Future Reflections Summer 1991

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ORIENTATION: WHAT IS YOUR ROLE?

by Eileen Rivera.

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Fall, 1990, issue of theBraille Spectator, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. The author, Eileen Rivera, is the very capable president of the Greater Baltimore Chapter of the NFB of Maryland.

Perhaps no single skill contributes more to the success and self-confidence of the blind than does independent travel. Hence, the availability of high quality travel training is essential. Above all, good orientation and mobility (O & M) training enables blind persons to "get ahead", to confidently travel freely and independently anytime, anywhere.

The appropriate roles, responsibilities, and qualifications for professionals in the orientation and mobility field have been hotly debated over the years, remaining in the forefront of the blindness literature. In July, 1990, the Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association Newsletter printed Dona Sauerburger's thoughtful commentary "Orientation, What Is Our Role?", written in response to Gwen Nelson's piece "Who is Able to Teach?", published in the Braille Monitor, May, 1990. It is clear from Ms. Sauerburger's article that she is a dedicated professional who regularly gets her clients out traveling independently.

As a blind member of AER, trained by an experienced blind travel instructor, I am responding to Ms. Sauerburger's request for additional perspectives and philosophies from visually impaired travelers. I like to compare O & M instruction to driver education. Each conveys an important set of skills. One need not have an advanced degree to drive safely or provide quality driving instruction. One need not have an advanced degree to travel safely or provide quality O & M instruction. Once trained, drivers can find their own way and ask directions when they get lost. Likewise, once properly trained, blind travelers can find their own way and ask directions when they get lost. Drivers rarely depend upon their instructors for orientation to a new neighborhood, nor do they require additional instruction for refining their driving skills. Likewise, well-trained blind persons need not depend upon their O & M instructors for orientation to a new setting, nor for refreshing their mobility skills since independent travel has become an integral part of their lives.

What makes good orientation and mobility training? Ms. Sauerburger noted that good training is based on client choice and client responsibility. Good O & M training also teaches students how to gather pertinent information and orient themselves. A critical component of high quality training not mentioned by Ms. Sauerburger is the introduction of the student to competent blind travelers, individuals who can serve as mentors and role models.

The sad truth is that good travel training is the exception rather than the rule. Barriers exist. The worst of these barriers are attitudinal. First, consider the agencies. Many vocational rehabilitation agencies have low expectations for their blind clients. They do not expect them to become independent travelers. Second, there is a shortage of O & M instructors, so clients are not receiving sufficient training. Third, despite a severe shortage of certified travel instructors, an important source of new instructorsþblind peopleþis systematically being overlooked. Finally, increased concern about professional liability obstructs good client-instructor relations, further impairing comprehensive travel training.

Generally, O & M services are provided in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion. Consider the "get by" attitude of many agencies for the blind. Priorities are shifted away from the basic skills of blindness toward the "quick fix" solutions, as is the custom in Maryland. The Maryland Department of Vocational Rehabilitation arbitrarily limits the level of O & M instruction to not more than 20 hours. With training time so restricted, instructors forego comprehensive instruction. Transferable skills remain untaught, and instructors are forced to reduce O & M training to a series of "safe" and well-defined travel routes. Such an approach rarely results in the self-confidence essential to independent travel.

Since piecemeal training will likely remain the norm for years to come, the question arises as to how the professionals should respond when a blind person returns to them for additional orientation. I believe these instructors have the duty to provide the requested orientation. Additionally, really good instructors will seize this opportunity to provide additional independent orientation skills that will foster real independence and self-reliance in the future.

Ms. Sauerburger questioned whether a blind travel instructor would have encountered the same difficulties as the sighted one in orienting Ms. Nelson to her new neighborhood. I expect that each instructor could effectively provide the requested orientation (as well as any mobility training) despite the unfamiliar neighborhood. The outcome would most likely depend upon the instructor's skills and creativity, not the instructor's visual acuity.

Ms. Sauerburger raised the issue of professional liability, a significantly worrisome topic for professionals in the field. Specifically she asks: "Does the traveler take responsibility for his or her own orientation (including accepting liability if something goes wrong), or is the O & M instructor still liable if an accident happens after having oriented a traveler? If this depends on the skill level of the client, then whose responsibility is it to determine what the client's skill level is? If Ms. Nelson's instructor did not discourage her from taking the shorter route and she is injured crossing the busy street, would the instructor be considered responsible?"

"I have heard some O & M instructors express the opinion that only a qualified instructor should provide instruction to blind people, and I have talked with several professionals (not O & M instructors) who would not orient a blind person because they might be held liable if something went wrong."

My research has yet to reveal a single liability claim against an O & M instructor for an accident occurring after training was completed. In fact, there is no evidence that blind persons are involved in a disproportionate share of accidents, nor that these accidents are attributable to O & M instructors. Holding an instructor liable for such an accident seems as remote as finding a driver's education teacher responsible for an accident involving a former student.

I have heard professionals hide behind the liability issue, refusing to provide a long white cane until a student has completed the prerequisite training in sighted guide and protective arm techniques. Their rationale is that providing a cane too early will promote a false sense of security and encourage the traveler to expose himself to inordinate risk outside the home. My experience is that rudimentary cane skills are superior to no cane at all. For centuries visually impaired persons have found canes of value even without any formal training. This is not to say that excellent O & M skills can be reduced to a mere tapping of a long white cane. However, such a simple technique, regardless of the shape of the arc, immediately promotes safety, not risk!

While I know of no legal action against an O & M instructor, I have witnessed increased defensive actions on the part of instructors. Even Ms. Sauerburger needs to document clearly a client's choice of an unsafe travel technique and route:

"I don't consider it my responsibility to be making decisions about which is the best routeþtravelers usually know their own abilities, limitations and preferences. If I observe anything that I consider unsafe about their travel techniques or the routes, I inform them (and document in my notes that I informed them), but I feel that they will decide their own priorities and preferences, and will decide whether to try to correct any unsafe techniques."

Other instructors are requiring blind travel students to sign liability waivers before providing travel instruction. Reportedly, a blind woman in Texas was told that before she could have O & M training, she and her husband must sign a waiver of liability releasing the Texas Commission for the Blind and the O & M Instructor from any possible suit which might result from an accident or injury to her, both during training and after its completion.

In response to the use of these liability waivers, the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind adopted Resolution 90-15 resolving to eliminate such practices. The Federation asserts that many, if not all, blind persons can learn to travel safely and independently, when taught by a competent instructor who believes in the capabilities of blind persons.

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly agree with Dona Sauerburger on many points. I respect her efforts in encouraging clients to take a more active role in, and have more responsibility for, their own orientation. Theirs should be the leading role. I also agree with her suggestion that O & M instructors and clients should clearly delineate respective expectations and responsibilities before initiating services. Such open communication will only promote understanding and facilitate training.

In my mind, the appropriate role of the mobility instructor goes far beyond the transfer of orientation and mobility skills. The finest mobility skills remain unused if one lacks the confidence to put them to work. For this reason, instructors must develop and embody a positive philosophy about blindness, a philosophy which believes in the true equality of the blind traveler to the sighted travelerþa philosophy which promotes real independence and self-confidence on the part of blind and visually impaired orientation and mobility clients.

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