Orientation & Mobility

For students who are visually impaired

Boy and teacher conducting outside O & M lesson with white cane.
July 22, 2012

Her white cane grazing the sidewalk in front of her feet, Katie whistles cheerily as she walks through the Perkins School for the Blind campus on a sunny afternoon.

“You want to remember to make a wide swing with your cane,” Donna Bent, Katie’s orientation and mobility instructor, urges. Katie, who is legally blind and hard of hearing, uses her cane to detect the low obstacles she cannot see in her path.

Taking a summer stroll through a residential neighborhood might be considered a leisure activity. But for Katie, walking in unfamiliar territory off campus is a challenging lesson in orientation and mobility.

Every day at Perkins, students like Katie develop skills they will use throughout their lives to safely and independently navigate the world around them.

Walking the path less traveled

After 24 years as a certified orientation and mobility specialist, Donna Bent continues to find new roads leading to independence, safety, and confidence for her students.

“Generally students like mobility … it’s functional, meaningful, and it gives them a good sense of pride,” says Bent, who works in Perkins’ Deafblind Program.

A student uses her white cane to feel the curb before stepping off a sidewalk

For a student who is visually impaired and may have additional disabilities, orientation and mobility happens in every moment of the day as he explores and interacts with the physical world. Sensory awareness allows students who cannot take in their surroundings visually to access information through hearing, touch, or smell.

Orientation and mobility is a key component of the Expanded Core Curriculum, which integrates essential life skills into the education of students who are visually impaired and may have additional disabilities. These foundational skills - including social interaction, independent living, and alternate communication modes such as braille - not only help students with disabilities to access core school subjects but also prepare them to one day live and work independently.

A wide range of skills are taught during orientation and mobility such as understanding spatial concepts, learning cane technique, and using another person as a sighted guide. On a recent lesson, Bent picked up 19-year-old Katie at her residential cottage carrying a hand drawn street map outlining three possible routes. One of Katie’s individual education plan goals is traveling off campus, something she would not choose to do on her own. Katie has CHARGE Syndrome, a genetic condition that has left her legally blind and hard of hearing. Transition and change make Katie anxious and traveling off campus has plenty of unpredictable variables.

Venturing out into the World

“I know you don’t like to go off campus but the more you practice, the easier it will be,” Bent assures Katie before starting the lesson.

Katie chooses her favorite of three options for the day’s expedition. As they near the gate at the edge of campus, Bent reminds Katie to concentrate on moving her cane from left to right instead of pushing it straight in front of her. By using proper technique, Katie avoids a traffic cone, utility poles, and other sidewalk obstacles. Approaching the corner, Katie feels the dip in the sidewalk for a wheelchair ramp alongside the curb and this tells her the crosswalk signal is beside her and she presses the button. Since Katie cannot reliably use her vision or hearing to know when the sign is flashing and beeping, she takes Bent’s arm and uses sighted guide technique to safely cross the street. 

A Deafblind Program student walks with her white cane
A Deafblind Program student practices cane technique.

Katie turns down the final street on the day’s route, stopping before the fourth house down on the right. Bent offers details about the surrounding neighborhood, describing the houses and telling Katie that the streets have people names like Paul and Edith. With each off campus excursion, Katie is gaining experience traveling in the community, becoming familiar with residential areas, and learning how to be flexible and adapt to change.

Body language is universal

Communication is the major focus of the Deafblind Program and orientation and mobility skills become essential in this area. When a student cannot use speech or gestures to express a need or desire, Bent says, movement becomes an effective communication tool.

“Maybe they can’t say they’re hungry, but they lead someone to the kitchen,” Bent explains. “For a child who struggles to communicate, physical language opens up a life of independence.”

In Perkins’ Early Learning Center, young children are encouraged to use physical language starting with basic body awareness and movement. With many of the children used to being carried or pushed in strollers before entering the program, the first goal is encouraging independent movement and motivating them to explore their environments.

“Orientation takes place from day one,” says Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist Paula Kosior. Educators work together as a team, Kosior said, to ensure new students receive enough information to feel safe as they adjust to new surroundings without becoming overwhelmed.

Routines, reinforcement and learning

In the classroom, a teacher will introduce and consistently use terms associated with mobility. If a child is working on walking to the playground outside, the teacher might talk about walking on the sidewalk, going down a quiet path, and opening the squeaky gate. Kosior reinforces the language during the actual orientation and mobility lesson.

A girl in the Early Learning Center uses a walker
Exploration is encouraged in the Early Learning Center.

Kosior stressed the importance of making lessons fun and motivating for the individual child. “I might be focusing on using the white cane to get to the playground but the student is focused on what he gets to do when he is there,” she said.

Students become comfortable with routes when traveling from the Early Learning Center building to other locations on Perkins’ campus for regularly scheduled activities such as swimming in the Howe Building, appointments at the Low Vision Clinic in the Hilton Building, or visits to the greenhouse in the Pappas Horticultural Center.

“These routes become part of their routine and become less scary,” Kosior explains.

