Indoor Movement and Orientation: Use Your Senses

If you’ve had vision throughout your life, you’ve probably used it to obtain most or all the information you need to get around. Now that you are blind or low vision, however, you may wonder how you can accomplish the things you used to do by looking, such as:

  • Locating the doorway to your bedroom or basement
  • Avoiding an obstacle in your path, either indoors (a coffee table) or outdoors (a trash can lid on the sidewalk)
  • Detecting the edge of a curb or step so that you don’t trip or fall
  • Locating a store or an office building
  • Using buses and crossing streets

All of these tasks can be done safely and efficiently using “non-visual information.” Using non-visual information means using your other senses, such as hearing, touch, smell, and perceiving your body’s position and movement.

You can use information from your senses to determine where you are and what is happening around you. Some examples of using non-visual information are as follows:

Use Your Hearing

Everyday sounds can provide many clues about your surroundings, including:

  • The hum of the refrigerator in your kitchen
  • Traffic sounds in the street outside your home
  • Pedestrians passing you on the sidewalk

O&M instruction can teach you to:

  • Use the hum of your refrigerator or traffic sounds as “landmarks” to help you determine where you are, both inside your home and outdoors;
  • Determine the direction of a sound and its distance from you;
  • Use the traffic and pedestrian sounds to determine the width of a street, the location of a traffic signal or stop sign, and the direction to face when crossing the street;
  • Use echolocation to sense objects (such as a tree, a wall, or a building) in your environment by learning to interpret the echoes and sounds reflected from those objects.
  • To experience echolocation, try closing your eyes and making a sound while moving your head closer to a wall. Notice how the sound changes. Some people describe the sound as more “echo-y,” while other people “sense the presence” of the wall in ways they can’t describe and are surprised to discover it is their hearing that is “sensing” the wall.
  • Echolocation used to be called “facial vision” because the sensation often seems to be in the perception of the skin rather than the ears.

For more information about hearing, read Living with Combined Hearing and Vision Loss РConnectCenter (aphconnectcenter.org)

Use Your Sense of Touch

The sense of touch can provide many clues about your surroundings, including:

  • Textures under your feet indoors, such as the carpet in your living room and the linoleum or tile in your kitchen
  • Textures under your feet outdoors, such as grass, asphalt, or broken concrete
  • The warmth of the sun on your face and clothing.

O&M instruction can teach you to:

  • Determine when you’ve entered the living room by feeling the carpet under your feet
  • Determine when you’ve entered your driveway by feeling pavement or gravel under your feet or cane
  • Determine the direction you’re facing by feeling the sun’s warmth on your face and body.

Use Your Sense of Smell

The sense of smell can provide some clues about your surroundings, including:

  • The scents of deodorizers, cleaning supplies, sawdust, pizza, leather, and baked goods

O&M instruction can teach you to:

  • Use a distinctive scent to help you determine what kind of room you are entering (a bathroom or a workshop) or what kind of store you are in (a pizza shop, a shoe store, or a bakery).

Use Your Kinesthetic Sense

Kinesthesia refers to the awareness of your body’s movement and position, for example when you bend, reach for a door handle, walk, or turn around.

Kinesthesia can provide many clues about your surroundings, including:

  • The movement of your body while you walk
  • The position of your cane or your guide’s arm as you hold it
  • The distance you’ve walked

O&M instruction can teach you to:

  • Accurately judge (without counting steps) how far to walk to reach a hallway or door, a store, or a bus stop
  • Notice if you’re walking along the slope of a driveway
  • Anticipate steps and curbs by noticing when your guide has moved upward or downward, or your cane has dropped down over an edge or a curb.

Use Visualization: Creating Mental Pictures

Visualization is a process that helps you consciously form accurate mental pictures of people, places, and everyday objects. You can learn to do this by using and recalling the vast storehouse of visual memories and information accumulated throughout your lifetime.

For example, you can likely create an accurate mental picture of every room in your home, as well as the individual items: furniture, appliances, and decorative objects within each of those rooms.

As you continue to create this type of detailed mental picture, you’ll be able to more accurately recall the location of doors, windows, major pieces of furniture, and potential hazards and obstacles within your home.

By using visualization in this manner, you can also train your senses (including your remaining vision) to become more responsive to the textures, sounds, odors, and sights in your everyday environment.

You can use visualization when you first meet someone and shake their hand. This information will help you create an accurate mental picture of that person:

  • Height: Estimate the location of the person’s voice in relationship to you. Is it higher, lower, or approximately the same level?
  • Age: Notice the skin texture. Is it taut, smooth, or looser, with protruding veins and ligaments?
  • Body structure: Are the hands long and tapered, shorter, and more rounded?
  • Additional details: Is the person wearing perfume, aftershave, or jewelry? If you can see an outline of the person, can you determine their hair color and style?

Develop a System of Landmarks

You may also find it helpful to develop a system of landmarks in combination with visualization and sensory input. These environmental clues can help you create a more complete “map” of your home, allowing you to feel more secure and in control of your surroundings.

Examples of landmarks that can help you construct this “mental map” can be any of the following:

  • Contrasting floor coverings, such as carpet, tile, or wood remind you when you are moving from the kitchen to the dining area.
  • The sounds of birds chirping, leaves rustling in the breeze, or children playing outdoors indicate the direction of a window, terrace, patio door, or driveway.
  • Different household odors, such as laundry soap, cooking odors, or potpourri, signal the location of the kitchen, laundry room, or pantry.
  • A distinct change in temperature, such as the cool air from a fan or air conditioner, differentiates your bedroom from a guest bedroom.