Future Reflections        Summer 2013

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Orientation and Mobility:One Instructor's Perspective

by Merry-Noel Chamberlain, MA, TVI, NOMCT

From the Editor: Merry-Noel Chamberlain is a teacher of the visually impaired and an orientation and mobility instructor based in Omaha, Nebraska. In this article, she shares her thoughts about teaching cane travel to students who are blind or deaf-blind or have low vision.

The work of an orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor is both physical and psychological. The physical instruction focuses on technique--how the cane is held and maneuvered. Depending upon such factors as location, terrain, and the task at hand, the student must learn a variety of techniques such as the pencil grip and extended grip. He or she must learn when to glide or tap the cane, how to shoreline, and, if the cane has a metal tip, how to benefit from echolocation.

The physical component of O&M instruction is relatively straightforward. The psychological component, on the other hand, presents an assortment of hurdles. This article will focus on the psychological component of O&M instruction, the component that makes the instructor's work both challenging and rewarding.

Not As Easy As It Sounds

Merry-Noel Chamberlain gives a presentation to parents at an NFB convention."How hard can it be to teach O&M?" people sometimes ask. "Just put a stick in their hand and off they go." O&M instruction is not so easy, however. Few students simply master a set of skills and take off on their own.

Many steps must be taken before a blind or visually impaired student is ready to venture forward independently. First of all, the student must be willing to accept the cane. Second, he or she needs time to perfect the necessary skills of travel, the physical aspects mentioned above. Finally, the student needs the self-confidence to put the first two pieces together in order to travel independently. The instructor must assist the student as he/she works through these steps. Problem solving may be necessary to help some students overcome their fears and anxieties. Other forms of problem solving may be necessary in work with students who have cognitive issues or language delays. In working with children, the child's personality and the attitudes of parents, friends, teachers, and neighbors all play a part. For teens and young adults, coworkers and the extended community are important. The factors and influences can be endless, depending on the individual.

Frankly, individuals from two to ninety-nine come up with excuses as to why they do not need to use the cane. Some excuses are based on the idea that they don't actually need the long white cane, that they can get around fine without it. The majority of the excuses involve not wanting to be seen carrying or using the cane. Some individuals worry more about how other people perceive the long white cane than they do about their own safety. Their fears about what others will think are very powerful, though they can vary, depending upon the individual's age.

When children are introduced to the long white cane between the ages of two and seven or eight, there seems to be little concern about other people's perceptions. This is the best time to introduce the cane to a child. At this age, using the long white cane becomes a simple fact of life. The child ventures forward quite easily, provided the parents or guardian have a positive perception of the cane and its use.

If the cane is introduced to a child between third grade and middle school, concern about other people's perceptions begins to increase. The strength of this concern depends on the child, his amount of vision loss, and the attitudes of his immediate family members. At this age, the child begins to want to blend in with peers, and he may reject anything that causes him to look "different." This is especially true for children who have quite a bit of remaining vision.

At this age, the parents need to be positive and supportive. If the parents' perception of the long white cane is negative, the child will pick up on that message. The instructor will face an uphill battle trying to teach the skills that will allow the child to become a safe traveler. The instructor may need to provide a bit of counseling and some basic cane lessons to the child's parents. Generally this strategy ensures full acceptance of the cane, especially if the child is totally blind.

The Turbulent Teen Years

Once the child enters high school, his or her acceptance of the long white cane is influenced heavily by peers. Fears about social acceptance can be so strong that the teen may actually reject the long white cane, placing him/herself in danger while traveling. The student may continually forget the cane at home, in the car, or in the lunchroom. He or she may refuse to use the cane outright, or may break it on purpose.

If the teen lives in a small community, friends and classmates often take on the role of untrained guides. They become enablers who actually hinder the teen from moving toward independence. This situation is a matter for great concern. After high school, blind and sighted students often head off to colleges or work sites far from home. The young person with poor travel skills will be at a severe disadvantage and may be left behind.

During the teen years, parents need to have a strong positive attitude about the long white cane. If they truly believe that the cane is a valuable tool, they can encourage their teen to take and, more importantly, use the cane at every walking opportunity outside the home environment. Sometimes a parent finds it easier to allow the teen to depend on peers than to battle over taking and using the cane. The instructor and the parents may face a long struggle before the teen develops the first hint of a positive attitude.

Classroom Teachers: Critical Team Members

Like parents, teachers need time to adjust to the student's use of a long white cane. Teachers, too, need guidance and support. Some children and teens may appear to move comfortably without the cane in the classroom or around the school. The teacher may "forget" to encourage cane use or, sadly, even instill the idea that the child doesn't need the cane at all.

In the case of students with low vision who are just learning the value of the cane, teachers must be very supportive. They need to encourage the student to use the cane at every walking opportunity outside the classroom. Students, especially young students, are likely to follow the teacher's example, positive or negative. The student may quickly pick up the teacher's subtle message that the cane is not necessary. If teachers do not remind the student to grab the cane when leaving the classroom, the student may not think to do so. If this happens once, it will happen twice. Soon the cane is totally forgotten, which can be a problem when it comes to field trips outside the school environment.

The teacher must accept the child's use of the cane and must be considered a member of the O&M team. The O&M instructor needs to provide basic instruction to the teacher or teachers so they can reinforce positive cane technique when the instructor is not present. In order to reinforce the use of the long white cane at school, it may be necessary to place a goal on the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), stating that the child will use the cane at every walking opportunity outside the classroom. Such a goal holds teachers accountable and supports the student's use of the long white cane at school.

