Future Reflections         Fall 2008

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Reflections on Collaboration in Orientation and Mobility (O&M)
A Mother, Her Son, and Their O&M Instructor Share Thoughts and Experiences

by Fabiana Perla, Tina Fiorentino, and Rocco N. Fiorentino

Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2007 D.V.I. Quarterly, volume 52, number 3, guest editor, Missy Garber, PhD. DVIQ is a publication of the Division on Visual Impairments, Council for Exceptional Children. For information about the publication, articles, advertisements, etc, contact the DVIQ editor, Sheila Amato, at <brltrans@verizon.net>.
Effective collaboration among students, parents (or caregivers) and O&M instructors can result in improved integration of mobility skills into everyday life. When parents participate in the O&M instructional process, their level of awareness and knowledge regarding O&M increases, allowing them to practice, reinforce, apply or even modify skills and techniques to fit their needs and improve their child’s independence level. Additionally, students and parents can make O&M lessons more meaningful and effective by voicing their needs, concerns, and preferences, as well as collaborating in decision-making and problem-solving situations.

From the Parent’s Perspective

As a new mother of an infant blind child ten years ago, I (Tina) realized how difficult it was to raise a child who cannot see the world the same way I did. When I look back, I remember feeling alone and scared of the unknown. I knew I had to become more familiar with what was ahead of me. Among other things, I wanted to become more educated in the area of orientation and mobility, as well as other ways to teach my son how to successfully and safely explore and navigate his world.

Orientation and mobility training is provided in my state through the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and O&M services are very limited (scheduled once every six to eight weeks for one hour). As I watched my son mature day after day, I realized the services being provided by the state were insufficient for my son to truly comprehend the concepts of orientation and mobility. Through my contact with other families, I desperately tried to find a qualified O&M specialist. Most of the families I spoke to referred me to one specialist in particular, Fabiana Perla.

Working with Fabiana has been a mutually beneficial parent-specialist relationship. Each of us is working towards common goals by sharing responsibility, authority, and accountability for results. I try to attend all sessions with my son to reinforce the techniques she introduces. We share a common interest. Working together brings our goals to fruition.

When my son, Rocco, is faced with a mobility challenge in his daily routine in school or on the playground, we discuss with Fabiana different aspects of problems, constructively explore our approaches, and search for solutions. Because of our collaboration, the solution goes beyond our expectations. For example, when Rocco was learning to navigate his way in the town of Haddonfield, he was given directions to locate a store in the middle of a block and then to make a purchase.

Fabiana had described landmarks to listen for and objects to be aware of, but it was the technique of the three-point touch she taught him that I found most intriguing. When using this technique, the cane swipes from one side to the other of the full arc s and is then lifted up to check further to one or the other side for openings or a landmark. As one travels along a wall, it would be easy to unknowingly pass an entrance. With the three-point touch one can check where the opening of the doorway is located and find the desired destination. This technique was very helpful for Rocco to successfully locate a store independently, and, having observed his instruction in this skill, it is a technique that as a parent I can suggest he apply to situations outside of mobility lessons.

From the Instructor’s Perspective

One way that Tina and Rocco contribute to enhancing Rocco’s mobility training is by bringing experiences, concerns, questions or challenges to my attention. While early on it was mostly Tina who would report on a problem experienced outside of O&M lessons and ask for my input, over time Rocco learned to voice his own questions.

Nowadays, Rocco (now age ten) often comes to our lesson and says “Fabiana, you won’t believe what happened today at school!” and then proceeds to relate a mobility incident, success, or challenge he experienced. For example, one day he told me his teachers at school instructed him to use his cane even when another student was guiding him. He disagreed with their instruction, thinking it unnecessary to use his cane if he was being guided. This immediately generated a lively discussion among Rocco, his mother, and me as to whether it was or was not necessary to use a cane with a guide, what the advantages and disadvantages were, and how to modify the technique if necessary. I decided to throw my original lesson plan for that day “out the window” to address this concern. Through role-play and discussion, we explored when and how it might be helpful to use a cane when another student is guiding him.

Knowledge of her child and his prior experiences also enhances Rocco’s O&M instruction in that her knowledge of her son allows Tina to share insights on how to instruct more effectively. There have been many occasions when, as I was struggling to explain a new concept, she would come to my aid by using “just the right words” or remind Rocco of a past experience he had with his family that was helpful in understanding a new concept.

