What does an orientation and mobility specialist do?

There’s plenty of mystery surrounding orientation and mobility specialists. While many know about the work of occupational therapists and speech pathologists, this profession is less well known. It’s unique because O&Ms solely support people with vision impairment, so what does an orientation and mobility specialist do?

It’s a relatively new profession, with only a small number of universities offering qualifications in this field. Anyone who teaches white cane navigation or route training in Australia has to be appropriately trained and hold a relevant qualification.

Orientation and Mobility Team at VisAbilityWhat does an orientation and mobility specialist do?

How do they help someone with low or no vision?

Orientation and mobility specialists teach people with vision impairment safe, efficient skills to navigate and manoeuvre independently with a white cane. It’s a fairly long job title, often shortened to O&M. They can teach you:

  • How to get about safely and move confidently in different environments with and without a white cane.
  • Providing one-on-one instruction to use a white cane safely and independently.
  • Developing skills for safe and independent travel including.
  • Sighted guide technique. Also known as human guide, when someone guides the person to another area.
  • Utilising a variety of senses to manoeuvre around your environment. Learning about visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular, olfactory and proprioceptive senses and how they inter-relate with one another.
  • Echo-location skills to improve self-orientation.
  • How to cross the road safely, using traffic control devices and how to confidently use public transport.
  • Techniques to build a mental map of routes and using landmarks to help.
  • Learning to use smart phone apps like Google Maps and specialist orientation apps designed for people with blindness and low vision.
  • Assessment and training on use of secondary mobility aids like ultrasonic mobility aids and sensory development.
  • Exploring motor skills and balance required for improved posture and gait.

The long white cane and its use as a mobility device came about a century ago. In 1921 James Biggs, a photographer from Bristol in England became blind following an accident. Concerned about being hit by traffic around his home, he painted his walking stick white to be more visible to motorists. His white cane invention spread to other countries.

After World War II, Doctor Richard Hoover developed the long white cane to help servicemen who’d fought in the war and had returned home blind or partially sighted. The Hoover cane became the tool for mobility. There are many types of white canes – from folding to telescoping to electronic – but their purpose is the same. 

How do you become an O&M?

Anyone who wants to become an O&M in Australia must undergo specific training and this includes:

  • Completing a one-year postgraduate qualification, which is only available in the Eastern states.
  • Completing 250 hours of mobility training as a student.
  • Becoming a professional member of the Orientation and Mobility Association of Australasia – OMAA.
  • After graduating, they need to work towards becoming a certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS). To become certified, an online exam from ACVREP (Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals) must be completed.

Meet our O&M specialists

We have a number of O&M’s in Perth and Tasmania (link opens in new window). Let’s introduce the team and learn more about them.

O&M Specialist Team Leader HasmukhHasmukh – Team Leader

Hasmukh completed a commerce degree in India. While studying, he undertook some volunteering work at a rehabilitation centre in Mumbai and his interest in studying O&M developed from there.

“Family connections are strong in India. It’s common to find three generations living together. My Grandma had poor eyesight and cataracts, so I used to help her because of her vision loss.”

Hasmukh moved to England to complete a Diploma in Rehabilitation Studies and Vision Impairment. He worked with local authorities and charities providing sensory support services. In 2019 he migrated to Perth and joined VisAbility.

“I can’t think of a better job than an accredited O&M Specialist. There’s job satisfaction, you meet new people and spend most of the day outdoors enjoying the beautiful Australian surroundings.”

Jodie

Jodie is our longest-serving O&M and has been working for VisAbility for 28 years. She graduated in 1995 and joined our organisation as a Social Worker before exploring a career as an O&M.

“It was a natural progression to become an Orientation and Mobility Therapist from a Social Worker. My mother lost her sight suddenly when I was a teenager, so I witnessed how O&M had helped her.”

Jodie completed her Master’s Degree and began working as an O&M in 2006. Jodie works primarily with children within CAYS, but she also undertakes remote work with both adults and children in regional areas and remote areas like the Pilbara and Kimberley.

“For parents who have children with vision loss, I want to emphasise the importance of early intervention and exposure to the white cane. When a cane is introduced early, it becomes part of their routine. It encourages early exploration of the world around them, as well as safe and independent mobility.”

O&M Specialist, ClareClare

Clare’s Grandfather served in the Second World War and learned deaf signage. He taught it himself because he’d met people who were deaf as a result of injuries sustained in the war.

