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AER Orientation and Mobility Division: Position Paper

Orientation and Mobility (O&M) in Natural Settings

Passed unanimously at O&M business meeting July, 2006

Assessment and instruction of safe, efficient, purposeful travel for people who are blind or have low vision (O&M) are provided in a wide variety of natural settings.  Unlike conventional classroom instruction, O&M assessment and instruction for children and adults with visual impairments must occur in the environments in which the skills will be used (the natural setting).  Lessons take place in all areas of the community, at all times of the day and in all kinds of weather, including at night or in dim lighting.

The reasons for natural settings are:

  • Assessment and instruction in natural settings will afford learners the opportunity to generalize skills, as well as to be better prepared for handling the various obstacles they will encounter as they travel independently. 
  • Teaching and assessing O&M skills in isolation or simulated settings risks the propagation of abstract, academic knowledge. Safe, effective use of skills, and the confidence to use them, can come only from instruction and practice in the real world. 
  •  O&M instruction ensures that as learners age or develop and their lifestyles and travel needs change, they will have acquired the skills which are necessary and appropriate for those settings.

During O&M assessment and instruction, the reasons that the time of day, lighting, and weather conditions must also be considered are:

  • Some environmental conditions are situational and exist only at certain times.  Learning to cross an intersection during evening rush hour or with snow or heavy rain will be different from learning to cross it during a quiet afternoon.  Traveling in a shopping mall or grocery store mid-morning will be different from traveling there when shoppers are finished with their work day.
  • Some eye conditions allow people to travel using vision in daylight or well-lit environments but severely affect their ability to travel safely at night, and limit their functional independence.  This is commonly referred to as night blindness.  Orientation and mobility assessment and instruction at night are essential for individuals affected by pathologies related to night blindness, as there is no practical way to realistically simulate these conditions during the day.

This need for natural settings is amply supported.

  • Zimmerman & Roman (1997) explain that O&M combines the instructional content (e.g., street crossing skills) with the natural environment (e.g., an intersection) to ensure that learners acquire the real-life skills needed to travel safely in those real-life settings.
  • The guideline for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (Pugh, G.S., & Erin, J. (Eds.) 1999) explains that the need to permit the O&M specialist to conduct the necessary assessments and instructional sequencing in these natural settings requires understanding, and scheduling creativity and flexibility on the part of everyone involved in the learner’s educational or rehabilitation program.
  • Griffin-Shirley, N., Trusty, S. & Rickard, R. (2000) state that the O&M specialist “is responsible for teaching a student to travel in the community…” (p. 558) and matches the individual’s travel abilities to the demands of the environment.
  • The National Agenda for the Education of Children and Youths with Visual Impairments, Including Those with Multiple Disabilities explains that children with visual impairments need to learn about the environment in which they live.  The National Agenda was developed in the United States through a national collaborative effort of professionals who work with people who are visually impaired as well as people with visual impairments and their families, and the resulting document was endorsed by 18 national organizations, 35 specialized schools, 25 private and state agencies, 14 local education agencies, 17 departments of education, 17 university programs, and 4 low vision clinics. 

Their most recent publication (National Agenda, revised 2004) states that:

  • Students will need to learn about themselves and the environment in which they move – from basic body image to independent travel in rural areas and busy cities … The expanded core curriculum must include emphasis on the fundamental need and basic right of visually impaired persons to travel as independently as possible, enjoying and learning from the environment through which they are passing to the greatest extent possible.

The United States’ Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 [IDEA, Part B, CFR Sec. 300.24(b)(6)] acknowledges that, through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process, it is necessary that there be:

(i)… services provided to blind or visually impaired students by qualified personnel to enable those students to attain systematic orientation to and safe movement within their environments in school, home, and community; and 
(ii) Includes teaching students the following, as appropriate:

(A) Spatial and environmental concepts and use of information received by the senses (such as sound, temperature and vibrations) to establish, maintain, or regain orientation and line of travel (e.g., using sound at a traffic light to cross the street);

(B)  To use the long cane to supplement visual travel skills or as a tool for safely negotiating the environment for students with no available travel vision;

[C]To understand and use remaining vision and distance low vision aids; and

(D) Other concepts, techniques, and tools.

The Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals (ACVREP) certifies O&M specialists.  The Scope of Practice for an ACVREP Certified O&M Specialist (COMS) includes but is not limited to the assessment of and instruction in the following skills and concepts (http://www.acvrep.org, 2006), all of which can be efficiently assessed and taught only in natural settings:

  • Concept development, which includes environmental concepts.
  • Soliciting/declining assistance.
  • Route planning.
  • Analysis and identification of intersections and traffic patterns.
  • The use of traffic control devices.
  • Techniques for crossing streets.
  • Techniques for travel in indoor environments, outdoor residential, small and large business districts, mall travel, and rural areas. 
  • Problem solving.
  • The use of public transportation
  • A study by Mancil, Mancil, Legault, Munday, Alfieri, Nowakowski, & Blasch (2005) found that the second-highest mobility problem area for people with low vision was lighting conditions and dim illumination.  Many of these individuals reported that they travel independently during the day but at night they avoid traveling or travel only with assistance.  [was “When Mancil … studied people with low vision]
  • O&M instruction teaches people with blindness or visual impairments how to take control of their environments and subsequently their lives. It moves people who are blind or visually impaired from isolation to involvement and being contributing and productive members of society. The concrete experience of learning and using O&M skills in the real world, including at various times of the day and evening, is critical for these individuals to become fully independent integrated members of society.

Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals (2000). Scope of Practice for Orientation and Mobility Specialists.    Retrieved May 15, 2006, from http://www.acvrep.org

The American Foundation for the Blind (2004). The National Agenda for the Education of Children and Youths with Visual Impairments, Including Those with Multiple Disabilities - Revised {Brochure}. New York, NY: AFB Press.

Griffin-Shirley, N., Trusty, S. & Rickard, R. (2000). Orientation and mobility.

In Koenig and Holbrook’s (eds) Foundations of Education 2nd Edition Instructional Strategies for Teaching Children and Youths with Visual Impairments. New York, AFB Press.

Mancil, R, Mancil, G, King, E., Legault, C., Munday, J.,  Alfieri, S.,

Nowakowski, R, Blasch, B. (2005)  “Improving nighttime mobility in persons with night blindness caused by retinitis pigmentosa: A comparison of two low-vision mobility devices”  Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development.  Vol 2, no. 4, Veterans Administration  Rehabilitation Research and Development Service, Department of Veterans Affairs. pp. 471-486

Pugh, G.S., & Erin, J. (Eds.) (1999) Blind and Visually Impaired Students: Educational Service Guidelines.  National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Watertown MA: Perkins School for the Blind.

Zimmerman, G. J., & Roman, C. A. (1997). Services for children and adults: Standard program design. In B. B. Blasch, W. R. Wiener & R. L. Welsh (Eds.), Foundations of orientation and mobility, second edition. New York: AFB Press.


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