I consider myself lucky that, from the beginning, Tina has chosen to participate in almost every lesson I have conducted with her son, and that has, no doubt, contributed to our strong sense of teamwork. Although such a strong parental presence is not the norm with most families I work with, I believe it is also not necessary for effective collaboration to take place. For example, Mr. Fiorentino does not take part in mobility lessons but participates actively in all decisions regarding O&M. He keeps himself involved by inquiring about Rocco’s lesson, discussing issues with Tina, and coming to all pertinent meetings.

True partnerships are not so much about the quantity but the quality and nature of the interactions. In fact, there are instructors who contact parents often, either to assign them “homework” or to share information about their child’s progress, but who do not look to the parents as true partners in the decision-making process. Similarly, there might be parents who could potentially observe every single mobility lesson and still not be active participants in the process. So, what does collaboration entail? In my view:

The conviction that students, parents, and teachers possess valuable knowledge and can learn from each other. This philosophy contrasts with a linear model of education in which transmission of information and skills is unidirectional, always generated from the teacher.

A belief that the outcome of a collaborative process will be better (e.g., more meaningful) than what could have been accomplished working in isolation. For example, IEP mobility goals that include the input of the student, parents, and specialist have better chances of being appreciated and accomplished than those devised by the instructor alone.

1. A certain degree of confidence/security on the part of mobility instructors, so that suggestions and constructive criticism are not experienced as a threat but as opportunities for growth and improvement.

2. Some level of assertiveness and comfort, particularly for parents and students, to bring up questions and offer suggestions to the person who is supposedly “the expert” in the field.

3. Good communication amongst team members. Again, it is not about how often we talk; it is about what takes place during the exchanges. Instructors can gain a lot of valuable information and insight by asking questions and listening. When contacting parents, for example, it is helpful to do it without “an agenda” or preconceived idea. Going back to the example of developing IEP goals, calling or meeting parents with a blank piece of paper encourages input and the sharing of ideas more than bringing a list of already written-up goals.

From the Student’s Perspective

When asked to reflect on the collaboration process in O&M, Rocco addressed a number of issues. One of his first remarks was particularly significant, as it speaks about a sense of empowerment: “The child may know some things the parents and mobility instructor do not.” He felt his role as a team member included keeping his parents informed about what he did or learned during mobility lessons, because “how else will they know?” He listed some of his responsibilities:

I have to be somewhat cooperative. You can’t work with a student that is always asking, “Why do I have to do this or that?” I need to be willing to work, stay focused…not thinking about what am I eating for dinner... Students need to have their own opinion of what they feel and let parents and the instructor know.

Rocco acknowledged that developing trust takes time and pointed out the importance of the instructor and parents being willing to listen to students.

Regarding the role of parents, Rocco thought, “It is important for parents to participate because how do [they] know what [their] child is doing?” He believed parents also learned from observing mobility lessons and can and do provide emotional support to the student. “It makes me feel more confident because mom is there…[she] makes me want to do more things.” Rocco identified the following parental responsibilities: “practicing with me at home” and “tell [the mobility instructor] if I have not been doing something.”

Regarding the responsibilities and qualities of an O&M instructor, Rocco stressed the need to be cooperative, a willingness to listen, and the ability to “think of something to help students solve their problems.” He also felt it was very important for the instructor to preview environments ahead of time and identify their challenges “so the student does not get scared.” Rocco ended with the following thoughts regarding O&M:

[Without mobility] I would be nowhere. I wouldn’t be using the cane. I would probably be tripping. I wouldn’t know about echolocation or about mobility. I wouldn’t know how to go to the Visitor Center and ask directions, or how to go anywhere…I learned a lot. Even though it seems short --two times a week --that is eight hours a month. I learn a lot in eight hours a month!

Collaboration throughout O&M skill development among students who are blind or visually impaired requires commitment on everybody’s part as well as the ability to come up with creative strategies and to think outside the box. Both parents and instructors need to be able to share their perspectives, express concerns, bring up challenges, and share new information relevant to the O&M process.

Fabiana Perla is an assistant professor at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry. She has worked in the field of visual impairment for over 20 years and is a certified Low Vision and Orientation and Mobility specialist. She is currently a doctoral student at Arcadia University.

Tina Fiorentino is the mother of Rocco. She started the Little Rock Foundation for Blind and Visually Impaired Children. For more information go to <www.tlrf.org>.

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