It’s a team effort

In addition to coordinating with classroom teachers, Kosior said she works very closely with the physical therapist of students with additional disabilities. Kosior talked about one little girl who has low vision as well as cerebral palsy affecting the left side of her body. To help her build strength, Kosior has the girl push the crosswalk signal with her left hand. The student wears leg braces and has the tendency to drag her left foot when she is tired. Kosior consults with the girl’s physical therapist about her endurance to make sure lessons are both challenging and safe.

“As a team, we look at each student and get an understanding of what they like and what challenges them and then come up with meaningful lessons,” Kosior said.

Before you walk the path, you have to know the path

In Perkins Lower School, Mary Trainor inspires 14-year-old Michael to rise up from his seat with the promise of pressing the elevator button and food services bell in the Howe Building, where he will take classes in Perkins Secondary Program next year. Michael, who has perfect pitch and plays seven different instruments, loves to hear the chimes and name the notes. He is motivated to get moving.

A male student walks through campus with a white cane

“I’ll take the expressway,” Michael announces as he takes Trainor’s arm and she leads him as a sighted guide across the campus to the Howe Building. Trainor has limited time for the orientation and mobility session and wants to use the time helping Michael become more familiar with the layout of the school building. Passing through the front door, Michael releases Trainor’s arm and uses his white cane to feel the edge of a rug that helps him maintain a straight line of travel through the lobby.  

Past the lobby Michael enters an open space, reaches out and touches the brick wall to his right. He trails the wall with one hand and sweeps the white cane in front of him with the other. Practicing touch and drag cane technique Trainor taught him, Michael moves the cane across his body bringing his right foot forward as the cane reaches his left side and vice versa, effectively clearing the area into which he will step next. Feeling the brick wall and tile floor beneath his cane helps Michael know he is in the main hallway.

Trainor asks Michael to locate a waiting bench tucked away in an alcove in the middle of the west hallway. When he comes to the fourth classroom doorway on the right, Trainor tells him, he should square off in preparation to cross the hallway to the bench.

Not only is it important for students to become familiar with tactile clues and objects in the environment, they must also be aware of other people. Trainor said social skills are commonly practiced during orientation and mobility lessons. Trainor reminds her students to face a person when speaking. If a student is traveling too fast down the hallway and contacts another person with his cane, he should stop, say “excuse me,” and let the person know on which side he will be passing.

Gaining confidence in the community

Social interaction is one of many skills honed during a summer program run by Perkins Outreach Services. Paul Doerr, an orientation and mobility instructor for 32 years in Perkins Secondary Program, is spending this summer teaching public school students taking the three-week Outreach course.

Outreach students sitting on the subway
Carolyn and Precious take the subway during an Outreach Transportation Weekend.

On an exceptionally hot afternoon, Doerr and another teacher take two students on a shopping trip to the air conditioned mall. Precious, 12, wants to buy a kitchen appliance called a hot shot that would allow her to safely heat a cup of water and make her own oatmeal in the morning. Upon entering Target, Doerr reminds Precious that customer assistance is usually located near the entrance of a department store. If she were going to a store in her hometown, Doerr advises, she should call ahead and let them know she is visually impaired and will need shopping assistance.

Inside the larger mall, Doerr tells Precious to trail the wall on her right. With Doerr a few paces behind, she passes storefronts and successfully avoids walking into a purse display protruding out of an entryway by detecting it in time with her cane. Precious feels the first step as she approaches a short flight of stairs and locates the railing.

“I hear one of those kiddie rides,” Precious announces, as we pass a miniature coin operated carousel blaring carnival music. The audio cue will serve as a future marker now that she knows approximately where in the mall the ride is located and which stores are nearby.

At the far end of the mall, Precious carefully steps onto the escalator as her cane makes contact with the second floor she safely steps off the moving stairs. Doerr congratulates her on a job well done and offers a tip.

“As soon as you get off the escalator you should take five big steps forward,” Doerr advises, explaining that people will usually be right behind you stepping off the escalator and this will give them the necessary space to walk around instead of crashing into you.

Later Precious presses an elevator button and inside finds a button with raised letters “LL” for lower level. She trails the wall again heading in the opposite direction on the first floor. As she approaches the door to the parking lot Doerr directs her attention to the rug under her feet.

“There is almost always a rug at the front entrance of a mall,” he informs her.

Independence: The Ultimate Destination

Even though Precious did not make any purchases on this day, the mall trip was a success in Doerr’s eyes. The goal of the Outreach program, he said, is to offer students tips and recommendations for independent living. The students practice these techniques during the program and instructors are able to note what the student is capable of doing independently.

“And then we’re asking the parents and the schools to follow through,” Doerr says.

Precious enters seventh grade in her Chelsea school this fall. She will have a new schedule and will need to find her way to unfamiliar classrooms. Even though Precious will receive orientation and mobility instruction in her public school, she confessed to being a little nervous at the challenge.

“I don’t think you need to worry,” Doerr knowingly assures her. “You know what you’re doing. You’ll find your way.”