Orientation and mobility is the study and teaching of skills to facilitate the learning of safe independent travel skills for a person that is blind or visually impaired. Orientation and mobility, known as O&M for short, teaches someone the skills in order for them to live an independent, happy, meaningful, and productive life. A professional that specializes in this field is called an Orientation and Mobility Specialist, and if they are certified in the field, they are a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist; identified as COMS for short. The licensing and governing board for this profession is called ACVREP, which stands for Academy of Certification for Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals. ACVREP certifies service providers within vision rehabilitation and more specifically certifies Low Vision Therapists (CLVT), Vision Rehabilitation Therapists (CVRT), Assistive Technology Instruction Specialist (CATIS), and Orientation and Mobility Specialists (COMS).
Orientation and mobility instruction teaches a person that is congenitally or adventitiously blind how to navigate both familiar and unfamiliar, and indoor and outdoor environments. Some learn how to travel safely with use of their residual vision, some learn to travel with a white cane, and other advanced travellers have the option to learn to travel with a guide dog. For some, training may look like learning how to navigate from their bedroom to the bathroom, or down the stairs to the kitchen. For others, it is learning how to travel around their neighborhood, using a white cane, and completing street crossings to get to their desired destination. It could also mean learning different routes on public transportation to complete errands or get to their place of employment. Everyone’s journey is uniquely different, and all require not only the physical mobility piece, but also the cognitive capacity to effectively problem solve and process clues and cues within their environment.
What some would describe as a simple task may be a difficult complex skill that is practiced for weeks or even months. O&M requires body awareness and physical movement in space, but also the comprehension of orientation and being able to self-assemble a mental map. It is the understanding of knowing where you are and where you want to go, and constructing a plan of how to get there. Indoor mobility training may include self-protection techniques, negotiating stairs, search patterns, dropped objects, trailing, seating, and auditorium seating to name a few. Outdoor mobility may include learning how to use a white cane, how to identify landmarks, how to process auditory feedback, neighborhood travel, street crossings, and public transit. Overall, O&M encompasses a vast amount of skills that the average sighted person may not even realize are skills. O&M can be mentally and emotionally draining, but the results can be utterly life changing.
Desrianne McIlwrick at the Canadian Helen Keller Centre is a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist that provides O&M services to individuals that have dual sensory loss. She takes prides in her job, enjoys teaching, and enjoys sharing her passion of the field. If you have any questions, concerns, or even have a friend or family member in mind that may benefit from training in this area or more information, feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org