This is the first of three posts in a White Cane Safety Day 2023 series.
View all the posts in the series.
In the fall of 2023, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) awarded grants to universities to support a record number of new scholars in the field of orientation and mobility (O&M). This is a high-demand profession that provides important instruction and support for learners who are blind/visually impaired in early childhood settings, schools and beyond.
O&M specialists prepare learners with visual impairments to move, engage and travel in a range of environments with safety, confidence, and independence. 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,” according to the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals.
Two university faculty members who are leaders in preparation of O&M scholars share how universities prepare O&M scholars, how individuals can pursue this dynamic career field, and how schools, states, and districts can “grow their own” O&M specialists in partnership with universities.
|Dr. Amy Parker is an associate professor and coordinator of the Orientation and Mobility Program in the Special Education Department at Portland State University. She earned her doctorate through an OSEP-funded fellowship for doctoral scholars and is also an internationally Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist. Her research interests include orientation and mobility for individuals with complex disabilities, communication interventions, participatory action research with people with disabilities and their families, and community-based partnerships to create social change.||Dr. Molly Pasley is an assistant professor in the Special and Early Education Department at Northern Illinois University and teaches O&M coursework including Basic Orientation and Mobility for Teachers of People with Visual Impairments and Internship in Orientation and Mobility Instruction of Persons with Visual Impairments. She is a former Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments and is an internationally Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist. Her research involves understanding the experiences of people with low vision/blindness as they navigate the built environment as well as understanding the ways in which people with disabilities are “othered” because of others’ perception of their capacity.|
How did you get started on your paths to O&M personnel preparation?
I was working in Springfield, Illinois, as a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI), serving as a cooperating teacher for new TVIs entering that profession. I really enjoyed working with university students, so I jumped at the opportunity to work as a supervising COMS at a summer residential program in St. Louis, at the Lighthouse for the Blind. Around the same time, I graduated with my doctorate, and a job opened at Northern Illinois University. Currently, I teach Basic Orientation and Mobility, and my hope is that this spring, I’m going to get to teach the second stage, Advanced Orientation and Mobility, including use of the long white cane to navigate in the built environment and public transportation.
My path into the field began with working with individuals who are Deaf and through people who are DeafBlind becoming influencers and teachers in my life. Working as a job coach and a social worker, I saw how integral mobility is for all aspects of life, and so it’s always been something I’ve been very passionate about. At Texas Tech University, when I was studying for a doctorate, I decided to pursue O&M and to become a COMS. Like Molly, I embraced the opportunity to supervise O&M specialists in training who were earning their practicum hours.
Later, a position became open at Portland State University, which is situated in a region that serves remote communities in Hawaii and Alaska. I was especially interested in the opportunity to serve those communities well, and they needed someone who could think strategically about hybrid types of preparation and maybe even hybrid types of service delivery.
What are you looking for in candidates for your program? What makes a good O&M instructor?
Innovation — that’s something we hear a lot in the field of O&M. Students must stay open to constantly learning about technology and about people. What I love to see in our O&M candidates is they come with different strategies in their toolbox, but they always, always start with the person and the individual, and they think flexibly. I also would say that a person really needs to be out there in the community and open to sharing their work with others. I have a candidate from the Big Island of Hawaii, and she is very good at what she calls “talking story,” which is a phrase that they use in Hawaii. It means chatting, chatting with people, sharing ideas, sharing your work and being open.
I would echo all of that, especially flexibility and the commitment to the profession, to the person who’s being served, and to having that person at the center of their decision making. Lead with kindness, collaborate and understand how much this job requires us to collaborate, even though it feels like we can be our own islands a lot of times. We must be responsible for our own growth and being self-directed learners.
A popular path into the O&M profession is for states and school districts to “grow their own” professionals. What do you think states, districts and future professionals should consider when partnering with university preparation programs?
We love working with invested administrators to help them creatively prepare personnel who are committed to that community. Local professionals have real knowledge of the geography, of the culture, and of the ways people travel that may be different. They have connections with community partners and families. Some examples that come to mind are scholars who are living in Alaska, who understand what travel is like in Alaska, and who understand what Alaska winters are like.
That’s amazing. The O&M field is small, and so it’s exciting that each university program offers a little something different, and there’s a need everywhere regardless of where you are in the U.S. or in the world. We’ve also found high needs in our area in terms of preparation programs for people who want to become O&M specialists and for schools and districts that are looking to invest in training new teachers.
Oftentimes, they’ll come to us, or they might go to Western Michigan, or they might look for online or hybrid program options. One of the key components for our program is that it is on-campus. If you’re coming for O&M only, you would come four semesters, so you could start the fall and finish at the end of the fall semester the following year. It’s very fast, which can be great for some districts and scholars who urgently need to fill positions. We’re beginning to investigate hybridization, but we’re not quite there yet; however, we are very fortunate to have an office of strategic partnership that has helped us develop great relationships with school districts in our area.
