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I have been receiving Orientation and Mobility (O&M) services from Jay Hardwig, an Orientation and Mobility Instructor (COMS) and Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) based in Asheville, North Carolina, since August 2017. When we began working together, though I had a firm grasp of basic cane skills and human guide technique, I was overly wary of traffic and knew virtually nothing about traffic patterns, GPS applications, or anything else relating to independent travel, due to the fact that I had received no O&M instruction since before 2013. 

Over the past 2 1/2 years, we have “played in traffic” all over Asheville, gradually expanding my knowledge and building my confidence with traveling independently through exposure to a number of diverse environments. Now, I have successfully analyzed and crossed intersections with up to seven lanes of traffic, planned and executed routes with up to twelve street crossings and a number of turns in a variety of environments using both traditional O&M skills and mapping technology, and, to some degree, utilized the Asheville bus system, all with minimal assistance. We began working in residential areas and in and around stores and coffee shops, where I learned the basics of mental mapping, soliciting assistance from the public, and intersection analysis (distinguishing between stop signs and traffic lights, recognizing plus- and t-shaped intersections, making safe crossing decisions, identifying turn lanes, etc. by listening to traffic patterns). We spent the first year of instruction focused on traditional orientation and mobility skills, beginning to incorporate GPS apps only after I became fairly proficient at the skills mentioned above.  I learned to use cardinal directions and various environmental clues and landmarks to construct mental maps. 

After my first year of instruction, I began to learn how to combine my traditional O&M skills with GPS apps such as Google Maps and other mapping technology such as BlindSquare, which is an app that can, among other things, list nearby buildings and intersections, mark points of interest such as the front steps or entrance of a building, and work in conjunction with third-party GPS applications to plan a route to a certain destination. As I learned to integrate technology into my traveling routine, I was also refining my mental mapping technique and improving and expanding my ability to analyze intersections and increasingly complex traffic patterns. I continued to work in and around Asheville, exploring more residential areas, commercial districts, indoor and outdoor malls, a college campus, and downtown environments. I also began researching guide dog schools and interviewing guide dog users, trying to decide if and when I might wish to apply for a guide dog. To supplement this research, my instructor and I completed a series of “Juno Walks”, where Jay would hold a harness and act as my guide dog, and I would give him commands. This was to expose me to traveling without the tactile feedback of my cane, as well as introduce me to the basics of traveling with a guide dog. 

This winter, we have also been working on a public transit unit. So far, I have learned to plan a bus route with Google Maps, including transfers and walking stretches and execute the route with minimal assistance. I will continue to practice this, and I will learn to utilize ride services such as Uber and Lift as well. This year, I will continue to refine my skills in all of the areas I have mentioned so far, and I will learn to use both passive and active echo-identification, complete some lessons on night travel, refine my cane technique, and continue to learn to navigate increasingly complex environments.

I hope this gives others an idea of the skills needed to travel independently and what they should be looking for in O&M instruction. I am still learning, but I have come a long way from the timid, overly cautious individual who was terrified of cars.

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