Introduction to Orientation and Motability graphic

Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training is a mainly U.S.-based practice which is designed to help partially sighted and blind people independently navigate their homes, schools, workplaces and other public spaces. Whilst innovative products like mobility scooters instantly allow anyone who has difficulties walking to travel from place to place in comfort and with freedom, Orientation and Mobility requires a great deal of effort and concentration to master – from both the teacher and the student. Here, we take a quick look at the history of this important profession, some of the most common training techniques currently used, and the real-life situations in which they may be put into practice.

A Brief History

Orientation and Mobility has a somewhat more interesting history than, for example, accessibility products such as stairlifts and mobility scooters. Everyone knows that the Second World War (1939-45) had a devastating effect on millions of people globally, and this included soldiers who were ‘lucky’ enough to survive the conflict. In America, O&M was developed in the wake of WWII as one of several rehabilitation programmes aimed at helping blinded veterans to lead dignified and fulfilling lives.

For over a decade, Orientation and Mobility was exclusively delivered to former servicemen in specialist U.S. Army facilities. By the 1960s, however, it was agreed that there was no reason why the invaluable skills O&M had taught former servicemen and women couldn’t also be imparted to members of the general population who would benefit from learning them.

Before long, dedicated university programmes were set up which allowed students to graduate in Orientation and Mobility training – a degree that meant those who completed it would be fully qualified to teach blind and visually-impaired people how to navigate around their environment. O&M quickly became a recognised and much-valued profession that was taken advantage of by countless adults and children across the U.S.

In the decades that followed, O&M continued to evolve, opening it up to more people than ever before. In the 1980s, techniques were developed that even allowed pre-school children to be introduced to the concept of O&M, providing them with the essential skills needed to get to grips with their surroundings at an incredibly early stage of their lives.

Today, just as mobility scooters encourage people with limited mobility to get out there and explore the world around them, O&M training plays a key role in ensuring that anyone who was born with or who has developed sight difficulties gets the assistance they need.

Common O&M Techniques

There are many ways in which Orientation and Mobility can help blind and partially sighted people reach their goals of full independence. Here are some of the most commonly used:

  • Cane travel – Probably the most popular and well-known O&M method (and one which is used not just in the U.S. but all over the world) is that of cane travel. There are several different cane travel techniques that O&M practitioners can introduce to their patients, depending on which they believe will be the most useful and easily mastered. These techniques range from ‘constant contact’ (which involves the user alternating the tapping of their cane from right to left with each step), to ‘touch and drag’ (effectively the same as ‘constant contact’ but with the cane remaining on the ground as it is moved from one side to the other), and the ‘drag technique’ (where the cane goes from side to side but is kept on the ground at all times).
  • Locating dropped objects – Patients are taught to listen to the sounds of objects as they drop and how to then locate them using their foot or another item.
  • Navigating street crossings – Anyone who uses mobility scooters will know that making their way around busy streets is possibly the hardest of daily tasks, but crossing the road presents heightened dangers to blind and visually impaired people. O&M training allows patients to learn how to navigate street crossings in safety and with confidence.
  • Trailing – A particularly interesting technique, trailing involves the O&M student learning how to navigate their way through rooms or outdoor spaces simply by using their sense of touch. The theory is that, with enough instruction, lightly touching walls and other surfaces with the back of the hand will give the patient enough sensory information to safely make their way around their surroundings.

Real-life Applications

The real-life benefits of Orientation and Mobility training are many and varied. Based on the needs of the patient, they can be taught how to independently navigate their home, school, place of work or any other public or private space.

Unlike with accessibility aids such as mobility scooters, each O&M instruction session must be specifically tailored to the individual. In practice, this means that, for example, patients living in rural areas may not spend much (if any) time learning about how to make their way through busy city streets. Instead, the focus will always be on staying safe and getting to grips with the environment they most need to be fully familiar with.

Now that the practice has been fully developed, O&M is regularly deployed by schools, government agencies and private contractors, which means that – whatever the situation – there should be a practitioner on hand whenever they are needed to help any blind or partially sighted service users or employees learn how to find their way around whichever new setting they have just been introduced to.

Orientation and Mobility is still most widely used in the U.S., its country of origin, but variations of the concept have been rolled out over many years elsewhere throughout the world, including in the UK. Wherever possible, O&M services are delivered free of charge to the end user, with the cost for training usually being met by the workplace, school or other facility where the training will take place.

As with any instructional technique of this kind, experts are always looking at ways in which Orientation and Mobility can be improved, with possible forthcoming innovations including a greater focus on teaching blind and visually impaired people how to make the most of technological equipment such as computers and smartphones. Whatever the future holds, however, there can be no debating the fact that O&M has made a positive difference to millions of people all over the world and will continue to do so for years to come.

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