This is the third of three posts in a White Cane Safety Day 2023 series.
View all the posts in the series.
Every year on Oct. 15, we celebrate White Cane Safety Day. Have you ever wondered how someone who travels with a white cane learns techniques and strategies to know where they are, where they want to go, and how to get there safely?
Orientation and mobility (O&M) is a high-demand professional practice focused on instruction and support for learners who are blind/visually impaired in early childhood settings, schools, and beyond! According to the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals, a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) is an “expert who specializes in working with individuals who are blind, low vision or who have functional visual limitations, and empowers them to achieve their life goals for education, employment, avocation and independence.” O&M specialists prepare learners with visual impairments to move, engage, and travel in a range of environments with safety, confidence, and independence.
In recognition of White Cane Safety Day, Oct. 15, and October’s Blindness Awareness Month, we met with Justin Pierce and Laura Liedtka, two university students training to be O&M specialists through university-based personnel preparation grants funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).
|Justin Pierce is completing his certification in orientation and mobility through an OSEP-funded grant at Western Michigan University. He is in the internship phase of his program, working at the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix, Arizona. Justin is visually impaired and has traveled with a white cane since the age of three.||Laura Liedtka is completing her certification in orientation and mobility through an OSEP-funded grant at Texas Tech University. She lives in Missoula, Montana, and has been an occupational therapist (OT) for 23 years, currently working in early intervention and preschool settings with children with disabilities. Laura enrolled in the O&M program to become better prepared to advocate for children with visual impairments in her rural state.|
How did you first become interested in orientation and mobility?
As an OT, I was implementing a lot of the services for my students with visual impairment because there are so few trained teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) in my area. I especially have a passion for students with neurological visual impairment because their needs often align very closely with my practice as an occupational therapist. I’m trained and experienced as an OT, which is a type of related service provider, but I have not been through a teacher training program. So, I would have had to go back to school and get a teaching certification before I could be a TVI; however, O&M is a related service, like OT, so I’m able to become certified in O&M much more easily.
For me, although I’ve received O&M instruction and have been traveling with a white cane for a long time, it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college when I started to really assess what I wanted to do. I have kept in touch with my former mobility instructor from high school, and he really encouraged me to consider a career in O&M. I grew up in Chicago and have always gotten around on buses and trains; I love to get out and move around. When I really started thinking about careers, this seemed like a great fit.
What are some factors that helped you to choose the O&M preparation program at your university?
One big factor for me is that Western Michigan is where my previous O&M instructor went to school, and he recommended that I go there too. Also, Western Michigan is one of the oldest programs and is very well known and respected in the field. I knew that I would have a great experience learning from the professors. They’re just great at what they do, and they always answer my questions. I feel like I hit the jackpot there! I’m around professionals who have been doing this for years and who are involved in research and all the behind-the-scenes work in O&M.
I enrolled full-time, on campus, although a lot of our classes have been online. There were just a few other students in most of my classes, and I appreciate that the program is flexible. Some of my classmates are already teaching and can’t stop working for a year to go full-time, in-person. There have been many in-person classes, including some of the classes on eye anatomy, and the courses where we practiced skills under blindfold.
In the same way Justin heard about Western Michigan from his O&M specialist, a TVI that I work with in Montana recommended the Texas Tech program. The OSEP-funded scholarship and opportunity to earn a master’s degree were also big factors in my choice to enroll at Texas Tech, and the fact that their program is mostly distance learning worked well for me. While I don’t love the idea of distance learning, at my stage in life, working full time as a single mom with a second job, distance learning is really the best option. There have been some in-person components, like the intensive, on-campus summer cane class, which I finished last summer. Having the option to do that class in the summer worked well for me because I work for a school district during the school year. I have so much going on in my life — if I can do this program, anyone can do it!
Based on what you’ve learned and experienced in your program, what are some characteristics that make for a good O&M instructor, especially for working with young learners?
I think creativity is very important. That’s also why I’m drawn to occupational therapy. For most of the learners I work with, there are no ready-made solutions, like a catalog that you can go and buy. You need to create things that work for your clients, so being creative and then also being flexible are very important for an O&M specialist.
In my work with little preschoolers, we must be flexible. We must meet them where they’re at and work where they are at, instead of having a very scripted approach. You need to be aware of where the student is at, meet them where they’re at, and be flexible with being able to change plans if needed.
I would also add that you have to want to help kids; being compassionate and listening are very important. I was doing an O&M assessment today and a lot of it was just sitting down and having a conversation and listening to their story and their experiences, rather than rushing to do everything.
