Revised and updated from an article published in the July, 1990 Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association Newsletter
Orientation -- What is Our Role?
By Dona Sauerburger
In the May issue of the National Federation of the Blind's Braille Monitor, there was an article "Who's Able to Teach" written by Gwen Nelson.
Concerning the orientation she received to the route from her new neighborhood to her job, she wrote:
"I did receive immediate services, but the quality was severely lacking.
Gwen Nelson's article raises a very interesting question:
"At our first meeting my sighted, credentialed instructor surprised me by asking me to show her the shuttle bus stop since she had not located it, and I did so.
"The following day we set out to ride the city bus. The transit information service had told me to take a Robinson bus, but the driver of that bus told me to take another line because it would be closer to my home. I asked the instructor to show me that route. She responded by telling me that I should ride the Robinson bus since, as she put it, there are more quiet crossings. Since I insisted on learning to use the stops closest to my home, she agreed to come back the following day.
"The next afternoon we waited a long time at the bus stop for the bus that came closer to my home. When it didn't arrive, I asked the driver of a passing bus when it would arrive. He directed us to the correct stop. By this time the instructor had been with me most of the afternoon. She suggested that I continue using the Robinson bus (even though the trip is longer).
"I contrast this fiasco of wasted time, dealing with someone whom VDVH deemed qualified to teach travel, to my experience with blind Federationists at our Washington Seminars. We did not wait at incorrect bus stops, and we did not always take the more quiet crossings."
What is the role of an O&M instructor when orienting a visually impaired person to a new area?
The O&M instructor should respect Ms. Nelson's right to make her own decisions about which route she prefers (see "Decisions, Decisions: Who Knows What's Best for Our Client?").
However, Ms Nelson also expects the O&M instructor to locate the bus stops ahead of time, including double-checking the information given by the bus company and the driver, so that the client doesn't have to waste time waiting at the wrong bus stop or learning one bus route when he or she would prefer another.
As an O&M instructor who is frequently asked to orient visually impaired newcomers to areas with which I am not familiar, and who believes that visually impaired travelers, during their O&M training, should learn how to orient themselves by getting information from people who are familiar with the area, I find this issue intriguing.
I know that people have differing views on this subject.
I have heard some O&M instructors express the opinion that only a qualified O&M instructor should provide orientation 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.
- What is the most appropriate way for a visually impaired person to become oriented to new areas, and when should they call an O&M instructor?
- When an O&M instructor is called, what is the role of the instructor?
- 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?
Yet many blind people orient themselves using information from people who know the area, and call the instructor only when they need to review their mobility skills.
Other clients call an O&M instructor to be oriented to every building they need to find, and when they move they call to be shown where to shop, where the buses go, the location of the nearest swimming pool and community resources, etc.
Should it be the responsibility of the blind person, as it is with any newcomer, to find out as many such details as possible, rather than expecting the mobility instructor to make the phone calls or contact the people in the community for this information?
Often in such a situation, I have oriented a client to a route through a campus or chosen a bus route, or found convenient shopping, etc., only to learn later that a neighbor or fellow student or co-worker showed them a better route which I had not noticed.
Philosophy regarding orientation
Over the years I've developed my own philosophy about orientation, and I'm
sure each instructor has developed his or her own. I encourage the
clients to take an active role in and have responsibility for their
own orientation by accompanying me as I familiarize myself to the area, and
informing me of their preferences as I report to them what I am observing
about the area. Also, the client agrees to find out ahead of time
the information we will need, such as calling the bus company for the choice
of routes, asking neighbors about the location of the best stores, asking
co-workers where the office is in relation to the bus stop, etc. This is no
more and no less than any newcomer would do when moving to a new area or
getting a new job.
My role then becomes that of helping them ascertain the information which
visually impaired travelers might need for orienting themselves, such as
landmarks, potential hazards, etc. that I observe of the routes they are
considering, and helping them become confident of their ability to travel
the area safely. I don't consider it my responsibility to make decisions
about which is the best route -- travelers 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
Clarification to avoid problems
It would help avoid problems like those experienced by Ms. Nelson and her
instructor if there was a clear understanding of what is expected during an
orientation. This could probably be clarified and agreed upon by the
instructor and client when setting up the appointment.
Let's hear from you!
I'd like to hear the
various perspectives and philosophies of other O&M instructors and visually
impaired travelers and hope this can be a topic to discuss at a future WOMA
meeting. Meanwhile, if you have any ideas or would like to respond to this article, I hope you will contact me.
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