected] to discuss your training needs, both short and long-term– [email protected].

HUYENTRAN VO: For example, a big thing is the cane, especially for students with low vision or are losing their vision. A lot of them don’t want to use their cane. And they’re like, I’m fine. I’ve been traveling all my own since forever. I can do all this. And invest because it’s in a familiar environment. Well, what if you’re in a brand new environment? What are you going to do?

What if you’re traveling at nighttime? What are you going to do? So just practicing using these skills– and in order to know when to actually apply them into practice them, you need to have real-life situations. And in order to do that, you got to go out and, again, explore. Have an adventure. Just go and get lost. And when you get lost, that’s when those skills really apply.

LESLIE THATCHER: I couldn’t agree more. And you learn by doing. And most of us are wired that way. And to learn by, just like Kate described, being in a new situation that tasks what your current skills are really helps clarify the skills you need to work on. So something I want to make sure is clear for families, as they shift from high school to college– where the resources lie for orientation and mobility, and where the O&M comes from in high school– what it’s derived from and who provides that service– and where the locus of control for O&M lives, when you’re out of high school, when you’re graduated from high school, and you’re in a new environment.

One would be if you’re in your home state, and two, if you’re in a different state than your home state of residency. How did those environments differ, and where of the services come from? And how does one access them?

HUYENTRAN VO: So typically, when you’re in school– so high school and younger– orientation mobility services start usually when there is a referral to get tested for– if teachers see any problems with the student navigating around the buildings, or just safety concerns– or from your teacher of the visually impaired. They might request their student to get evaluated to get services.

And then from there, as a team, you guys decide what goals your student will work on. And eventually, your students will have some impact on what goals they want to work on. But again, that’s all a team decision that’s being made. But when you go off to college, again, the services drop off. You don’t have an IEP anymore. They’re not required to give services just to give services, unlike on the IEP.

LESLIE THATCHER: We call it the adult services model, right?


LESLIE THATCHER: So it shifts from a school-based model in that team IEP-driven approach to, you’ve got to drive the whole ship.


KATE KATULAK: And in high school, the orientation mobility training is paid for, generally speaking, by the district or another source. It’s not the responsibility of the parents and family to come up with the payment for the O&M instructor. It’s not the responsibility of the family to pay necessarily for O&M instruction after high school either, but the funding source is a little bit different then. Can you talk about that, Vo?

HUYENTRAN VO: Yeah. So funding sources can come from a lot of different options. The most primary used one is through your state blind agency. But have to apply, and register, and qualify for those services. And again, you have to reach out as soon as possible. And the latest that I would really reach out is at least a year out in advance to even start getting services.

So that’s one source of funding, but you’re not going to get as many hours. Some other sources that you could do is just through private contracts of orientation mobility instructors. I know some students and clients that like to have a kind of on-call orientation mobility instructor. So when they get stuck in a new environment, they call them and say, hey, what can I do in this situation, or can we schedule a time next week to work on it?

And that gives you more flexibility. but then that’s out-of-pocket money, and you have to be really prepared to pay the prices for that. Some other options– some disabilities offices will provide some basic orientation services to the campus, but the more in-depth ones of really getting off campus and stuff your disabilities office may not provide, because they’re more of the academic base.

LESLIE THATCHER: So to me, that speaks even more clearly to the need to get skills up prior to landing in college– to get those independent problem solving skills, the I’ve got this actually for real and I know how to problem solve my way out of getting off of the wrong stop on a bus, or I know how to get my Paratransit card– knowing those things as an independent operator in the world so you can go apply those problem solving skills and use those tools and those skills in identifying complex street crossings or whatever it is so that you can effectively take advantage of the college once you get there–


LESLIE THATCHER: So the earlier, you start to build up that tool box and that confidence, the more empowered you’re going to be to take on college. And I then go to also the workforce, and take advantage of internships and all of the other layers that are so much a part of college right now. Many, many, many colleges offer those opportunities to do internships, work-based experiences, and just simply working in college.

