Orientation and Mobility for Your Child Who Uses or Will Use a Wheelchair

Young child in a wheelchair holding a tablet and wearing headphones.
Young child in a wheelchair holding a tablet and wearing headphones.

Perhaps you are here today with apprehension or concern, eager to learn how your child will travel when blind or visually impaired and using a wheelchair (whether full-time or part-time). You aren’t sure how orientation and mobility (travel training for individuals who are blind or visually impaired) will work when your child isn’t walking. Is a white cane useful? What skills may your child learn? Who will support your child’s acquisition of skills? How can you assist your child in learning about their environment while they are in a stroller or wheelchair? All fantastic questions. Let’s orient ourselves with an overview.

Skills involved in O&M for wheelchair users

As you know, every child is an individual; the skills your child learns will be individualized. Your child’s abilities, desires, needs, strength, balance, stamina, and pain level will be taken into consideration during the processes of assessment, goal planning, and instruction. The following is a general outline of mobility proficiencies for wheelchair users who are blind or visually impaired:

  • Human guide (being led by another)
  • Forearm protective technique
  • Initiating movement and controlling chair speed
  • Straight line of travel
  • Braking
  • Cane grip and techniques
  • Following distance
  • Trailing walls
  • Detecting and navigating obstacles
  • Detecting and navigating drop-offs
  • Reversing
  • Turning
  • Navigating doorways and doors
  • Route planning
  • Navigating pedestrian traffic
  • Utilizing stairs
  • Utilizing elevators
  • Utilizing ramps
  • Ascending and descending
  • Navigating curbs and curb ramps
  • Navigating speed bumps and parking lots
  • Crossing streets and intersections
  • Boarding wheelchair lifts on transport services (fixed-route services, medical transports, etc.)
  • Utilizing van services and rail services
  • Securing/ strapping down chair to lift/ vehicle

To learn more and watch short videos of the above skillsets, explore Orientation and Mobility for Wheelchair Users With Visual Impairment or Blindness.  

The list can feel overwhelming, but please keep in mind your child will be taught incrementally and proceed only when previous competencies are mastered. 

The team approach

The above abilities are not simply skills taught by the orientation and mobility specialist. You, with your child’s involvement, if age and developmentally appropriate, and your child’s team of medical professionals should work together to select appropriate goals and work toward them. For instance, if your child is learning human guide, the physical therapist may ensure your child’s trunk is well stabilized, an occupational therapist may help your child develop the hand strength needed for a secure grip, the orientation and mobility specialist will teach the technique, and you can help the team recognize what would motivate your child to learn and practice the skills. 

Yes, the team, with your child and yourself as the leads, will pool together their expertise and resources for the benefit of your child.

Increasing your child’s active engagement with surroundings

Meanwhile, using a wheelchair doesn’t mean your child has to remain a passive traveler. To learn how to help your child increase autonomy and remain an active participant, read Children in Strollers or Wheelchairs. You’ll learn to provide your child with cues of what’s to come, how to involve them in the process of mobility, how to help your child explore their surroundings, and how your child can direct movement. 

We want your child to have a sense of control over their mobility, and to gradually learn to travel safely to the best of their abilities.

Additional Resources

Children with Multiple Disabilities Need the Expanded Core Curriculum, Too!

Adult with a Visual Impairment Describes Learning to Use the White Cane While Using a Motorized Wheelchair As a Teen

Physical Disabilities in Children Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired