Orientation and Mobility in the Public Schools

The profession of orientation and mobility developed after World War Two. Blinded veterans coming back from battlefields in Europe and Japan were housed at Valley Forge Hospital in New England. Richard Hoover and his staff at Valley Forge developed techniques to help blind adults become self-sufficient. Consequently, the profession of orientation and mobility, the techniques, curriculum, and philosophy, were all designed around the needs of blind adult males.

The field of orientation and mobility remained focused on adults until the early 1960's when the first mobility specialists appeared in public schools. These school mobility specialists quickly learned that the Valley Forge curriculum was not adequate for blind children. An adult can learn cane travel over a few weeks. Children take their entire childhood to grasp concepts and develop fine motor skills.

Children also go through developmental stages. At varying speeds, they walk, run, skip, go from gross to fine motor control, learn to read and write, gain experience with language, and develop the navigational, cognitive, and emotional centers of their brains. The original methods used to teach orientation and mobility to fully developed adults did not consider the immature, rapidly changing abilities of blind children. This distinction is critical. When I graduated from Western Michigan University in 1979, I was well equipped to teach blind individuals to use a long cane, to use a sighted guide, and to cross streets. I was also ready with a standard approach to teach blind people to navigate through space. I soon discovered that children did not have the neuromuscular ability to use "proper cane skills" until they were nearly in high school. They didn't begin to cross even the simplest of streets until age five (often later). And most critically of all, they evolved the cognitive skills necessary to understand space very slowly. A very serious question arose early in my career: Just what is it that I should be doing with young blind students if they aren't ready to learn cane skills or to navigate in space?

Veterans, blinded by war wounds, had the advantage of sight for 20 plus years before losing their vision. Blind children in public schools are often born without sight or have only a few years of normal vision before going blind. It is far easier to learn orientation skills with a 20 year base of knowledge about visual spatial layouts. Children are not born with a conceptual base of understanding about the world. Blind children must systematically study environments. They have to move through space to develop mental schemes about the world. Teaching a blind child to be oriented in space, and to stay oriented while moving, is the major challenge to the public school mobility specialist.

It is also true that many blind students in public schools have multiple impairments. The blind child who is only blind, with no hearing loss, orthopedic impairment, or cognitive anomaly, is rare. The mobility curriculum designed to teach blind veterans does not take into account mental retardation, cerebral palsy, or congenital hearing loss (or commonly, combinations of several impairments).

Teaching cane travel to blind veterans could easily be accomplished using one instructor working with one student. In the public schools this one-on-one approach, although useful, is not always the best choice. The one-on-one practice is still stubbornly adhered to by many mobility specialists who teach children, but I have found that young kids benefit from role models. They also need and respond to their peers. For these reasons, mobility in the public schools should more often involve the teaching of groups of blind children. I successfully do this in a program called community travel in which blind high school students play the role of teacher (with my guidance) for younger blind children.

Twenty year old veterans could receive hour long "lessons" with specific objectives ("Today we work on centering the cane."). This approach does not translate to children. Kids need to play. The younger the child, the more the emphasis has to be on having fun, playing a game, anything except a dry "lesson." Also, the younger the child, the shorter the attention span; an hour lesson is too long.

There is another serious shortcoming of the Valley Forge legacy that affects all severely impaired children in special education (ie. not just blind students). Few would argue that the number one priority of the orientation and mobility profession is to serve totally blind individuals. The history of the profession defines the mobility teacher as a professional trained to work with vision impairments. This definition is appropriate in a adult rehabilitation setting, but is not broad enough for public education. The blind rehabilitation model fails to address the travel problems of many special education students.

School based mobility is a profession focused on navigational disabilities. It is not solely about the consequences of vision impairment. In Saginaw, Michigan, at the Millet Learning Center, we define orientation and mobility as a profession that addresses navigational problems, whether these disabilities are caused by vision impairment, damage to navigational centers in the brain, lack of travel experience because of disability, or because of oculomotor, proprioceptive, or perceptual vision anomalies.

This redefinition of mobility teachers as navigational specialists is an important shift of emphasis with important consequences. A major problem in the field is that mobility specialists are rarely hired in rural areas or in regions with few blind children. This has denied the few blind children comprehensive service. It also denies travel training for the far more numerous children in special education who have navigational problems. A shift in definition would allow mobility specialists to be hired in rural areas and at centers for all handicapped children.

In a rehabilitation setting, blind adults receive training in an area called "activities of daily living." Students receive lessons that cover such widely different topics as eating skills, shaving techniques, hair care, posture and mannerism control, cooking skills, handling public bathrooms, communications skills, and much more. In education, there is no professional assigned the task of teaching activities of daily living. Occupational therapists could assume the role were they not so busy with a large population of physically impaired children. Teachers of the visually impaired do address activities of daily living, but not often in the real world, and only secondarily to their main academic responsibilities. The main burden for real world training of daily living skills falls on the mobility instructor, commonly as part of community travel lessons. This is a role not often perceived by the profession.

Valley Forge Hospital was a rehabilitation setting and a medical facility. Mobility specialists working with adults follow a medical model for servicing patients. Education, however, has a different focus compared to rehabilitation, different goals, terminology, and philosophies. The school-based mobility specialist participates in individual educational plans (IEP's), competency based education, mastery learning, and outcome based schooling. There is also a strong emphasis in education toward getting children ready for a future that may be 18 years away. We are smack in the middle of a revolution, the switch from an industrial age to an electronic, communications age. Education is moving to restructure, to get children ready for a wildly changeable, alien future. Orientation and mobility specialists need to understand what all this means for their profession and for blind children.


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IIBN Site Index - Teaching O&M to Blind Children - Teaching Students with Travel Disabilities - Wayfinding Technologies


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