And those require independent orientation mobility skills as well. So it’s really preparing you for the world even after college, where you’ve built up that tool box, and then you’re really using them fluently, and know how and when to specifically ask for help. Does that sound–

HUYENTRAN VO: Yeah. And some other options that you can have– some other supports to be able to practice while you’re still in high school or younger– is going to different programs. Multiple states have multiple summer programs or weekend programs for students to be able to practice those skills.

So in addition to getting their orientation mobility services, they have additional practice just using– practicing using things like volunteers. Or just practicing with your friends is also another great option as well too. So that way, you can really dictate what you want from your support system. So those are some other ideas as well too so you can get some additional services.

But again, you really want to take advantage of the services that you are getting when you are in high school and younger– so being prepared for your lessons, being prepared for– with any questions that you may have, so then you can really take advantage of the services that you are getting– and practicing the skills so that way, you’re not wasting a lesson reviewing the skills, when we can work on new skills.

So I feel like that’s the thing that happens a lot between service time is the students don’t get to practice. And the reason they don’t practice is because the parents are either too scared to go, they don’t have enough time to go. There’s a lot of excuses of why they didn’t practice doing X, Y, and Z. But if you’re not going to practice it, you’re not going to gain the skill.

So then when the orientation mobility instructor comes again, they’re going to realize, OK, we need to continue to practice those skills. But that’s just a waste of time, when there’s so many skills that need to be learned, especially before you– like, Leslie, you said– land to college. And you want to really take advantage of those– the sessions that you have prior to getting into college.

And also, another thing to help your– if you are getting your state commissions or private contract is to have your new orientation mobility instructor come in and observe with the older mobility instructor, so then they can touch base about what you’ve already learned and what you need to learn. And you guys can set goals together about what you want, so that way, you’re not wasting the first session talking about, what goals do you want to work on?

Because again, you only have so many hours with your person. And any time that you can reach out to your instructor and tell them in advance what you want to work on or tell them as far in advance as possible what you want to work on is very helpful as well too.

So your instructor can start preplanning and think about, OK, if eventually, they want to be able to travel to airport and get there by public transportation, what are the steps we need to take, and make a good game plan together with the student to figure out, how are going to make this happen– instead of just saying the day before, and be like, hey, I want to work on going to the airports.

It’s like, well, there’s so many steps that are involved in that, so you want to make sure that you plan in advance. And that’s the big thing of adulthood is just being able to plan in advance, which can be tricky for 18 and younger.

KATE KATULAK: So speaking of planning, let’s talk guide dogs versus cane for a bit. I have a guide dog. I think they’re wonderful. But I think there’s an appropriate time when someone’s thinking about going to college when getting a guide dog may be the right choice. So could you share with our listeners what your personal and professional opinion is about, if a student is headed to college and they want to get a guide dog, would they get it in high school, their first, second, third– when is the right time for a guide dog, if that’s what they want to do?

HUYENTRAN VO: Well, first, a lot of– or some of the listeners may know already, or may not know, is that you need to have really good orientation mobility skills before you get a guide dog. You don’t just get a guide dog, and they’re magically– inserted a chip, and they have GPS navigation skills, and they have good street crossing skills. No. You need to have good enough skills in order to get a guide dog.

So that means, if you are not using your cane, you need to use your cane in order to prove to the guide dog schools that you can use a guide dog. You also need to be able to have the responsibility to take care of a guide dog. That doesn’t just mean being able to feed it and take it out for potty breaks, but also thinking about, if your dog gets sick, what are you going to do as a backup plan?

Being able to give your dog medicine, being we’ll take them to the vet– all those ins and out of just having a dog– being able to have the discipline to be able to train your dog to work with you as a team, because the dogs don’t just come perfect out of a box and be like, OK, here you go. There’s not a quote, unquote, “user manual,” where you can just look up and be like, troubleshoot for my dog to fix it.

Dogs have personalities, so there’s a lot of ins and outs of getting a guide dog. So if you do decide that that is where you want to go– and there’s obviously a lot of pros that have a guide dog as well too– you have to think about the timing of it, like you said, Kate. Personally, if you’re transitioning from high school school to college, I personally think that is very, very, very, very stressful, because there’s just so many changes.

You’re having to understand just so many changes in life, and if you add an addition of a new guide dog and having to understand how to train the dog, and also figure out how to do everything else that college requires you to do, it might be too stressful. And you might not have success with your guide dog, and you may not even end up using it appropriately or not as much as you intended to use your guide dog as a tool.

