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Programs Empower Visually Impaired to Live Independently

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from The Whitehorse Star, July 6, 2007.

Brantford, Ont.--Cheryl Richesin remembers one client who seemed to be faced with an impossible situation. The client, who was totally blind, had just given birth to a baby. She needed to learn how to live independently so that she could take care of the child.

"She had to learn skills so she wouldn't have the baby taken away," Richesin explains.

Teaching someone in that situation how to do things most people take for granted is the job of an orientation and mobility or rehabilitation specialist, such as Richesin.

"It's a wonderful field. You're not working with equipment. You're working with people who need you," she says.

Richesin is now the program coordinator at Mohawk College's orientation and mobility and rehabilitation teaching programs in Brantford, Ont. Orientation and mobility--or O and M--teaches blind and visually impaired people how to better travel and orient themselves. It runs parallel to the rehabilitation-teaching program, which covers a wider spectrum of life skills. Both are yearlong post-graduate programs involving two semesters of classroom work and practical training and a 12-week job placement.

"When you're working with seniors, if they're willing to learn, there's no reason to have to go to the nursing home. They can live independently," she explains.

"And the excitement of it is seeing a baby who is totally blind suddenly reaching to crawl--without fear."

Richesin says there's no reason lack of vision has to place a limit on someone's self-sufficiency.

The programs are the only two of their kind in Canada offered in English. Because the demand for the graduates is so high, almost every student lands a job after graduating.

And across the country and around the world, the demand for these graduates is likely to grow.

Mohawk College's programs are already extremely important for the blind and visually impaired in Canada, says Stacey Headey-Komenda, a professional practice leader for orientation and mobility with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. The CNIB is the largest provider of help for those who are visually impaired in the country, and 95 percent of their orientation and mobility staff come from Mohawk, she says.

Orientation and mobility and rehabilitation encompass teaching different tasks to people of all ages and abilities--something Andrea Lisk, a Mohawk rehabilitation-teaching student, has experienced.

At W. Ross Macdonald School, a residential school for blind children and teens, she's taught everything from how to maximize the vision students already have to how to use a stove safely. Lisk's most challenging task so far involved teaching a blind teenage girl how to shave her legs.

Although such lessons are tailored to each student, the ability to adapt from established techniques is a result of the skills the students learn at Mohawk.

"Before formalized techniques, anyone could just pick up a stick and teach," Richesin explains. She says that was a problem. "After all, you could be looking at a life-or-death situation if you're crossing a busy street."

In the decades after the Second World War, when large numbers of veterans who were visually impaired or blind needed to integrate into society, the field of orientation and mobility started to be developed. Standards began to be set in teaching and equipment, such as techniques for using the white cane, and now programs like Mohawk's must be certified by international bodies dedicated to this kind of work.

The work involves teaching someone how to do things most seeing people have never had to think about.

Mohawk's orientation and mobility students practise at Brantford intersections, blindfolded, to understand how it's done.

"The main thing is the direction of sounds," explains Rabia Amir, who has been in the field for 20 years, first teaching braille in her native Pakistan. She is doing an O and M placement at W. Ross Macdonald.

She says blind people must first align themselves with the curb.

"A blind person doesn't know where the intersection is, so you must train them to know how to align themselves using traffic sounds."

Starting on quiet residential streets, orientation and mobility instructors practise with their students until they can tell where traffic is moving.

Rebecca Redmile, a life skills instructor at the school, says rehabilitation teachers must be aware of the difference between teaching a student who was born blind and someone who lost their vision later in life.

"For example, you don't have to teach seniors that they should face whoever they're talking to, but a congenitally blind student might not know that," she says.

There are challenges most wouldn't think of. Telephone skills have to be taught, and teachers must be aware that students may not understand concepts we take for granted, such as what printed letters look like or what the 12 o'clock position is.

While teaching these skills, the focus is on "turning kids into graceful, contributing members of society," Redmile explains.

Mohawk students learn how to approach these challenges through practice and experience. They are blindfolded and use low-vision simulators so they can understand what it is like to have low or no vision.

Lisk says the most terrifying experience was being blindfolded and having to walk down the stairs. But even that approach has its limitations, say the Mohawk students.

"It's fairly inaccurate because we already have motor skills. For example, I already know how to use a microwave, so it's hard to pretend I don't just because I'm blindfolded," Lisk explains.

The focus of the field is all about independence, says Brenda Barnes, an orientation and mobility specialist at W. Ross Macdonald.

That's what Lisk teaches her students to focus on. "We do a lot of kitchen safety, like safely using a can opener," she explains.

Barnes says comparing the abilities students have when they arrive and when they leave is how she can tell the difference orientation and mobility training can make.

"You don't realize the importance of O and M until they leave their comfort zone . . . they're almost like a different child," Barnes explains.

"Many are scared to death of travelling outside the school, and at the end of their time here, they're doing co-op placements across the city, walking down streets, taking the bus."

The number of people who will need these services is expected to grow because of improved health care.

"The number of seniors is growing, and as people live longer, many become low vision or totally blind. At the other end of the scale, you can now save premature babies who weigh less at birth, but that also means there is a bigger chance of blindness," Richesin says.

As well, the number of veterans with head injuries returning from places like Iraq and Afghanistan also drives up demand for the programs.

While there aren't many reliable statistics on blindness in Canada, by the year 2020, the CNIB expects the number of people they work with to double.

Lisk says the field is challenging, but she loves how rewarding it is.

"When you've worked on a task for quite a while, be it shoe-tying or whatever, there is an 'aha' moment both for you and the student when everything you've learned finally comes together," she explains. "You're just like, 'There it is--we can do this.'"

Originally published in the Brantford Expositor.