Independence is a hallmark of the blind community. Blind people as Orientation and Mobility counselors

Orientation and Mobility


The discipline of Orientation and Mobility provides us with a set of core metaphors for our consideration of the psychosocial aspects of visual impairment. When I do awareness trainings on visual impairment one of the questions I ask my audience is "what can blind people do better than anyone else?" Some people guess that we listen better. Others say that we are very organized. After a few more guesses the group usually gives up and I let them off the hook.

As a metaphor the one thing that those of us who are blind can do better than anyone else is move forward without seeing what is in front of us. We have the capacity of moving easily through the dark. Going forward without seeing where we are or where we are going is the core metaphor which is presented to the people we encounter on a daily basis.

You might think that this ability would be a source of pride for people with visual impairments, but it isn’t. It is not a source of self-satisfaction or self-esteem primarily for two reasons. One reason is that for many blind people learning mobility means dealing with survival issues. They are different for each individual. The second reason is that many people with visual impairments never achieve complete comfort with their mobility skills.

Blindness as a “mirror” of forward motion

The presence of blind people in society while they are engaged in functioning as the “mirrors” of going forward in the dark is what brings up many of the heart-centered behavior patterns I mentioned in my past lectures. I believe that everyone on the planet wants to feel good about going forward and if a person has some sense of comfort he or she can communicate the power of feeling comfortable to those around them.

Remember I said that every disability has a signature. All disabilities have something special buried in the experience. For me, the capacity to go forward in the dark is a very special aspect of our lived experiences with blindness. I am throwing sparks here. If this is not something you agree with that is fine with me. It is more important that you come to some conclusion as to what the experience of visual impairment is for you.

Now does this mean that blind people can move through the dark easily all the time? Well, some do and some don't. It depends on how they view their lives and how they incorporate orientation and mobility into them. Tuttle says that O/M can assist someone to strengthen their self-esteem by providing them with the sense that they can move through the world on their own (my words - not his.) Although it is true that O/M techniques can open a powerful door for people learning how to travel with a cane or use a dog guide it does not follow that these skills improve self-esteem.

Many people never go past their fears of traveling in the world alone. Blind people can become very artful at attracting sighted guide assistance or use private transportation such as taxicabs, rides from family or friends, or para-transit services.

One thing I have never understood about the attitudes toward O/M within the blind community is the judgment that someone who has the income to hire a personal driver or is married to someone who is willing to drive them wherever they want to go is not as independent as those blind people who use public transportation or travel on foot alone. If I had the resources to maintain a personal car and driver I would do it in a heart beat.

I suspect this flows out of the same source which causes many blind people to hide the fact that they use volunteers to accomplish daily life tasks. As I said in my last lecture it is very common to utilize the assistance of volunteers, but this is not usually discussed by blind people when talking among themselves.

Independence is a hallmark of the blind community

Appearing independent in all things is a hallmark of the blind community even when we are just interacting among ourselves. We also don't usually compare notes on our mobility techniques. That happens once in a while, but what is more common is for blind people to ask one another for information on how to cross a tricky intersection or to give each other a lesson on negotiating a difficult crossing. I have given several O/M lessons to blind friends when I thought I could do it in a way that would be safe for both of us. What happens a little more frequently is that members of the blind community will gossip about the relationship of an individual and his or her guide dog. The gossip centers a lot of the time on how well the dog is working or how well the person is handling the dog.

Gossip (or the lack thereof) means that members of the blind community are self-monitoring for how our public presence is being seen and interpreted by the wider community. Many of us who are blind feel it is our responsibility to educate the public around us on how to treat us and what is important about our lives. One blind person I know commented that this sounds tiring and it is. It also lends itself to a person not truly being him or herself a lot of the time because we are always on stage.

Another comment that was made to me is that part of the responsibility to educate the wider community is that we are providing support not only four ourselves, but for the other blind people in our community. This is a very true statement and it puts a lot of pressure on those of us who are willing to assist in educating the public.

Old assumptions about the general public

I have been thinking about whether or not the blind community is carrying an old assumption that the general public is unaware of how we conduct ourselves and what constitutes respectful treatment. I decided to change my thoughts on this and I got an immediate response.

Saturday morning I cruised on out to my T stop to jump on the trolley on my way to the grocery store. I was standing around on the platform when a train pulled up and a middle-aged man (I could tell by his voice) told me that the incoming train was a Riverside. I thanked him, but kept on standing by as the train pulled in and then out of the station. When the Cleveland Circle train started approaching the station the man stepped up again and said, "This is the C traing. Is this the one you want?" I said yes upon which he said, "Would you like to take my arm?"

