Become Your Own Orientation and Mobility Instructor
Carefully, I tapped my way through the unfamiliar coffee shop towards the counter to pick up my mocha beverage and then navigated my way outside to an empty table to enjoy it. My peace was interrupted by a shrill woman who began suggesting I’d be much more independent if I got myself a guide dog.
I might have looked more tentative than usual because I travel primarily with a guide dog; I have worked with guide dogs for almost fifty years. But arthritis, rather than blindness, makes me move a little slower than I did when I was younger, and my doggie was at the groomer, a perfect time for me to brush up on those crucial cane skills all blind folks need to master.
With shrinking budgets, you cannot always get oriented to a new location or gain all the Orientation and Mobility (O&M) skills you should receive from a professional. But you can still go a long way toward independence by simply practicing.
A few learning strategies
If you are new to the cane, use it in places where you know you’ll be safe. Indoor shopping malls are great because you won’t need to listen for automobiles. Narrow sidewalks with loads of shrubbery are helpful because you can learn to navigate around soft objects: running into a bush won’t damage you.
If you are a bit more experienced, practicing listening to cars without crossing streets is a wonderful way to overcome the fear of making mistakes. Once you’ve practiced, grab a sighted friend and show off your skills at reading traffic.
Develop confidence in safe places before venturing to locations without sidewalks or confusing, huge intersections.
As a guide dog user, I still pull out my cane weekly because I know I handle my dog best when I have cane competence. Learning a new route with a dog isn’t as easy as slowly checking it out with my cane. Knowing how to get around with my cane means giving my dog an occasional day off. And each time I’m between dogs, I’m thankful I’ve kept up with my cane technique!
If the areas you frequent are too complex to travel to, you can always ask a friend or use ride-share services, paratransit, or the bus to take you to a less challenging practice location. You must get out there and practice, though; O&M cannot be learned by sitting at home.
A volunteer network
Church groups, senior centers, scouting troops, service clubs, and even your chamber of commerce can connect you with helpful folks of all ages. Ask a volunteer to walk a route with you to explain everything. You want to know the signs the volunteer can see. You want to know what landmarks you can run across, especially if you turn incorrectly. By asking loads of questions, you train your volunteer to be even better at giving you valuable environmental information.
I especially find it helpful to know what I encounter if I turn too soon or too late. Does that chain link fence mean I’ve passed the entrance? Does that oak tree mean I still have a ways to go? Does traffic on the right mean I’ve turned down the wrong street?
Friends and family can also help but don’t get in the habit of relying on them for everything. Asking volunteers to help you get oriented is best because they will each have different perspectives and will be less likely to overly protect you.
If someone is giving you a building tour, do not remain passive. The more you ask, the more you’ll know. Even if you never use a public water fountain, knowing where it is will help you stay oriented if you touch it with your cane somewhere else. Be sure to have your tour guide explain if the building has multiple entrances, which can confuse you. If you take the stairs, find out if there’s also a ramp because later, when you locate that ramp, you will still know where you are. When they show you an elevator, ensure they also show you where its button is located. Ask if there is more than one elevator, which can be confusing.
Solicitation from strangers
When you ride a bus, if a passenger strikes up a conversation, ask questions about what they see out the windows. If they want to bore you with a long story about their uncle who lost sight, redirect the conversation so you can get informed about what the bus is passing. For example, ask if the bus crossed the street before stopping or if the intersection is in front of the bus. Ask if the grocery store is on the left or right side of the street. Ask if they see sidewalks near your destination. Ask about traffic lights.
On the college campus where I work, we have many confusing signage. The library is labeled “Learning Center,” and the back end of the library has a sign reading “Audio Visual Services” with a red door. I ask students, even if they are lost, to read the signage they see to know where I’ve landed if I make a wrong turn. When I’m lost, if a passing student tells me I’m at audio-visual services, I know I am at the library’s back entrance.
I like to take the bus sometimes to gather information. Friendly bus drivers will often chat about what they are passing and give you valuable information about the various stops.