I have never really thought of myself as creative, but I’m getting there, especially with the preschoolers that I’m working with. We go for walks down the hall, sweep the cane, and say “Hi!” to other teachers. O&M is very, very unique to each individual because it’s based on need, and it’s based on ability. Someone who understands the importance of seeing each learner as an individual would be a good person for the job.
And that’s what also makes it fun and exciting! I mean, I’ve been doing OT for 23 years, working with students with disabilities and in all environments. I’ve worked in the hospital; I’ve worked in early intervention; I’ve worked in private practice — and each individual is a new experience, and that’s what keeps it exciting and engaging.
What do you know about the job market for graduates of an O&M program? What types of employment are available?
Interestingly, I have a meeting coming up with a large school district in a suburban area, and the Special Ed Director has been looking for an O&M specialist for about two years now and has not found anyone. It’s heartbreaking that students might be going without services. There is a high demand that is not being met. I think more awareness is needed to help recruit and retain professionals in the field.
I agree. The job prospect for anybody going into the field of O&M is extremely positive. Of course, pay is a huge concern for any special education position. I want children to get what they need, and I want to be able to provide equitable services, so I think there needs to be a little a shift in philosophy, and more work on solutions like making O&M services billable under Medicaid. As an O&M specialist or TVI, especially in a rural state, you enter this field that you are suddenly given a seemingly impossible task — students four hours across the state, 70 of them that you need to see. So, I’m not doing this for the money, but I hope I can be an advocate for change.
What areas of need do you perceive related to research and leadership in O&M? Would you be interested in research and/or leadership in the field in the future?
At Western Michigan, the faculty does a lot of research, for example, on cane techniques and street crossing techniques. Personally, I love to be hands-on; I don’t see myself as a researcher. I prefer to go in and do the teaching; let someone else do the researching! But I’m glad we do have many professionals researching best practices.
I think there is a huge need in O&M to better understand the impact of our orientation and mobility interventions and to clearly identify the evidence based for our practice. It makes a difference in people’s lives. With a stronger research base, we could have more people in the profession and might more easily be able to justify Medicaid billing and other funding sources.
I also think there’s a need for research into O&M for individuals with multiple impairments or orthopedic impairments, pairing OT with O&M to maximize learners’ independence. That sense of independence brings such a huge quality of life; it’s definitely a passion of mine.
How do you see technology and the technologies of the future shaping the orientation and mobility profession?
One great example comes to mind for me. Living in Phoenix, we have a fully self-driving rideshare service called that you can call. The vehicle comes to your house or apartment and picks you up. I have used that since I moved out here and absolutely love it. The company is doing a lot with the blind and low vision community as far as accessibility on their app. There’s a feature you can activate so that every time the car makes a turn, it will let you know where you are, for example: “Turning North onto 12th St.” This service is in Phoenix and has expanded to San Francisco and parts of Los Angeles. So, for O&M specialists and cane travelers, there’s a lot of new technology to work with, including cars. And there are aspects that need to be further studied and worked out, too, such as quieter vehicles and more complicated pedestrian crossings.
Jason gave an excellent response. I’ll add that even with these amazing technology innovations, there will always be a need for traditional orientation and mobility services. What if your self-driving car drops you off in the wrong neighborhood? You will need to figure out how to reorient and get to somewhere safe and get back on track. We must always have a backup plan in case technology fails — or for very rural areas like parts of Montana where there is no internet access. This goes back to that sense of independence. Are you really maximizing your independence if you are entirely reliable on technology?
As we think about White Cane Safety Day, what aspects of cane travel would you like schools to be more aware of?
I’m lucky to live in a city where we support education and every bond that has been presented for a vote has been passed. So, we’ve seen a lot of growth in our schools and a lot of new buildings being built. However, I really wish that people with consider universal design — for cane travel, for everybody! — when they’re building these new buildings. For example, when designing a staircase in a new school, even though a spiral staircase without risers between the steps looks really cool, that may not be a great design for cane travelers whose canes could easily drop between the steps. Instead, we could prioritize the functionality of a building for everyone, for example by making staircases with good visual contrast on the steps.
In Phoenix, many of the school campuses include separate buildings and outdoor sidewalks. For example, students leave the gym and walk outside to go to the cafeteria. I wish there were more tactile indicators to assist kids with navigating these campuses, especially outdoors. I agree with Laura — a lot of designers are very concerned about how things look, and that’s great. But it’s important to take other people’s abilities and needs into consideration, so that everyone can enjoy the space. Not just some people, but all people.
For more information on orientation and mobility programs, please visit OSEP-funded O&M programs including many newly awarded personal preparation grants in 2023:
Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.