So I personally don’t think that’s a good time. So if you do want to have a guide dog, maybe waiting until a few years into college, or maybe after college. Or if you feel responsible enough, typical guide dog schools– the youngest that I know that they really accept is around 16. I personally think that’s still too young, because if you’re not able to live on your own yet and take care of yourself yet, I personally think that’s too young.

But I know some students are really responsible and are able to do that, so if you feel like you’re ready, then go for it. But that will give you at least a few years before you graduate before doing that transition. So I personally think just trying to– if you do decide to get a guide dog, try to do it in a year that’s not a transition year. So it just helps relieve stress on your end as well as your guide dog’s end.

KATE KATULAK: And students, if you’re listening, I’m telling you, having a guide dog is a great way to meet people. Can’t tell you– going to parties and just being out in public, so many people will come up to you and say, what’s your dog’s name? Your dog is so cute. And while that can be a really great thing, because it’s a conversation starter, it can also be really frustrating, if you’re headed to class and you have to be somewhere, or you’re just not in a particular mood to talk to people, or you just have a lot of other things going on.

So it is a big responsibility. It is an enormous choice to make. And I really like how Vo is advising that people wait until they know what college is like, they understand what their campus experience is going to be, and they know how to get around before they begin using a guide dog. But then, once you do, it can be pretty amazing.

HUYENTRAN VO: Exactly. You’re going to have to teach your guide dog the route. So you’re kind of like the orientation mobility instructor for your guide dog, really. So make sure that you know how to get to classes and to be able to train your dog. And it takes extra time as well too. So this is a brand new school to you, and you’re not really sure.

It might be really frustrating for you to do the training with your dog, if you’re not sure what you’re doing, because the dog’s going to be looking at you like, what am I supposed to be doing right now? So you need to be able to be competent with your travel skills in order to be able to give the commands to your dog.

But again, guide dogs are really, really great. But it is a huge responsibility, and having the basic backgrounds and strong orientation mobility skills is super, super, super, super important.

KATE KATULAK: And I think it’s also important to reiterate that the travel skills that students develop, they need to stay strong, even when a student gets a guide dog. You have to practice with your cane, if you are a cane user, before you got your dog. You need to continue keeping up with those skills so that they don’t go away, because as Vo said, the dog can get sick or– dogs need vacation days just from work, just like people do.

And so if your dog’s not with you and you haven’t used your cane in five years, you’re going to find yourself in a real rough spot. So developing good orientation mobility skills and maintaining them is super important for going to college.

LESLIE THATCHER: So it makes me ponder, Vo– a lot of what we’re talking about is almost a 12-year sequence of building up orientation and mobility skills from pre-K or kindergarten all the way on up through a typical 12-year span of K12 education– or maybe a few more years, if you’re extending your high school experience.

But I think of some students who encounter vision loss later in their childhood or early adolescence, and how we might consider the build-up of orientation and mobility skills for someone like that, who either suddenly encounters total blindness or vision loss on some scale. How do we help parents, or even TVIs, as they consider, how do I tee this up with limited time and resources?

HUYENTRAN VO: I think the number one thing is trying to get registered with your state commission, and try to get services as soon as possible, and really push for– if your student is losing vision or has recently lost their vision in high school, really pushing for that orientation and mobility services and to have as much time as you can for that, and really just going out there and doing research about different outside programs of schools.

We talked about like different outreach programs, especially like your weekend– they have some that are a few months or, even a summer-long program to practice those skills. And it really is big into just being able to practice those skills as much as possible and getting support from your orientation mobility instructor, and really consulting with them about what type of skills can you work on in the meantime– and practicing skills that they might not really know how to do, such as self-advocating for themselves.

So for example, understanding how to talk to a college disabilities office, being able to ask questions such as, has that disabilities office ever worked with anybody who is blind? Will they provide mobility services? Is that college campus a college campus that’s known to be pretty pedestrian-friendly, or are there a lot of obstacles are in the way?

