Orientation and mobility trailblazer fondly remembered

It is with sadness that we acknowledge the passing of Mr Thomas ‘Tom’ Blair OAM. Tom was a long-serving member of VisAbility’s Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Team, a trail blazer for the profession and was well known to many VisAbility clients.

Tom was instrumental in setting up the early O&M services in Australia but his professional reputation extended to the international stage. He was involved in training O&M instructors all over the world, including the delivery of a program in Indonesia with a former VisAbility colleague, and was recognised with a prestigious medal and award.

Tom was born in London on May 5, 1935. He received his basic education in the UK and continued this while serving with the British Army from 1953 to 1956. He was part of the Commonwealth United Nations Forces in South Korea and Japan with a short stint in Malaysia before moving to Perth, Western Australia.

In 1964 Tom qualified as Guide Dog Instructor at the Royal Guide Dogs for the Blind, National Training Centre in Melbourne. He was the first to graduate in the Australian program after five years of study and hands on experience. After passing theory, practical assignments and all requirements of the examining board he qualified as teacher trainer of instructors after a further three years of study.

Image of Tom Blair demonstrating equipment to a female vision impaired client

In 1971 Tom qualified on the first international ‘Binaural Sensory Aid’ course conducted by Canterbury University. One year later he graduated from the Orientation and Mobility course in Melbourne, sponsored by the National Council for the Blind and Australian Council of Rehabilitation Organisations on Disability (ACROD).

Tom was an instructor for the Royal Guide Dogs for the Blind from 1959-77. During this time he taught O&M, trained dogs and instructors and initiated client service with Guide Dogs from their homes, and was promoted to chief instructor in 1967.

In the years following Tom spent time in the United Kingdom, United States, West and South Africa and the Netherlands to observe and study training and instruction.

From 1978 – 1995, Tom worked tirelessly across the Asia Pacific region, developing and conducting O&M programs and establishing self-sustainable training models. During this time he worked in Indonesia, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Taiwan, the Philippines and China.

In 1995 Tom returned to Australia and in 1997 began working for VisAbility (then the Association for the Blind of Western Australia) as a Field Officer at the South West Regional Office, Bunbury. He continued to consult, research and write on O&M development, and was a member on the advisory committee to the Bunbury Council on Disabilities, the Bunbury Road Wise Committee and the Access Committee for Senior Citizens. Tom retired in May 2014 after 15 years of dedicated work for the organisation.

“I was privileged to have Tom as my supervisor for my Orientation and Mobility placement. He was so encouraging to me and so excited for whoever wanted to be become an O&M,” said Jodie Bruce, VisAbility Orientation and Mobility Services Coordinator.

Tom was such an advocate for the profession, always willing to talk to anyone about O&M, that it was hard not to let his enthusiasm grow on you. He has left a profound mark and will be sorely missed by us all.

Tom passed away in Bunbury on 10 February 2018. His passion for O&M and dedication to the disability sector will never be forgotten.