Being an Orientation and Mobility instructor I was used to teaching people travel skills for numerous scenarios and locations. I worked with teenagers who were thinking of getting their first job at the mall one day and planning how they were going to get there, to teaching 90-year-old Veterans how to safely use their four-wheel-walkers to walk to their mailbox at home.
The Western Blind Rehabilitation Center where I worked when I met Scott has a family training program where at the end of a Veterans blind rehab program, they can have their family come to the center for two days to meet with all their instructors and essentially have a crash course in what the Veteran learned over four-six weeks.
For O&M this meant teaching a spouse, son or daughter, or caregiver how to travel with their family member who was visually impaired. I would have the Veteran demonstrate the skills they learned to travel independently, usually by utilizing a long cane, and then how to modify when they were traveling together.
O&M’s teach specific techniques to guide a visually impaired person that are designed to keep them safe. For example, how to guide someone through a door to make sure they don’t bump their shoulder on the door frame, how to guide someone up and down stairs, or how to guide someone into a car are skills O&M’s teach. There is a lot communication that goes on because each person has their part to make traveling efficient and safe. There is also a lot non-verbal communication that happens. If using human guide techniques correctly, in certain circumstances the guide does not need to use words at all to communicate what is happening.
When using human guide technique there is a movement that signals an approaching area that is narrow and not wide enough for two people to fit though that the same time. This can be a doorway, entering an elevator, moving through a crowd, or walking through a restaurant. Normal human guide technique is when the guide has his/her arm rested at their side and the traveler aligns the shoulder of the arm they are grasping directly behind the shoulder of the guide’s guiding arm. When traveling through a narrow passageway, the guide moves their arm from their side to behind their back, which signals to the traveler to move directly behind them so they can both fit through.
One of the first restaurants Scott and I went to together was for my birthday dinner at Buca di Beppo. Everything was uneventful until our name was called and the hostess began walking us to our table. At this particular restaurant you get to walk through a section of the kitchen on the way to your table. As soon as we entered the kitchen Scott grabbed my arm signaling he wanted my assistance as we walked.
The moment he grabbed my arm was monumental for me. I instantly realized that I now needed to practice exactly what I had been teaching as an O&M. Scott had been trained for human guide technique in the past so he recognized when I moved my arm directly behind my back because it became narrow walking next to other tables through the restaurant. We got to our table successfully and I shared my experience of how impactful that moment was for me with Scott. We discussed how we would develop our own communication cues so that I could know when he wanted to be guided in the future.
Scott now takes his long cane everywhere we go and I let him be an independent traveler as possible because that’s what I was trained as an O&M to do. We have a joke that it’s both good and bad for him because although he uses the cane all the time now and is a safer traveler which is good, he has to put up with a life long O&M lesson now!