Clare has spent 20 years working in the deafblind community. She has an Auslan Diploma, Auslan Certificate and a degree. Clare works as a Certified Orientation and Mobility Instructor with children and adults. She’s trying to break down stigmas about people who are deafblind or have vision impairment.

“There’s plenty of inaccurate knowledge and misconceptions about what people with vision impairment can do. Anyone with low or no vision can safely use escalators. I know teenagers with complete vision loss who skateboard because of great echolocation skills.”

O&M Specialist Anne-SophieAnne-Sophie

While studying law and insurance at a university in France, Anne-Sophie volunteered time in the holidays working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. She saw first-hand, Mother Teresa’s devotion to the poor, sick and disadvantaged – many of whom were blind.

She decided to switch careers to become a Guide Dog Mobility Instructor by completing an International Guide Dog Degree. Anne-Sophie then made the transition to qualify as a Certified O&M Specialist.

“O&M is the best career because you are giving people tools to become independent. It’s lovely to witness someone grow in confidence. You are supporting a client to navigate by themselves, to use their different senses so they can recognise the differences in tactile surfaces, to focus on audio, touch and use residual vision to move around.”

O&M Specialist AmyAmy

Amy qualified as an Occupational Therapist, but she didn’t know anything about O&M until she shadowed an O&M in the Pilbara and saw the impact white cane instruction could have on someone with vision impairment.

“It’s a therapy that is so important, but relatively unknown. The assumption is that doctors or physiotherapists are helping people with vision impairment to navigate with a white cane, which is wrong.”

Amy is a Certified O&M working with adults and children with vision impairment. She’s also heavily involved in the O&M Association of Australia and is passionate about raising the profile of Orientation and Mobility.

“It would be lovely if O&M Instruction attracted the same interest as other allied health professions. It was even overlooked recently in an NDIS Guide.”

O&M Specialist KatieKatie

Katie used to work in information technology, but she realised she wanted a profession with meaning. She did some volunteer work with children with disabilities, decided to study Occupational Therapy and is just completing a postgraduate diploma in Orientation and Mobility.

“If people lose their vision in later life, they grieve for what they haven’t got. It can be confronting for them to use a white cane, but they will have a mental map of their surroundings and I can give them the tools to move around safely, so they can get from A to B.”

O&M Specialist GillGillian

Gillian is based in Bunbury and provides Orientation and Mobility services to clients living in the South West. She secured an internship with the Association for the Blind WA in 1996 that sponsored her to complete a post graduate degree in Orientation and Mobility at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

She has worked for VisAbility for over twenty years in both Victoria Park and Bunbury.

“I love working in the greater Bunbury area because I grew up in several towns in the south west. The biggest shift I’ve seen in my time as an O&M is how assistive technology is making it easier for people with a vision impairment to become independently and safely mobile. By far the most enjoyable part of my job is meeting people, developing a rapport with my clients and being able to assist them and give them the skills to meet their goals.”

O&M Specialist ElsaElsa

Elsa is an Orientation & Mobility Instructor at VisAbility Tasmania (link opens in new window). She has a Bachelor of Education degree and a graduate diploma in Orientation and Mobility.

Elsa has worked at VisAbility for four years. Before that she spent 20 years in special education teaching.

“I am a teacher at heart, so I am well suited to being an O&M because I teach and guide clients to access their community, build confidence and achieve goals.”

She says O&M is the perfect career for her because it involves an of element problem-solving and improvisation.

 

O&M Specialist JodiJodi

Jodi is also based in Tasmania and has a Master’s in Special Education (Sensory Disability). She has been working as an Orientation & Mobility Specialist since 2006.

Jodie enjoys her role because she’s providing people who are blind and have low vision with skills to be safe and independent.

“Orientation and Mobility is such a varied role because you are helping people to navigate their communities and working with a diverse group of people.”

 

O&M Specialist CourtneyCourtney

Courtney is our third orientation and mobility specialist in Tasmania. She worked as a secondary school teacher for seven years, teaching health, physical education and dance. With her background in teaching, she enjoys working with children and adolescents.

“I decided to switch careers after teaching students with low vision in the classroom. I also spent a period of time working with Guide Dogs, so both careers inspired me to become an O&M specialist,” she explains.

“There’s tremendous satisfaction knowing I am helping clients to find their way around their school or local community, safely crossing roads and independently use public transport.”

How to get support

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