Are they willing to make any changes to areas that are not as accessible than others? If not, are there alternative ways to be able to get there? Being able to ask questions such as, can I check in early to my dorm to get oriented? Can I get my class schedule earlier? And if not, having a game plan to be able to do that. Just knowing your housing situation– are you thinking a living on campus or off campus?

And having your mobility instructor– they can help you make those decisions. And like we said, for anybody, just going out and exploring to see what the campuses are actually like– living situations, dining halls, the community. How is it like? Are you going to get a good amount of support, or is it going to be a lot of pushback to be able to get those supports?

And being able to really emphasize– focus a lot on being able to use your cane very well. So even if they are slowly starting to lose their vision, emphasize using their cane, because if– especially if they are planning to travel at night, because eventually, they will have to– or in bad weather– if their vision changes because of lighting conditions. Being able to use tools such as a compass– most smartphones have a built-in compass app already there, so being able to use that, instead of just learning how to use your left and rights.

Learning different navigation tools for when you do get lost– how can you ask for help appropriately, instead of just always asking for help? Using your skills to be able to record different routes, especially if you forget or take a route that you may not go to as often– using things like tactile maps labeling devices– just getting out there and practicing with those.

And again, it’s harder because, especially students who are older and are losing their vision, or it’s a sudden onset, it can be trickier, because the service times are going to be about the same as somebody who’s been getting services since they were younger. So really, the support of pushing your student to explore more and not being scared to be able to explore, and going to the different programs that– so they are surrounded by other people with visual impairments is also very helpful.

And reaching out to mentors that have similar experiences, or reaching out to– there’s a ton of different free online forums and– like Facebook groups that you can reach out to, and asking questions to teachers, and to orientation mobility specialist, and TVIs to be able to get these answers for you. So if you feel like you’re not getting enough from what your– the services that you’re getting, there’s a lot of resources out there and there’s a lot of people were willing to help to be able to get you as independent as possible.

LESLIE THATCHER: Well, and I would imagine some of those outreach programs, and weekend programs, week-long programs, summer programs– I know pretty much every state has different varieties of them and different agencies that provide them. It’s also a chance to hang out with other students who may be encountering the same vision loss your student might have, or has had their whole life.

And that helps create a network of resources and problem solvers, and sort of a shared experience that, as you create your identity as a– this student out there who happens to be visually impaired helps them begin to assemble their sense of who they are. For students who really get very limited services just due to the logistics of their particular location, those programs can often really fill in some of that gap, I’m guessing.

HUYENTRAN VO: Yeah. And talking to your state agency, a lot of them will help provide– help you come up with different programs that are out there that may apply for your student. Some will provide funding, some will not. But at least getting the networking out there to know what is being offered–

LESLIE THATCHER: And there’s also parent groups probably too–

HUYENTRAN VO: Yes, there’s a lot of parent groups.

LESLIE THATCHER: –with really helpful resources to reference and maybe find out about a great one that another parent might have already experienced with their student. Interesting.

KATE KATULAK: And I want to– to the basics for a minute. There are a lot of types of vision impairments, causes, and then implications on skills. Can you talk about how those variables might impact educational team, and parents, and families, and even students, as they begin to think about the transition to college and orientation and mobility?

HUYENTRAN VO: Yeah. Visual impairments, it can be a whole spectrum of– vision impairments can run on a whole spectrum, from just losing some visual acuity to no light perception. So thinking about your students– what is their vision condition? Is it stable? Is it a progressive condition? And thinking about the future– a lot of times, teams will just focus on the year that they are currently on, and thinking about goals– or maybe even just a year or two out.

But think about the long-term goal of, where are you trying to have your student go? How independent do they want to be by the time they’re an adult? So thinking about how their vision is going to affect that– so if you know that your student is potentially going to lose their vision, start using, again, the cane, making sure that they use it, even though they might not want you in school, and reminding the student, hey, we’re not just doing this then you can pass high school.

We’re trying to do this so then, when you go off to college or when you’re ready for a workforce, that we, as parents or as teachers, don’t have to be there and hold your hand and show you where to go. We’re trying to create this independence, and in order to do that, they need to practice those skills.

And so thinking about that– as well as people forget about just nighttime travel as well too, especially for students who are younger. They might not travel on at night as much, or they might be in an area where the light stays out pretty well, or there might be in a really well-lit area where their vision is going to be OK enough for them to be able to travel.