Because there are so few preparation programs, we work hard to keep in touch with each other and network with each other to meet the unique needs of scholars and schools. If somebody can’t be enrolled at Portland State University or finds another opportunity that’s closer to them geographically, I encourage them to take it!
What is the job market like for graduates of an O&M program? What types of employment are available?
You can get a job pretty much anywhere now, although if you’re really wanting to get into a certain region, depending on what the market looks like there, you may or may not get in there right away. We had several graduates just this past year, and they were all scooped up before they graduated in May. Your opportunities are greater if you do have a willingness to move to where those jobs are, but everybody needs somebody.
I agree, the market is very, very strong! Often our students get job offers, maybe even during their first or second class (though we advise them not to take the position until they’ve completed the coursework.) Opportunities vary by the agency that someone is working in, but whether it be rehabilitation or community-based agencies, those that work with transition age youth, those that work in VA [Veterans Affairs] hospitals, or other types of hospital setting, the need is great. Some states really want and need people to be prepared as both a TVI and an O&M specialist, and so they may not hire as many people who only have O&M certification. Other states have more avenues for O&M-only folks to be hired as related service providers.
What opportunities are there in O&M for infants and toddlers?
The need is so great to support infants’ mobility right away and for professionals working with families and coaching them. This has been a big focus in our program. We have distance consultation models for teaching skills that need to be reinforced and embraced and understood by families generally. For those working little ones especially, we coordinate and provide practicum experiences in that area. I think every person that you would talk to in early childhood would talk about the importance of movement as a part of developing language and as a part of developing concepts of the world.
Definitely — it’s so important for our youngest learners to build confidence and a sense of security in their travel and movement. When you go to become a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist, you’re certified to serve all ages. But in Illinois, to be a developmental therapist in O&M, there is an extra step of training to get an additional credential, and then you can work with the state to provide services with families of children who are birth to 3. There are very few practicing developmental therapists in O&M who are working in Illinois right now, so it’s certainly an area of need.
What research and leadership opportunities can scholars pursue in O&M?
While we’re always working in our programs and supporting students, we also have a commitment to the betterment of the field. In my work with the Lighthouse for the Blind in St. Louis, we’ve been collecting and analyzing data to better understand the impact of our programming. I’m also continuing to research drivers’ education for non-drivers, which was the topic of my doctoral dissertation. One big theme from this research is the issue of passing as sighted by the individuals with low vision, and so I’m doing a qualitative research study, talking to people about their lived experiences with vision loss. I also want to look at cultural and linguistic diversity and how that intersects with vision loss.
Absolutely. In O&M, all types of people can be leaders as practitioners, action researchers, and community partners. Engaging in real world travel tasks and influencing people in communities to consider accessibility on the front end of their planning is a huge part of leadership. As we’re speaking, I’m on a train to Seattle for some research and practicum opportunities where scholars are testing tactile maps and wayfinding apps in transit stations. We conducted structured travel tasks and focus groups with diverse youth and adults in partnership with a transit provider. The resources we develop and refine through this process will become tools that Sound Transit provides to its ridership.
Later this fall, we are partnering with national parks on creating more accessible experiences for visitors. Our graduate students in Hawaii and one in Alaska will visit Pearl Harbor National Memorial to host youth and adults on a tour that incorporates tactile artifacts and audio description in a mixed-method study.
As we celebrate White Cane Safety Day (October 15), what aspects of white cane travel and O&M would you like schools and teachers to be more aware of?
White Cane Safety Day is a day for O&M practitioners, researchers, and students to join with the community in celebrating this important civil right to be recognized in all community spaces and to travel freely. This year, Portland State University is partnering with community leaders to walk from a local bakery, owned by a person with low vision, to a downtown library for an inclusive story time that focuses on White Cane Safety Day. This also incorporates our LIBROS [Low-Incidence Interdisciplinary Scholars Building Reading Opportunities for Social-Emotional Resiliency] personnel preparation grant goals of supporting inclusive literacy programming in community and school libraries.
Many students across the country walk to their local schools. Schools should be a part of recognizing “safe routes to school” for all their students. In Oregon, the Department of Transportation recognizes this need for “Safe Routes to School,” and they are a part of advertising the White Cane Safety Walk and Storytime event this year.
Awesome! And it’s not just blindness, but people with low vision. Even if they have some vision, they might also carry a cane, or they might not carry a cane, and that’s OK. It’s so important to be kind and respectful to people who do use these tools. Ask instead of making assumptions. This is really a spectrum of using tools you need when you need them.
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.