Once, a friend was showing me how to get to a Walmart. She had me walking across a confusing parking lot, which was a “straight shot,” in her words. But later, a co-worker showed me a sidewalk that ran behind the store and wrapped around to its front entrance. I had to walk an extra block, which gave me a more straightforward path.
At the college where I work, one of our newly blinded students always asked for help finding the restroom. I offered to show her where it was, but she was too afraid to attempt it alone. Though I couldn’t assist her further, I decided I could learn from her and set about mastering the locations of every restroom on our 112-acre campus. Walking around, I asked random students where the closest one was and eventually knew how to find over a dozen of them. It was so helpful when I went to meetings in various buildings. Sighted co-workers even began asking me how to find restrooms!
This lesson made me realize that knowing the locations of many things I might need in the future was tremendously helpful in becoming even more independent; I no longer waste time trying to find restrooms.
If you become scared or angry when traveling, you will not do your best thinking. If you worry about getting lost or being late, you need to rethink how you will take this trip in the future. Perhaps you need to travel independently only halfway. Maybe you leave an hour earlier, take the bus partway, and walk the rest. You could get more assistance learning the route, even if you need to ask a volunteer. Perhaps you just need to slow down and pay attention.
If a sighted person says something like, “You should know how to get around here already,” remember they are not living your experience. Don’t let bad advice or others’ criticism add feelings of insecurity. Feeling down won’t help you grow more independent, so discard any advice that isn’t useful.
When you first walk a route with a helper, you might use a recorder or smartphone to record the information they provide. This way, you can review the recording before starting the trip. When you feel calm, analyze why a previous trip caused you stress and think of ways to avoid it next time.
If you are turning over many thoughts in your mind, that inner dialog can block out your ability to focus on external clues that tell you where you are. Does the pavement slope a bit in a particular place? Can you hear the sound of a window air conditioner, smell bread baking, hear wind chimes, or the distinctive bark of a specific neighbor’s dog?
I used to work in this enormous business park, a group of connected parking lots. Finding any building was difficult because there were no sidewalks. I discovered that each building had bushes with a particular fragrance, fans with an unusual rattle, doors with a distinctive squeak, or shade patterns that alerted me to their vicinity. And, of course, paying attention to the sun’s direction also helped me navigate there.
Knowing East from West means you won’t be flummoxed by right and left. You can use the sun or an accessible compass to ensure you travel in the right direction. Knowing that your destination is on the southwest corner of 4th and Main is more valuable than someone telling you it is on the left side of the street. Take note of the cardinal directions for any place where you frequently travel. This way, you will stay oriented if you approach from a different direction.
As a technical person, I take full advantage of all those wonderful iPhone apps for people who are blind or low vision. I use them to map out where I’m going, master routes, and know where I am.
However, an app can only give you information in its database. And sometimes, the information is outdated. Like any other tool, apps are useful but not essential. You do not need an app to get around if you aren’t technical. I was navigating the world long before we had smartphones! If you are technical, use them when you can, and don’t panic if they are unavailable or not helpful.
Your skills and ability to take charge are the key to confident travel.
When the batteries in my hearing aids died, I asked a friend to guide me. When a storm made me nervous to travel, I splurged and took Uber. My arthritis means I cannot cross streets rapidly, so if someone offers to assist, I take advantage of it because two pedestrians are more visible than one. If you are more comfortable taking someone’s arm and walking with them, don’t feel you are a failure; use this time to ask for information about the route and pay attention to clues that will help you navigate yourself later.
If your hearing is compromised, get hearing aids. If you don’t remember directions well, take notes. If you fear falling, get physical therapy to improve your balance. But by all means, get out there and work on your independence slowly with baby steps each day.
Learning to travel independently, especially in unfamiliar environments, is a challenge you can face if you remember Rome wasn’t built in a day. I’m always looking at my skills, analyzing my weaknesses, and studying what I can improve. I know it’s not just about trying harder but thinking out of the box, being flexible, and recognizing that I don’t need professional O&M instructors to face every new situation.