But who knows where they’re going to be in the whole– around the world, we want them to be, again, independently traveling in any environment, not just the environment they’re most familiar with– so again, just thinking about those things so then your student will be more prepared for–

LESLIE THATCHER: So do all students pick up O&M skills at the same pace? Is it pretty–


LESLIE THATCHER: Or do some students struggle to gain that sense of place in– I guess orientation’s the right word, right?

HUYENTRAN VO: Yeah. So naturally, some people just have better orientation skills than others. It’s funny– for being an orientation mobility instructor, I get lost a lot. But when I’m working with a student, I don’t get lost, because I– it’s just a different mindset. But for some reason, I just get lost a lot.

So if you are a student who tends to get lost a lot and, no matter how hard you work on those skills, and you really can’t get oriented to where you are– being able to have backup plans, such as different applications, being able to really be strong at understanding how to solicit assistance when needed, practicing the skills even more, getting lost in a safe environment and just practice, practice, practice. That’s the big thing.

So if you feel like you get lost a lot, get lost even more, and practice using the skills that you have learned. And nowadays, there’s just so much technology that can help out there. One of my favorites is using– your phone is such a great tool that most people have on them all the time. And like Kate said, your tools are only really helpful when they’re actually working.

So having backup plans for your backup plan– so having your portable chargers, charging your phone every night, making sure that you have all that– all those systems in place– updating your applications, if you use those apps a lot just to make sure that, when and if you need those tools, they are ready to go, instead of being frustrated when you have to troubleshoot.

KATE KATULAK: What are some of your favorite applications, particularly for students who are college-bound or college-going?

HUYENTRAN VO: Some of my favorites is Google Maps, just for GPS, as well as figuring out different routes and fastest routes to how get there by public transportation and whatnot. And it’s great because it’s a free service that you can access on your phone, on your computer.

And most people know what it is, so if you just pull it up in their phones, you could also access it as well too. Another great one is BlindSquare. BlindSquare is an additional– is made for the visual-impaired population, so it gives you additional information about where you’re traveling. So you can do things like you can shake your phone, for example, and it will tell you what is the closest intersection to you, which way are you facing?

You can do things such as point of interest. So if you are navigating a campus, Google Maps will only get you so far. So campuses, they typically have one address. And if you Google Map it, it will take you to wherever that building’s address is. But that’s not helpful, if your dorm is across the campus and it doesn’t have a specific address.

Google Maps will not take you there. So you can use BlindSquare in addition to Google Maps to tag that location a point of interest, so it uses the actual coordinates of where you are standing, and you can navigate to that area– so give you a little bit more feedback of things you might want to know, such as around what clock direction, how many feet away are you from that direction?

And you can really customize it for yourself. Another great one– I really like Moovit, which is an application to be able to look up different public transportations as well as to be able request Lyft and Ubers. So when you pull it up and you type in wherever you want to go, it’ll pull up different bus routes and public directions. And I also like the features that I have.

So when you are riding the public transportation, it will update you of where you are, and it will vibrate, if you turn on notifications, to tell you to get ready to get off. And then it will do another vibration alert to tell you when to get off. So that’s a really nice tool that I like as well too. And some of the built-in features in your phone, such as using the phone’s magnifier to magnify different options, using your flashlight when you’re walking at night, using your built-in compass are super, super helpful.

And one of the most helpful tools that I feel like a lot of students are– they don’t like to use is that compass. The compass is super important, because when you pull up those directions for GPS and it tells you, head southeast, and you have no idea where southeast is, it’s not going to be really helpful– so making sure you pull out that compass. Check to make sure you know which way you’re facing before you pull up directions, and you’ll be so much more successful with it.

KATE KATULAK: Well, I got to ask– there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the new applications that have come out where live video agents can help people with vision impairments get around their environment. Or just ask questions and get answers with visual information. What are your thoughts on the use of apps like Be My Eyes and AIRA, for one, helping to train students who are preparing to head to college– thinking about O&M, of course– and two, for using those apps and depending on them when they’re in that environment?

