What Is Orientation & Mobility (O&M)?

This area of the expanded core curriculum (ECC) focuses on two broad interrelated components: orientation (knowing one’s position in relation to other things in one’s surroundings and keeping track of how these relations/positions change as one moves through the environment) and mobility (the physical act of moving from one place to another). The development of conceptual understanding of the environment, including physical layout and spatial relationships amongst people, places, and things, is the foundation for orientation.

The development of motor skills, physical coordination, and stamina, and the use of appropriate mobility tools (e.g., long cane) provide the basis for independent mobility. O&M instruction focuses on developing concepts and understanding of the physical environment as well as purposeful movements that ensure safe, efficient, independent travel for every child whether in their home, school, or community.

These services are provided by O&M instructors (O&Ms) who are trained to work with individuals with visual impairments, including those with additional co-existing disabilities.

Why Teach O&M as a Specific Area?

O&M includes the skills that people who are blind or visually impaired use to travel safely, efficiently, and as independently as possible. Without these travel skills, people with visual disabilities might be unable to independently travel down the street to their office or from their desk to the restroom. The law clearly identifies O&M instruction as a related service for students with visual impairments. The law also notes the importance of providing O&M instruction in home, school, and community environments.

Learning about the world and how to navigate through it is a developmental process, in which each new experience builds on previously acquired knowledge. Each new piece strengthens an overall understanding and broader sense of increasingly larger environments. The complexity of the knowledge and skills needed for safe, efficient, and independent travel increase as the choices, opportunities, and environments expand, and the direct supervision provided by adults decreases.

Children with visual impairments, like all children, build their knowledge of how to navigate the world in this cumulative way. However, for children who do not have the benefit of full vision, O&M provides techniques that allow for safe and independent travel with either no or limited sight.

Children with full sight progress through a sequence of increasingly complex motor activities from rolling, sitting, crawling, and standing to first steps and culminate in mobility skills as intricate as learning to drive the family car. Children master a myriad of motor movements and mobility skills with the help of their parents through concentric cycles of physical support, fading to observation, and then fading support altogether to help children safely explore the limits of their own bodies and develop confidence in their physical abilities.

How Do O&Ms Approach Instruction?

Because each individual student has different strengths, needs, abilities, and goals, instruction in O&M is highly individualized for each student. General areas are likely to be addressed with each student, such as protective techniques (placing arms in front of the body to prevent bumps to the head or abdomen), trailing (lightly following a wall or surface using your hand), human guide (grabbing someone else’s arm slightly above the elbow in order to follow half a step behind them), and mobility devices like a long white cane. Mobility devices might also include a walker, support cane, or Alternative Mobility Devices (AMDs) for adults with additional challenges or push toys for a young child.

Best practice recommends that O&M instruction begin in the child’s immediate environment and expand outward. As the toddler becomes familiar with his or her home, lessons might start venturing to the area around the outside of the house. O&M specialists point out environmental features such as mailboxes, curbs, and sidewalks. As students enter school, O&M specialists help familiarize students with classroom layouts and school campuses. During this time, O&M specialists also work with students on identifying auditory, tactile, or visual landmarks and cues in the environment so that students can identify their location and remain oriented. Materials like tactile maps might also be used to help students gain a greater understanding of how streets and landmarks relate to each other and the student in specific travel environments.

Students with visual impairments also learn about positional, directional, and body concepts. For example, they should be able to identify the left and right sides of their own bodies as well as their various body parts. Another important skill for children who are visually impaired is knowing the cardinal directions and positions like “on, to the side, and against.” If students understand these kinds of concepts, it will be easier for them to understand directions like “keep your cane tip on the ground” and “walk to the north end of the block then turn right.” In the area of cane use, students will learn how to hold the cane, what the different cane materials and tips are, and what to do with the cane when it is not being used.

As children get older and their independence needs increase, O&M lessons begin to focus on community travel in neighborhoods, shopping malls, stores, or office buildings. As students master skills and travel environments, O&M instructors teach increasingly complex and targeted skills, which may include escalators, moving sidewalks, and elevators as well as street crossings.

Depending on the students’ needs, skills, and abilities, they may learn to cross a variety of traffic intersections such as those with stop signs or traffic lights. Safe and effective use of the long white cane will be especially important at this stage. The cane allows travelers to find curbs and sidewalks and also increases the student’s safety by raising public awareness that the student is visually impaired.

While the majority of students who are visually impaired will be unable to drive, they should learn about traffic rules and patterns. For example, youths with visual impairments benefit from understanding how cars travel through intersections and in turn lanes. Finally, students should learn how to use and arrange for both public and private transportation that might include taxis, buses, trains, or options such as paratransit, hiring a driver, and negotiating rides.

How Can We Support Instruction in O&M in Schools?

O&M instruction should be provided by fully qualified O&M instructors who can assess individual student needs and abilities and develop appropriate Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals in order to address those needs.

In addition, sufficient time needs to be provided for students to work on these skills that are so crucial for their future independence and success.

O&M instructors should also be knowledgeable about the variety of travel techniques that students can use and how to adapt these for individual student needs. This is especially important for students who have other disabilities, including physical, hearing, and/or cognitive impairments.

O&M specialists also need ongoing training in best practices and how to address new issues such as accessible pedestrian signals.

Families and other teachers need to reinforce these students’ use of their O&M skills, whether by having them arrange for transportation or making sure they use their cane when traveling in the community.