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Second Sense - Beyond Vision Loss

Extreme O&M: Sharpening Orientation and Mobility Skills

January 16, 2017 | Leave a Comment

by Kathy Austin, CVA

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You’re standing at a busy intersection, white cane in hand. Cars are whizzing by, turning in all directions and horns are honking. You need to cross the intersection. You feel like you are on the edge of a pool, waiting to jump in, but the water is icy cold and you are very hesitant. So what do you do? Take a deep breath, close your eyes and jump into that really cold water?

This is what it feels like for me in downtown Chicago standing at the corner of Wabash and Randolph with the L train overhead.  The traffic is hard to hear and is distorted because of the overhead train tracks. It’s very scary and it shakes my confidence every time.

Recently I had a terrific opportunity to participate in an orientation and mobility immersion program designed especially for people who use guide dogs. This program is a new pilot program and a joint effort with Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California and the San Francisco Lighthouse. While traveling with a guide dog is different from traveling with a white cane, many of the basics skills apply. Understanding where you are in your environment, using listening skills and feeling what is under your feet are all relevant to both methods of travel.

Doesn’t a Guide Dog Know When It’s Safe to Cross the Street?

One may think that a guide dog knows when it is safe to cross a street, or one of our favorites, the dog knows when the light turns green. Perhaps this is why a person chooses to travel with a guide dog instead of a cane? Not exactly.

I have to know where I am going and must give my guide dog directions, including telling him when to cross the street. If you want to use a guide dog as a mobility tool you must have good orientation and mobility skills first. Someone once told me, “If you don’t have good orientation and mobility skills, all a guide dog will do is get you lost faster.” Unfortunately, for many folks, these skills are lacking and they are turned down to receive a guide dog.

Orientation and Mobility Training

My first experience getting orientation and mobility training was, shall we say, inadequate.  But what did I know.  I was new at this and wasn’t sure what to expect –maybe this is all it is, I thought.

Kathy's first guide dog JethroComplicating matters was the fact this initial training took place prior to my vision worsening and I didn’t use or practice the few skills I had learned. These factors had a huge impact on my success when I trained with my first guide dog, Jethro.  Guide Dogs for the Blind worked tirelessly with me during class and after graduation helping me with my orientation and mobility skills After a year at home and lots more work, Jethro and I finally became a good working team. Had I had the good foundation of training first, I wouldn’t have struggled so much my first year with Jethro.

Immersion Training Program

Over the following years, I have had a few lessons, then a large lapse in time until the next opportunity for training came along.  Most of the training occurred once or twice a week for an hour.  With the immersion program at the San Francisco Lighthouse and Guide Dogs for the Blind, I had five hours of training a day for four and a half days.  What a difference the concentrated effort made!

The staff at the San Francisco Lighthouse and Guide Dogs for the Blind were warm and welcoming. On Monday morning, I met with my new O&M instructor, Robert. We talked extensively about my goals for the week, of which there were many. My overarching goal was to be able to cross a busy street safely with less anxiety. Robert’s philosophy was one of communication and conversation. He took great care in learning about my thought process and the best way to teach me what I needed to know. After our long conversation, we walked around the inside of the building with Robert checking out where my skills were at present. We practiced cane techniques, tried a different tip on my cane and generally just brushed up on basic cane skills.

Setting Reachable Goals

Kathy with her O&M instructor, Robert.The next morning, Robert broke down our conversation from the day before into reachable goals we would try to accomplish over the next few days. Before each session, Robert and I reviewed my goals, my challenges and our tasks for the day.  Then we would set out and walk and walk and walk.

We focused on walking a straight line, detecting and recovering from veers, learning to analyze an intersection and traveling on public transportation. We worked on tracking moving sounds and identifying their source and approximate distances. We discussed how to ask the right questions of the public to get the best information. I even received some one-on-one training on the Blind Square app from a Lighthouse technology instructor.

Being able to practice for more than an hour at a time over a few days instead of weeks really reinforced my skills.  The constant repetition and great instruction from Robert increased my confidence and greatly reduce my anxiety.  I came out of the program with the most confidence I have ever had to travel independently with a cane.  I was very excited to go home and transfer what I had learned with my present guide, Weller.

Take Advantage of Every Opportunity

Whether you are on a path to get a guide dog or feel your cane skills could use some sprucing up, don’t pass up an opportunity to take additional orientation and mobility training. Like anything else, refresher courses help improve your skills and help you avoid bad habits you may have fallen into. And, more importantly, it keeps you safer.

O&M is a scarce resource – don’t waste it!

If you are in the Chicago area and are interested in O&M training, please contact Second Sense.

Kathy is the Community Engagement Specialist at Second Sense.  She travels from the suburbs to downtown Chicago every week day working with her guide dog.

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