HUYENTRAN VO: So those applications, with any application, should not be your primary tool to use. Those are just, again, your backup plans, if you need some additional assistance. But that should not be your primary tool. AIRA will not tell you when it’s safe to cross a street. You need to be able to have your– nor will your guide dog, nor will a driver. You are responsible for your own self, and you are responsible to know when it is safe to cross a street.

You cannot rely on those, one, because it’s a whole liability issue. And if you use things like– free services such as Be My Eyes, they might tell you, but they cannot– they are not where you are standing at that moment in time. And you can’t fully trust them to tell you when it is safe, because they do not have a 360 surrounding view of where you are. Or you might lose connection, and something may happen.

So again, you are responsible for your own destiny, so you need to have those basic orientation mobility skills before even applying those apps. They are great apps to use, but this should not be your primary tool– as well as using AIRA is– can be really expensive, if you’re using it to navigate everywhere.

KATE KATULAK: You mentioned some of the pitfalls of apps AIRA and Be My Eyes, but what are the benefits?

HUYENTRAN VO: Oh, the benefits–

KATE KATULAK: What’s a scenario when someone might use them?

HUYENTRAN VO: A scenario where you might use AIRA– if, let’s say, you are in a really, really busy area and you’re having a hard time requesting your Uber because the Uber driver is having a really hard time finding you, AIRA has services where they can tag into your GPS location and help you locate the Uber, and let you know, hey, the Uber driver is to your, let’s say, 10 o’clock across the street.

But you’re still responsible to be able to get across the street and to make sure that you get into the correct Uber. Or you might use AIRA just to confirm that you are at a current bus stop, if you’re not familiar with that area. But again, those phone calls and services should only last less than a minute or two at max. You shouldn’t rely on it to have them walk you the whole route.

You can, but I personally believe you can get distracted of using your phone– anybody can– and walking– you might miss something that’s super important, such as a ditch on the side of the road. Or you might miss construction or something and you might get hurt, because you’re relying on what somebody’s visual feedback is, when they’re not personally there.

And they might miss it as well too, so it’s not 100% reliable. But it is great tools to be able to do that. But there’s other resources that you can do too. So if you are surrounded by people and you want to confirm that you’re at the correct bus stop, you can ask people for free, instead of having to rely on your phone to use those applications. But they are great tools to use, if nobody else is around and you want a quick answer. But again, you don’t want it to be a primary tool that you’re using.

LESLIE THATCHER: This is Leslie. So I know we could talk and talk– actually, we could talk for a whole other session. This has been a really long session. It’s been awesome. I’ve learned a ton. What I’ve really learned is that, to gain independence, that you need to do both college to do work. You have to start early, and you have to start layering the skills that you’re describing– so the mobility skills– using the cane, and using your body, and using your orientation in the world– and then layering on fluency in these apps and these other additional supports to really create– a toolbox is the way I keep thinking of this– so that you can pull out the right tool for the right situation and be a confident traveler. It’s a big project. It’s a ginormous project.

KATE KATULAK: And it didn’t happen overnight. It takes a long time to develop these skills and to know what tool to pull out in the right moment.


LESLIE THATCHER: So this has been really helpful, and hopefully, we’ll be invited back to talk more, because we can. But I really appreciate your time, though, and just helping us learn and help our parents, and TVIs, and students learn some of the layers to begin to ask about, and explore, and set up, as they’re getting ready to consider college, or work, or the next step in their lives.

KATE KATULAK: And my favorite quote from you today was, you own your own destiny. But the words are so true. Do you have any other words of wisdom for our listeners before we go?

HUYENTRAN VO: I guess my big takeaway is, again, orientation mobility will help you be as independent as possible in any environment, and to really make sure, for parents and teachers, to step back and– everything is going to be OK. Just let your child live, and have adventures, and just have fun in the world. It’s a big beautiful place. So continue to do that, and they’ll be successful in college as well as once they get into quote, unquote, “the real world.” So that’s it. Thanks for having me.

KATE KATULAK: Huyentran Vo is a certified orientation mobility instructor, as well as being CATIS certified, TVI, and VRT. She’s a wealth of knowledge, and we’re grateful to have had her.

HUYENTRAN VO: Thank you so much.

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