He and I both boarded the train and he started to assist me to a seat. I told him that I was getting off at the next stop and was happy to stand after which I thanked him again for his help. This man new everything and treated me with courtesy without going overboard. Through this interaction this gentleman became part of my village.

When working with our villages it is important to remind your client's that we are often noticed when traveling through our daily routines. I am very mobile and have a large village. Like all of you I have certain stores and other places I visit regularly. Throughout my travels I am seen by the other people who have similar routes as I.

Being seen repeatedly in a neighborhood over time causes people to feel they know us. Since we are not waving and smiling some people will take the trouble to talk to us and offer us assistance. An offer of assistance such as going sighted guide across a street or helping us find a shop can be a sighted person's way of being friendly. We might prefer that they just say hello and sometimes that happens, but the offer of help often becomes the greeting.

Offering help becomes the greeting because that is all many people know. They don't know how to just walk up and say hello and they are also operating out of their own social context that blind people need help.

Frequently, I receive offers of assistance from those who are homeless in my neighborhood. I think this comes, not from their connection with my perceived helplessness or social devaluing, but from the fact that I will say hello and talk to them. They are judged by many members of our community as being undesirable people and I bet most folks walk right by them or just throw them money.

I am not offended by their presence and from talking to them I found out that a lot of them are veterans. I talk to them because I like them and not because I feel I have to do so in order to maintain a source of assistance.

Blind people as Orientation and Mobility counselors

I asked you in a discussion question last week if you thought people with visual impairments could be orientation and Mobility counselors. I know that some of you don’t feel that you can make this call and that is understandable.

My reason for asking the question is to get you thinking about this issue a little bit because this is a big controversy in the O/M field. Traditionally, most O/M counselors have been sighted. Once in a while you will find someone who is low vision who works in mobility.

Many O/M counselors and professors feel that it is not possible for someone who is completely blind to act as a mobility instructor. The issue is that someone who is blind will not be able to judge the safety of a travel route before teaching another blind person how to traverse it. This conversation heats up even more when discussing teaching a blind child.

The National Federation of the Blind feels strongly that blind people can be superb O/M counselors. Its conviction is so strong that it established its own orientation and mobility program at Louisiana Tech University in Baton Rouge. The NFB degree program is not accredited by AER (the Association of Educators in the Rehabilitation of Visual Impairment). Even without national certification many of the graduates of this program are being hired.

The NFB posits that blind people develop their own natural perception pathways and techniques which can be used effectively for orientation and mobility. By using our senses of hearing, touch, and body awareness blind people can evaluate their surroundings well enough to navigate where they want to go.

I think you all know that the established O/M teaching model is to assess a route and then show the route to a blind client. After practicing the route several times and discussing possible danger spots someone who is blind will then be free to traverse the route alone.For our purposes we are going to call the juxtaposition of these two views as “competitive read.” Competitive read means that one group has a very established view of what constitutes safe travel techniques and the other group is challenging it. One group says we can use our sensory abilities to determine how to move in the world and the other one says that our sensory abilities have to be evaluated and supported with information from a sighted person.

“Competitive Read” plays out socially in other ways than this. Different political views are based in competitive read; religious beliefs are often based in the principles of universal truth; teachers versus students in what are correct educational information, etc. There are many flavors of competitive read in our society.

No one can win in a “competitive read” struggle. The best way to address it from a social perspective is to respect the viewpoint of the other person or group and maybe think about whether there is any truth in it for you.

What I like about the NFB’s position on our perceptual abilities is that it could follow that when we lose one sensory ability the other ones balance out. I also like what the traditional O/M model does in teaching when it emphasizes feeling very safe. For me both models have value.

One way of resolving a “competitive read” situation is by merging the two perspectives. This is what I do with my village. I greet people where they are in their experience of blindness and I work with whatever they offer me in ways which support who I am. That is a way of merging a competitive read. I am not telling them that what they think about blind people is wrong, but giving them an opportunity to try out a new experience of blindness with me.

Some times when I wish on a falling start I wish for O/M training teams made up of both sighted and blind counselors. This for me would be the best O/M experience. It would resolve the traditional position on safety because a sighted person would be there and it would include a blind person’s experience in using his or her perceptual skills. Having training teams could also open the door on promoting self-esteem because it would install a role model for the person receiving the O/M lesson particularly if he or she is newly blind.

I am not going to discuss using guide dogs here because I hope to have a guest speaker who is a guide dog user address us. I would like her to handle this part of the conversation. So if you position the metaphor that blind people mirror going forward with ease through the dark into our body experience of being blind our sensing abilities would become a source of our self-esteem. In order to foster this there will have to be some conversation on what positive experiences and abilities are born out of being blind. I don’t expect you to conclude on this today. I just want you to ponder it for now.