Orientation and Mobility (O&M) "is is a profession which focuses on instructing individuals who are blind or visually impaired with safe and effective travel through their environment." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientation_and_mobility)
My post talks about the method of instruction that I have been researching and the fun time I had meeting the instructors. Yes, I even got to use the white cane!
I first heard about O&M when I translated that Japanese autobiographical story during my senior year of college. Those of you who were with me in Gettysburg probably remember how I never left my room during weekends because I was working on that translation. Entire Saturdays were spent at the computer looking up kanji after kanji...
While I found the account about the training center to be quite fascinating, I didn't give O&M much thought at that time. It wasn't until last fall - when I learned that professional O&M and braille instructors are in high demand - that I started looking into the field.
Since last December, I've corresponded with about four or five O&M instructors from all over the US with varying levels of experience. They gave me advice and answered questions that I had about the field and the nature of the work. I also read a number or articles about O&M and the long white cane.
The method that I've been exploring is called "Structured Discovery". Just as the name says, it promotes a guided (structured) form of discovery. For example, if the student becomes confused at a certain point, the instructor will not simply tell them where they are and what to do next. Instead, the instructor will help the student to analyze the environment by asking questions that will prompt the student to gather the information they need to figure out where they are and where to go. Rather than teaching a student a set of static routes to specific destinations, students learn techniques that can be applied to all sorts of environments. The process is basically a form of information gathering and problem solving. Once people have enough information, they can orient themselves and then continue on their way. When the students have mastered the skills and have gained confidence through successful learning experiences, they can travel freely whenever and wherever they want to go. It's quite fascinating, and yet pretty straightforward.
Sunday afternoon, I met with one of the instructors. She is from the East Coast and is about my age. She's also blind. We grabbed lunch at Quizno's and then headed down the street so I could get a taste of O&M instruction.
First, we talked about the information cues that we should be gathering. By the sound of the traffic, how close are we to the road? How busy is the road? Is traffic stopping at the intersection - is the intersection controlled or uncontrolled? Are the cars going straight or turning - is it a 4 way intersection, a T-intersection, or some other configuration? Can you tell the difference between the sound of parallel and perpendicular traffic? Where is the sun in the afternoon? Which direction are we headed? Is this here a street or a driveway, telling by the texture, the curb, the presence or absence of water drainage ditches? She also showed me how she keeps an eye on the students as they travel and ways that she can tell if they are aligned correctly at the intersection before they cross.
After our exploration of the block, she handed me the cane and showed me how to hold and swing it. I shouldn't hold it too tight or my arm and hand will get tired and sore. And when I swing it, the motion should not be in the arm and wrist, but in the muscles of my fingers to push it one way and then in the base of the thumb to swing it back the other way. The cane ought to be pointed to the right when the left foot is forward (and vice versa) and the swing should be about the width of the shoulders. No, don't look down. I smiled as random people walked by and gave me a bizarre look.
It was very exciting! I was so nervous that I was shaking as I tried to hold up the 5-foot long hollow carbon fiber cane. I picked up the rhythm fairly quickly, but the cane tip was a bit too high off the ground and my swing needed to reach out to the right a little bit more. Tap tap tap.
After that, it was time for the instructor to go to a meeting at the hotel. We went back and wrapped up the meeting in the coffee shop with many thanks and smiles.
After the first meeting, I found the other instructor, a fellow from the mid-West who is also blind. We chatted about other things involved in O&M - the importance of attitude, the "outdoor" nature of the job, certification, and other things. he had lots of ideas for other things I could do to learn more about O&M - such as conferences and tours coming up this year.
It was a great day. There were about 500 blind people at the hotel for the Seminar here in Washington. I enjoyed watching them go to and fro about the area with all sorts of canes and dogs. I, though, sat reading a braille magazine and planning my next step of exploration.