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American Foundation for the Blind® | Reader's Digest Partners for Sight

An Introduction to Orientation and Mobility Skills

By Dona Sauerburger

What is Orientation and Mobility?

Orientation and Mobility (O&M) is a profession specific to blindness and low vision that teaches safe, efficient, and effective travel skills to people of all ages:

  • "Orientation" refers to the ability to know where you are and where you want to go, whether you're moving from one room to another or walking downtown for a shopping trip.
  • "Mobility" refers to the ability to move safely, efficiently, and effectively from one place to another, such as being able to walk without tripping or falling, cross streets, and use public transportation.

Orientation and Mobility Specialists

An Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist provides instruction that can help you develop or relearn the skills and concepts you need to travel safely and independently within your home and in the community. O&M Specialists provide services across the life span, teaching infants and children in pre-school and school programs, as well as adults in a variety of community-based and rehabilitation settings.

The Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP) offers certification for vision rehabilitation professionals, including O&M Specialists. A Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) must adhere to a professional Code of Ethics and demonstrate knowledge and teaching skills in areas such as the following:

  • Sensory development, or maximizing all of your senses to help you know where you are and where you want to go
  • Using your senses in combination with self-protective techniques and human guide techniques to move safely through indoor and outdoor environments
  • Using a cane and other devices to walk safely and efficiently
  • Soliciting and/or declining assistance
  • Finding destinations with strategies that include following directions and using landmarks and compass directions
  • Techniques for crossing streets, such as analyzing and identifying intersections and traffic patterns
  • Problem-solving skills to determine what to do if you are disoriented or lost or need to change your route
  • Using public transportation and transit systems.

O&M instruction is usually conducted on a one-to-one basis, and can take place either in the community where you live and/or work (called "itinerant O&M") or at a rehabilitation center (called "center-based O&M").

To locate an Orientation and Mobility Specialist in your home area, our Directory of Services includes information about Orientation and Mobility instruction.

To learn more about university programs and training in Orientation and Mobility and Vision Rehabilitation Therapy, you can watch and listen to Hunter College's YouTube video and read Dr. Grace Ambrose-Zaken's Orientation and Mobility Blog.

History of Orientation and Mobility

The profession of Orientation and Mobility began to develop during, and immediately after, World War II, when soldiers who had been blinded in battle were sent to recuperate at Valley Forge Army General Hospital before entering Avon Old Farms Convalescent Hospital, the U.S. Army's former experimental rehabilitation center for blind soldiers in Avon, Connecticut.

In order to better serve the large number of blind soldiers who required special training and services, the military recruited Richard E. Hoover, an army sergeant, who was assigned to the center for the treatment of blinded soldiers at Valley Forge Army Hospital in 1944. During the same year, Russell Williams, who was blinded by enemy action in France, received medical rehabilitation at the Valley Forge Army Hospital, and in 1947, C. Warren Bledsoe joined the Hospital. Both Hoover and Bledsoe had previously worked at the Maryland School for the Blind. These three men made significant contributions to the development of a new profession: Orientation and Mobility.

The blinded soldiers were highly motivated to be successful, and Richard Hoover believed that the traditional strategies taught and used to travel independently were inadequate. In response, he developed a technique for using a cane that is lightweight and longer than support canes. This technique and cane revolutionized independent travel for blind people and are still used today.

To learn more about the development of the orientation and mobility profession, see Orientation and Mobility Living History: Where Did Our O&M Techniques Come From?

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