This is the second of three posts in a White Cane Safety Day 2023 series.
View all the posts in the series.
While we are celebrating Oct. 15, White Cane Safety Day, and bringing more focus to the field of orientation and mobility, we asked two orientation and mobility (O&M) instructors about the highlights of the profession. Meredith Grace and Joe (who is also a cane user) provide their personal insights into what it is like to be an orientation and mobility instructor and why it is such a unique and wonderful job.
Orientation and mobility is a profession where instructors work with students and clients to help teach techniques for safe travel. Each instructor must go through highly specialized training at a university program to sit for the national certification exam. O&M instruction includes a wide variety of skills and concepts including, but not limited to, cane technique, indoor travel, outdoor travel, public transportation, intersection analysis and travel, and business district travel. Instructors work with individuals in all stages of life including early childhood and instruction happens in a variety of settings such as schools, rehabilitation centers and home environments.
|Meredith Grace LaHue is a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) as well as a Teacher of Students who are Blind and Visually Impaired (TBVI). After pursuing her undergraduate degree in collaborative education from Birmingham-Southern College, Meredith Grace attended Florida State University to obtain her master’s degree in visual disabilities. Meredith Grace has experience in roles such as itinerant teacher in a school district, program specialist at a nonprofit for individuals who have vision loss and scientific researcher at FSU with a grant-funded low vision initiative. In addition to these positions, Meredith Grace has had the opportunity to teach within the visual disabilities program at Florida State University as adjunct faculty.||Joe Strechay is a producer and consultant around disability and blindness for television and film who happens to be blind. He has produced and created accessibility for actors with disabilities for shows such as Apple TV Plus’s SEE and Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See. He has consulted on numerous shows, films, books and plays over the past years. Joe did his graduate work at Florida State University and undergraduate at East Carolina University. He serves as a spokesperson for the American Printing House for the Blind’s Dot Experience Museum being constructed in Louisville, Kentucky.|
What do you think are some characteristics that make for a good O&M instructor?
One major characteristic of good O&M instructors is being flexible. When working with students you need to be able to think outside of the box and quickly shift your mindset based on what the skill level the student is presenting any given day. There are so many variables that can affect a student’s vision including their own health conditions, lighting conditions, weather, etc.
Another characteristic of strong O&M instructors is being able to analyze a situation and problem solve quickly. There are so many environmental factors that can impact travel that an instructor needs to be able to think outside of the box and quickly shift their mindset based on what you are presented in any given moment.
Lastly, you must be relatable, and your students must have an established trust. The instructor and the student have to be comfortable with one another and feel as though you could trust your life with this person. There is a certain level of vulnerability with this type of instruction. Being able to reach into the student’s life and establish a relationship and connections will help the student progress further along in the instruction.
As a person who is blind, I think what makes a good orientation and mobility instructor is that they’re someone you feel you can trust because you are putting your life in their hands. These lessons really open up doors. The instructors are giving you important information you didn’t already know such as cane tips and advice that will help you navigate in a manner that is safe. I’ve been on both sides of it as I was an O&M instructor. From an instructor’s perspective, the person I’m working with must trust me as an instructor. If they don’t feel safe on a lesson, you must stop. You cannot put them in the position. So, trust and bring respectful, those are important.
Another characteristic is being intuitive. An O&M instructor must understand that each person you’re instructing is different, and you need to meet them where they are in life at that moment.
How did you learn about the field of orientation & mobility?
I lost most of my vision in my first semester in college, and I was having a hard time traveling, especially at night. I was trying to memorize a campus of around 20,000 students and walking around trying to use my feet like a cane. I asked the doctor about O&M, and he said he didn’t think I was ready for that yet, but I felt I was, so I went and sought it on my own. There were difficulties with securing lessons, so eventually I gave up and went through undergrad without the training. There were lots of bloody shin while out on dates. One time I remember I had blood gushing down my shin from hitting it on a fire hydrant.
After I graduated college, I went back home and received cane training there. My doctors knew a little about O&M, but I learned about it mostly from doing research.
I was going to be a classroom teacher, but after my internship, I realized that is not what I wanted. One of my professors suggested looking at the visual disabilities program at Florida State. At first, I was thinking only TVI, but then I shadowed O&M lessons and from then on out, I knew this is what I was going to do. I love being out there teaching cane skills, problem solving, figuring out the environment. I’m so happy I got that little push from one of my professors.
How has O&M changed your life? What changes have you seen in others?
It has changed my life in so many ways. In college, I remember, having to explain to people why certain things were happening. People thought I was ignoring them or had a long night partying because of how I was walking or how my eyes were acting. Now, having the cane and that identification, helps people understand the situation and not make assumptions.
Learning the cane was definitely the right decision, and it changed my life for the better. One of my friends would say when I was using the cane all the time, I walked so much faster, and my head was up because I wasn’t worrying about drop offs or anything like that.
As an instructor I’ve had many experiences with students. One person, after months of training, was able to do this very complex, full-day trip where he navigated so many different obstacles and moving parts. They were so proud to go home and share with other people all the stuff they experienced. It was their first experience as a competent blind traveler in their home environment. I saw how much it changed them.
Seeing someone go from tiptoeing down a hallway with their head down and feeling uncomfortable to head up, moving swiftly without any worry or concern. Them being able to be their own agent and take control of their life, and their ability to go from point A to point B on without any assistance. I’ve seen students go from struggling walking down a hallway to being able to take the bus with no problems. I’ve seen the change from unsure and scared to competent and confident. There was a student I did bus travel with in Tallahassee, and I watched this person get disoriented and get confused with all the gates. It took multiple sessions for them to get an understanding of where everything was. At one point, they navigated the bus terminal, found the correct gate and took the bus home.
What is something most people probably don’t know about O&M that they should know?
It is the coolest profession out there. I think people are really missing out. You get to be outside, and there is a certain freedom to it. It is something that is different each day, and you really do have the ability to make it very fun! Also, you can see the impact after the first day and you see the impact every day you work with students.
I like what Joe said about seeing the impact every day and that it can look different every day. Blindness is truly a spectrum, that’s what I’d like people to know. Travel scenarios look different for different travelers. O&M can be something like basic cane training or something like finding alternative public transportation. But, as Joe said, it definitely is the best job out there!
As we think about White Cane Safety Day, what aspects of cane travel do you think the public needs to be more aware of?
I feel like public transportation can be really difficult and having more accessibility at places like bus stops is important. Accessibility, for our clients and students, so they can access public transportation in the same manner as their sighted peers is an important issue for me.
First off, I love Meredith Grace’s answer. Transportation means access to work, access to life and access to the world around you.
I would say that cane travel is a full contact sport. So, when I’m out using my cane, I’m going to hit stuff with it. Just because I’m hitting objects with my cane, it does not mean that I’m lost.
For more information on orientation and mobility programs, please visit OSEP-funded O&M programs including many newly awarded personal preparation grants in 2023:
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