Beyond High School

After high school young people may receive O&M training through their state's rehabilitation program for the blind and visually impaired. This training may happen in the individual's home, neighborhood, college, and/or workplace. However, the training may be unsuccessful unless the instructor considers the client's perception of the long white cane. Some young people may use the cane only when the instructor appears, leaving it propped in the corner between lessons. It may take a number of falls or a serious accident before the trainee begins to accept the cane as a tool for safe and independent travel.

Through state agencies for the blind and visually impaired, adults may also attend a blindness training center to learn independent living skills and receive O&M instruction while wearing sleepshades. At such centers, the individual is surrounded by others undergoing the same type of training. Acceptance and use of the long white cane are supported by staff and peers alike, leading to overall success.

Extended Community & Beyond









Neighborhood/Extended Family







Immediate Family










Assessing the Student's Needs

During training, an O&M instructor must assess the individual's personal perception of using the long white cane. Is he/she comfortable using the cane in public and around peers? Lessons need to be planned that will help the student overcome any roadblocks of discomfort. For example, a student who is deaf-blind and attends a school for the deaf may be comfortable receiving O&M instruction off campus. However, the student may resist training around peers until he/she develops personal acceptance and builds self-confidence. Until that occurs, the student most likely will not use the long white cane outside of O&M training, regardless of how little vision he/she has. In another scenario, the student may accept the cane, but may not want to use it in front of parents or other family members.

Acceptance and a positive attitude about using the long white cane must develop from within the individual. This acceptance then spreads outward to the wider community. In the case of very young children, acceptance begins with parents or guardians. If the immediate family has a positive attitude, this perception transfers to the child. Sometimes older individuals have a positive attitude, but family members and peers may have a negative perception of the long white cane. Those persons may insist that the visually impaired individual not use the cane in their presence, or they may argue that the individual does not need the cane because they are always there to assist. This attitude can cause an additional burden for the individual who is visually impaired. Once an individual has accepted using the cane in public, he/she may have to be patient with family members as they develop a positive perception of the long white cane as well.

Throughout the training process, the instructor must be patient. Individualized instruction is necessary to help the student perfect the skills necessary to be a successful traveler. Students come with a myriad of backgrounds, skills, and cognitive levels. Some students have physical limitations that need to be addressed. Others may have hearing impairments or may speak different languages. The student's culture can also influence the instruction. In some cultures, a visual impairment is considered a weakness, and use of the long white cane seems to reinforce this perception. Therefore, cane instruction may be frowned upon or refused entirely.

Perfecting the Skills

Beginning with the first lesson, the instructor helps the student perfect the physical component of O&M skills. Each lesson reinforces previously learned skills, thus encouraging and developing self-confidence. As the student perfects the physical skills, lessons become more challenging, but no more advanced than the student can handle safely. Sometimes the student may not believe that he/she actually can do the lesson at hand. At the end of a successful lesson, he/she may be pleasantly surprised. With each successful lesson, self-confidence grows.

As mentioned earlier, O&M instructors sometimes need to be problem solvers. For example, a nonverbal student who has severe cognitive delays seems to do well with the cane in open spaces. When walking down a hallway, however, he tends to pull the cane behind him after it gets stuck in open doorways. The instructor could encourage him to walk down the middle of the hallway, but this would make it difficult for him to locate the desired room. He would be unable to count the doors or feel for a tactile room identifier. The instructor could change the tip of the cane to a large roller, but that would add weight to the cane, and the roller tip would not be needed elsewhere. The additional weight might even lead the student to reject the cane altogether. Perhaps the student is using the cane in the right hand when, in fact, he is left-handed. Bingo! Problem solved.

To cite another example, perhaps the O&M instructor has a student who is verbal and has mild cognitive delays. During instruction, the student is to wear sleepshades. However, with the sleepshades on, the student tends to swing her arms around, walk faster, and bounce off the walls and furniture. In this case, the instructor needs to step back the progression of the lesson. The instructor must give the student time to adjust to wearing the sleepshades while she sits in a familiar environment. Next she can be assigned small tasks that allow her to take baby steps away from the seat. It might even turn out that this student has an undiagnosed hearing problem. It is always a matter of looking at the whole student and being creative about solving problems.


The instructor must begin to help the student build self-confidence at the very first lesson. This can be done by a successful introduction to the long white cane and, depending on the student, mini lessons geared towards success. For a new student, success can be as simple as recognizing the difference in sound when the metal cane tip taps the wall versus a wooden door. Perhaps it is simply the experience of walking down a hall without veering.

Perfecting skills and building self-confidence overlap for the student, regardless of age. A host of activities can serve as confidence-building exercises, from carrying the daily attendance sheet to the school office to completing a complex travel route with minimal supervision. Sometimes building self-confidence can involve the opportunity to travel with a less advanced student, teaching a few skills along the way. Wearing sleepshades is a huge confidence builder because it forces the student to use senses other than vision in order to travel successfully.

Self-confidence cannot be gained overnight. Actually, it is not something that can be taught. The instructor must prepare lessons that help the student build self-confidence by mastering new skills and meeting fresh challenges. In the case of children, part of the responsibility falls on the student's parent/guardian, who must encourage growth by supporting the use of the long white cane.

The Instructor's Rewards

One day a teenage girl takes her cane on an outing without being prompted to do so. One day a boy picks up his cane and ventures into an unfamiliar environment for the first time. A formerly resistant student educates her friends about the use of the long white cane. These are among the many rewards that the orientation and mobility instructor enjoys.

The instructor's ultimate reward is to see that the student realizes the cane is simply a part of himself or herself. It is a tool, a symbol of independence. When that happens, instruction is truly successful.

For more information and for O&M activities for young children, go to the website of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness, <www.pdrib.com>.

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