Learning to Teach Orientation & Mobility

By Jennifer Wilkinson

Published in: Update - Issue 1 - 2015 »   
Client Adam Anthony and student instructor Sarah Wilkins stand facing each other outside in front of a Leader Dog bus talking

Client Adam Anthony and WMU student Sarah Wilkins

When you walk out of your house with a destination in mind, how do you know where to go? If you are sighted, you will think of landmarks and signs; you will likely rely almost completely on visual cues. This is a significant part in how you orient yourself in any environment, new or old.

If you are visually impaired, the equation changes. What if the closest store is in the middle of a construction zone? What if the quickest way to get to your friend’s house requires you to walk across the busiest street in town? You must rely on a very different set of orientation and mobility (O&M) skills that require you to pay attention to patterns, sounds and physical cues, such as those you might get through a white cane.

In the 1990s, Rod Haneline, who was both an experienced Leader Dog instructor and O&M specialist, recognized a problem: we had people applying for guide dogs who did not have the fundamental travel skills they would need. He set to work developing a program that could help people quickly improve the O&M skills they would need to successfully navigate their surroundings using a white cane. Not long after, Leader Dog’s Accelerated O&M Training program was born.

Two landmarks for Accelerated O&M Training occurred in 2002. We hired our first full-time O&M specialist, and a professor teaching the blindness and low vision program at Western Michigan University (WMU) got involved in the program.

Dr. Richard Long, a WMU professor and administrator, was interested in a way to support his students as they got their first experience of being a professional O&M specialist.

WMU was the only school in Michigan that offered the courses necessary to become a certified O&M specialist, and both Dr. Long and Leader Dog saw the potential benefits of getting WMU’s students involved. “Western Michigan University hosts the oldest, largest and one of the most highly regarded personnel preparation program in blindness and low vision in the world,” says Dr. Long. “Leader Dog has a long history in the field of blindness and is highly respected in guide dog circles. The significance of the connection is that two valued organizations in the blindness and low vision world both benefit from our collaboration focused on student success and excellence in O&M services.”

Rita walks toward the camera smiling and using her white cane along the edge of a snowy road. Close behind her on her right and left are a male Leader Dog instructor and a female college student

L to R: O&M Specialist Lynn Gautreaux, Leader Dog
client Rita Butler Harris and WMU student Kirsten

The week-long collaborative program looks much the same today as it did over a decade ago. The WMU students arrive before our clients, go over how the week will proceed and work with an O&M specialist to review client specifics and possible challenges.

When the clients arrive, the students orient them to their rooms. The next morning the WMU students start off by teaching indoor O&M techniques. The schedule for each day is full, and once the clients are done for the day, the students keep going, talking about what they learned with Leader Dog personnel and getting advice to learn more tips and techniques.

WMU student Sarah Wilkins had just received her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary health and was planning to go through the occupational therapy program at WMU when she heard Dr. Long speak about the blindness and low vision program. She was immediately intrigued. After spending time at the Battle Creek VA Medical Center shadowing O&M specialists in the blind rehabilitation program, Sarah knew what career she wanted. “I found my burning passion,” she says.

Along with three other WMU students, Sarah arrived at Leader Dog in January to begin her practicum. It was Sarah’s first time working with a client, and she loved the experience of working one-on-one with someone and watching their progress, while at the same time learning about herself. “It’s helping me understand what my teaching style is, areas that I need to work on,” she says. “It’s helping me understand that each client has a different learning style that I need to adapt to so every client is as successful as they can be.”

Another lesson Sarah took away from this experience was the importance of communication. Taking the time to think about what the client needed to know and how to best explain that information so that the client would easily remember when out on a route was key, Sarah explains. She also enjoyed getting to know the clients with whom she worked. “I just love interacting with the people and hearing everybody’s story. Finding out where they’ve traveled before and how they traveled before this.”

Client Adam Anthony walks toward the camera with his white cane along the edge of a snowy road, behind him are a female student, a female Leader Dog instructor, and college professor

L to R: WMU student Sarah Wilkins, Leader Dog
Manager of Extended Services Erica Ihrke, Leader
Dog Client Adam Anthony and WMU professor Dr.
Richard Long.

Leader Dog Client Rita Butler Harris is no stranger to travel and living near Atlanta affords lots of opportunities for going out, but after she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, she found her natural enthusiasm for life waning. “I was a person who always had confidence, but I was devastated; I was scared. I withdrew for a while.” Her go-getter attitude was not gone for long, however. “I always had a motto that I would not let anyone or anything steal my joy. So I had to sit down one day and say to myself, why would I let [my blindness] steal my joy?”

Whether it was her husband or another family member, Rita always had someone to help guide her while she was out and about, but recently she decided she wanted a more independent means of getting around. In January, she arrived on Leader Dog’s campus to brush up on her O&M skills with the future goal of getting a Leader Dog. It was her first time seeing snow. “I’m having a ball with this weather!” she laughs. “I call my family and tell them it’s NINE degrees.”

Another part of the program Rita enjoyed was seeing the WMU students work. “I think it’s great seeing someone who wants to start out fresh and get into this field.” Although the week’s program had challenging spots for Rita, such as using the cardinal directions (N, E, S, W) to navigate away from a spot and returning using a different route, she now feels ready to use her cane to navigate downtown Atlanta.

Her advice for anyone else considering O&M training at Leader Dog? “Pack your bags, catch that flight! Definitely I would recommend it. It will change your life.”

The goal of the partnership between WMU and Leader Dog is for people like Sarah and Rita to meet, learn from each other and improve the skills they need in a short amount of time. “The WMU/Leader Dog connection is truly a ‘win-win’ situation, a rather rare commodity these days!” Dr. Long says. “Many of our students receive their first exposure to the art of teaching O&M at Leader Dog. Leader Dog, with its collegial and highly professional staff, is a wonderful place for students to begin their teaching careers, and to begin learning what it is like to work alongside others in a demanding, satisfying and enjoyable job.”