O & M: Enforcing Skills for Independence

By Jessica Minneci

An example of a sighted guide assisting
someone who is visually impaired 
Visually impaired individuals, such as myself, often have a difficult time orienting themselves to a new setting. In these instances, people may ask for assistance. Unfortunately, most of the time, the help they receive is not “helpful.”

For example, could you imagine having trouble receiving proper guidance to a seat in a restaurant? Sadly, I have experienced this issue multiple times in the past. One afternoon, my legally blind friend and I decided to eat at a local pizza restaurant. Upon entering the diner, my friend asked the hostess if she could lead us to a table. The hostess, not seeing both of our canes, was confused. She proceeded to tell us that the table was “over there.” I thanked the hostess, but explained to her that we were both legally blind and couldn’t see where she was pointing. My friend asked for sighted guide to our table, meaning that the hostess should offer my friend her elbow. My friend would hold on to her elbow and I would hold on to my friend’s other arm. If it was a narrow pathway to our table, the hostess would have to put her arm behind her back to let my friend know that she should walk behind the hostess and so should I. When she turns, she should tell us, “turning right” or “turning left.”

After a bit of hesitation, the hostess guided my friend and I through a narrow pathway of closely-spaced tables. Upon reaching our table, she was about to leave. We asked her which table was ours, the one to our left or the one to our right. She said, “The one to your right.” I heard her turn again to leave and hurriedly asked, “Would you mind clarifying where the table is again? Please, put my hand on the back of my chair so that I know where it is.” Reluctantly, the hostess did as I asked and flounced off as my friend and I were finally seated.

Of course, this instance is just one of many encounters in which a sighted individual lacks the information needed to assist people with visual impairments. Other issues happen when a blind person is pulled across a street or when someone grabs a guide dog’s harness handle in an attempt to direct the team onto a train. Such problems have taken place in my life and in the lives of my friends. In order to stop these situations from taking shape in the future, everyone should have a basic understanding of orientation and mobility training, lessons that teach blind individuals how to become independent and people with full vision how to best assist a visually impaired person.

In the original scenario, if the hostess had known O & M, she may have looked closely at my friend and I and noticed our white canes. After we asked for assistance to our seats, she could have easily offered my friend her elbow and put her arm behind her back as we walked through the cluster of tables. She could have stopped at our desired seat, used left and right directions to orient us to where the table was, and, without hesitation, could have put our hands on our chairs. Lastly, she could have asked us if we needed any further guidance before she left, and if not, bid us a polite goodbye.

A couple tidbits of knowledge can go a long way. Understanding O & M practices allows the fully sighted and the visually impaired individuals to work together to make the event meaningful to one another. The sighted person may be confident and elated that she knows how to help while visually impaired people feel accommodated and not embarrassed that they had to ask and explain how they needed to be guided. On top of that, neither party will be embarrassed by having to go through so much trouble just to get a seat. Therefore, I encourage you to learn more about O & M so that you can help yourself to better assist others.

Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialists are experts who teach people who are blind or visually impaired the skills needed to travel safely and live independently. What happens when the specialist isn't around? How do family and friends learn about O&M? Check out the new book Partners in O&M: Supporting Orientation and Mobility for Students Who are Visually Impaired. You can buy it now here: https://bit.ly/2Ogbe1G

Jess Minneci is a senior at Seton Hill University and an intern at APH. She is a three-time National Braille Challenge participant and has previously volunteered with ACB. She is a poet and aspiring novelist who enjoys filming youtube videos about young adult novels and spending time with her guide dog Joyce.


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