By Courtney Tabor-Abbott
When a student enters high school on the very first day, she gets off the bus and finds the entrance of the building. She navigates through a sea of other faces to find her locker, then looks around for her classroom. Inside her class, she picks a desk to sit at next to a friend she knows. She quickly learns where the bathrooms are, how to get through the cafeteria, and where her new crush hangs out at the end of the day. For a sighted student, most of this is picked up through visual observation. Learning to navigate a new space can be stressful, but people who are fully sighted are generally able to use the signs, visual landmarks, and flow of traffic of the people around them to help them learn their environment relatively quickly. For a student with a vision impairment who cannot perceive these visual cues, safe and independent travel is much more challenging. Students who are visually impaired or blind need specific teaching provided by orientation and mobility instructors in order to learn the skills needed to navigate their environments safely and confidently.
Orientation and Mobility Specialists (COMS) help students with vision impairments and blindness to understand how to orient themselves to their environments and to move safely in familiar and unfamiliar settings. Orientation and Mobility can include:
When I was a student in elementary, middle, and high school, I was resistant to doing anything that made me appear different from my sighted peers. Since I did not want to do Orientation and Mobility training, I argued that I didn’t need it. I knew my house like the back of my hand. I knew my school like the back of my hand. “I can get around just fine,” I told my teachers.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that adult life requires strong travel skills, and that adult life presents far more environments to become familiar with than a home and a school building. I needed to know how to get around a college campus, how to use a city bus, how to get things at a grocery store, etc. Through my own experience as a person with a vision impairment and through the experiences of my students and adult clients, I have come to understand that Orientation and Mobility is absolutely essential for a successful transition into adult life. Regardless of students’ transition goals and the complexity of their needs, having orientation and mobility skills will help them to navigate their adult world more safely and with greater confidence. In order to go to work, a person with a vision impairment will need to be able to navigate around the workplace and also have a way to get to and from work each day. A college student will need to be able to get to all of his classes, traveling in and between several buildings each day. Even a student with complex multiple disabilities who may not be able to travel independently can still benefit from learning orientation and mobility skills. It will be important for her to feel safe and comfortable in the environment she is in, which can involve a number of strategies and techniques depending on her specific needs. Furthermore, her family and support staff can benefit from instruction from an orientation and mobility specialist on how to orient her to new spaces and how to use the human guide technique.
In order for individuals with visual impairment or blindness to fully participate in the world around them, they need to be able to travel within and around the spaces where they live, work, and play. Individuals who understand their environments and can navigate around it are empowered to explore the activities available to them in that environment, and consequently to explore new places, activities, and people. When a person with a vision impairment learns to find the vending machine down the hall, or to get a gallon of milk at the corner store down the street, or to ride a train for the first time, that person is filled with a sense of pride and confidence. In short, learning orientation and mobility skills enables individuals with vision impairment or blindness to connect with their communities and take ownership of their lives.
By Courtney Tabor-Abbott