Last edited for the school year: 2008/2009
For thirty years I taught community-based education as the orientation and mobility specialist for the public schools of Saginaw, Michigan (city and county). This would not have been possible without the help of other staff members on the special education team. Deborah Parker and her colleagues in the physical and occupational therapy departments at the Millet Learning Center (Bridgeport, Michigan) conceived of the program in the early-1980's. Deb has been the heart and energy of the community travel program from day one. Without her skills and gentle personality the program would not have lasted.
When I started teaching travel skills, I was not aware of a problem that I eventually labeled "navigational disability." As knowledge about the brain evolved during my career, I learned that there are centers in the brain responsible for understanding and moving efficiently through space. The surprising thing for me, given my earlier training as an optometrist, was that this navigation system is independent of the vision system. There are strong neural connections with all the senses, but navigation ability can be selectively impaired by damage to specific brain regions (for example, the hippocampus, or the right parietal lobe). This explained why, shortly after arriving as the new orientation and mobility specialist at the Millet Learning Center in Saginaw, Michigan in 1980, my caseload quickly filled up with children who were neither blind nor visually impaired.
It is obvious that navigating efficiently and safely is a challenge for blind and visually impaired children. However, the navigation problems of other children in special education are not always apparent. There are four reasons why mobility specialists need to address the travel disabilities of all children in special education.
Although vision impairments are widespread in children with severe cognitive, physical, or emotional impairments, they are often regarded as secondary. The process by which labels are assigned to children in special education is a result of the unfortunate misconception that vision impairment is a low-incidence problem. My observations have revealed the contrary: Vision impairment is one of the most significant and widespread problems facing severely impaired children.
Our system used for labeling children as visually impaired is flawed: We identify children with specific kinds of vision impairments, and ignore other serious vision problems that can and do affect the children's ability to independently navigate in space. For example, it is the case that children with the most common set of problems - oculomotor dysfunctions - rarely have binocular vision, and therefore have great difficulty directing their eyes (making eye contact, locating landmarks, etc.).
Many severely impaired children in special education have specific damage to areas of the brain responsible for navigating in space. Their behavior is similar to that of a stroke patient or of someone with Alzheimers disease. In my experience, children who have received shunts for hydrocephalus almost always have some degree of damage to navigational centers in the brain, and yet they have vision that tests normal or near-normal. Also, children with severe perceptual problems can have a difficult time navigating in space; the implication is that there is damage somewhere within the navigation centers of the brain. Children with sensory impairments, like deaf students (with normal vision) can be more at risk (at street crossings for example) than blind children when moving about the community. "Navigation" is a multi-sensory brain function; hearing must be combined with vision to allow for optimal navigation capability- assuming that "efficient navigation" includes arriving at destinations safely.
Many children in special education lack experience in the community. They are overprotected, led (or pushed in wheelchairs) everywhere, and they are rarely put in the real world where they have to solve relevant problems. This is not always a matter of neglect by parents or educators, it is often because these students have problems so severe that time and energy is devoted to addressing primary impairments. It is not that these children lack vision or the ability to navigate in space, it is that they do not get the training to become independent travelers. Their disabilities can be as severe as a blind child's if they are unable to be independent in their communities.
The curriculum used to teach blind children to navigate can be adapted to teach these four categories of children with disabilities other than blindness. The justification for mobility specialists working with children other than those with vision impairments is further discussed in the introductory chapter and in the chapter on navigation (on the internet-based e-book). Over the years, I discovered that it is very helpful and important to include my blind and severely visually impaired students in this community-based, five year curriculum. The visually impaired students especially seem to "fall through the cracks" of special education, since their mobility is usually quite good for familiar areas. When they are put through the rigors of all-day intensive lessons in unfamiliar locations, their problems with confident and efficient wayfinding soon come to the surface.