If your teenager has just been diagnosed with blindness or low vision—whether from a condition such as retinitis pigmentosa (RP) or Stargardt’s disease or because of an accident or other trauma—or if their vision has deteriorated, they have a lot to cope with. Like you and the rest of the family, they may have a number of concerns and emotions.

Among the most immediate challenges are dealing with the sudden loss of physical independence and learning how to regain the ability to know where they are and how to get from one place to another by themself. To accomplish that, they are going to need the help of an orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor.

The focus of O&M instruction will vary depending on your teenager’s usable vision, medical and physical condition, and motivation to travel independently. Because your child has probably traveled on their own until recently, using their vision and other senses to help them get where they want to go, they have the advantage of understanding concepts such as:

  • What a block of buildings looks like
  • The layout of various intersections
  • How streets and avenues intersect
  • The way stores are arranged in shopping malls
  • Familiar “landmarks” that help her know where she is in her neighborhood

Your child has probably visited friends in other neighborhoods, used the big regional library on the other side of town when they had a research assignment to complete, and went from one place to another confidently, without guidance from you or anyone else. Now, with instruction from an O&M specialist, your child can learn skills to gain back the ability to travel on their own.

O&M Instuction

Evaluate how they uses their vision (if any) and other senses when moving in familiar and unfamiliar environments.

Evaluate their knowledge of the community, such as different types of intersections and how to use public transportation.

Teach techniques such as sighted guide or cane techniques to travel safely.

Determine whether using a long cane will provide the information and protection needed to travel safely; and if so, teach your child how to use this tool.

Determine whether optical devices, such as a monocular, might enable your child to use their vision more efficiently. If the O&M specialist feels that optical aids could be beneficial, a referral for a clinical low vision evaluation should be made so that appropriate aids may be prescribed.

Conduct a sun lens evaluation to determine if non-prescription sun lenses (eyeglasses with colored-filter lenses) will help your child to use their vision more efficiently during daytime travel.

Motivation Is Important

Your teenager may be hesitant or perhaps anxious about traveling by themself. They may feel self-conscious using a long cane or wearing sun lenses—reactions that aren’t unusual. They will need time and reassurance to adjust to all the major changes going on in their life, and the O&M specialist will need to be sensitive to their feelings. However, your teen may be more motivated to learn travel skills if the lessons will increase access to places and activities that particularly interesting for your child.

Back to School

To travel safely around school, your child will need lessons from the O&M instructor on how to get around both outside and inside the building, how to move from one classroom to another, how to navigate crowded hallways, and how to get up and down stairs. While some of their classmates may act as human guides, they will still need strong O&M skills to travel safely and independently on their own.

Depending on your child’s various interests and plans for the future, the O&M specialist will also design lessons specific to their needs. For example:

Taking your child to unfamiliar locations such as a larger town or a nearby city in order to teach more advanced O&M skills;

Using public transportation, including how to get information about schedules; locate a bus stop, train platform, or subway; pay the fare; alert the driver or other passengers if she needs help to determine where to get off; appropriate behavior during the trip; how to exit the bus or train; and how to find their destination;

Using taxis, including how to call for a taxi, how to communicate any special needs to the driver and dispatcher, and how to manage paying and tipping;

Numbering systems both within blocks and within buildings;

Maintaining safety while traveling and what to do if their safety is threatened;

Using optical devices, such as a telescope, while traveling to increase access to visual information;

Using maps, the Internet, and the telephone to gather information and prepare for traveling—whether going a few blocks or across the country; or

Planning for how to manage in a new place if your child expects to go away to college or move to another town to work after they graduate from high school.