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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Lesson 5: Orientation and Safety in the Home

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Picture of older woman and guide in bedroom of apartment

If you are newly visually impaired, you are probably more concerned than ever about safely getting from place to place and about avoiding accidents in your home. These two concerns are central to virtually every other daily activity. This lesson introduces you to several techniques for getting around in your home without injury. Many of these techniques use senses and other skills discussed in Lesson 3 and Lesson 4. This lesson also offers a number of tips that aid in accident prevention.

Lesson Goals

  • Demonstrate how to protect your upper and lower body in at least two situations;
  • Navigate your home safely using protective techniques, trailing, echolocation, and squaring-off;
  • Compare and contrast the techniques for locating dropped objects and systematically searching for items on a counter, table, desk, etc.;
  • List 10 ways to make a home safer for a visually impaired person.

Click here to review the learning checks before reading the lesson.

Orientation and Mobility

client with cane and instructor

Orientation and mobility, commonly known as O&M, is a specialized training that helps you as a person with a visual impairment learn or relearn the skills needed to travel safely and independently in your home and community. The importance of these skills can't be overstated; they impact every area of your daily life. O&M instructors teach you to maximize the use of all of your senses in order to know where you are and to get to where you want to go. These specialists train you in the use of a long cane to travel safely along sidewalks, cross streets, and ride public transportation. You are encouraged to learn more about orientation and mobility and to obtain the services of an O&M specialist.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on O&M.

Other O&M skills relate more to indoor and home orientation and safety. Services from an O&M instructor are not required for learning these skills, so several are covered in this lesson.

Indoor Orientation and Mobility Techniques for People with Visual Impairments

Protective Techniques

Essential for your safety as you move about your home are the upper and lower protective techniques. These techniques prevent injury to your head, face, and torso from collisions with open drawers and doors or tables, chairs, and anything else you might run into. When learning these techniques, keep in mind that only a mobility cane held diagonally in front of you or the use of a walker will protect your feet, calves, and knees. Also, remember that only a mobility cane or dog guide will help you detect stairs or other drop-offs.

The upper and lower protective techniques described below are essential for protecting your body while you move throughout your home. In addition to using these techniques, it's important to make sure all upper and lower cabinet doors and all drawers are completely closed at all times in your home. Leaving cabinet doors and drawers ajar can cause you to bump your head or bruise your body. Doors to rooms must be kept completely closed or completely open. Few things are more dangerous to a visually impaired person than a partially open door. Ask everyone living with you to follow these rules to help keep you safe.

man putting back of hand in front of face to shield as opens upper cabinet door

Protecting Your Face and Head: The Upper Protective Technique

Using the upper protective technique when bending over prevents you from smashing your face on a counter, table, open cabinet door, or similar surface or object. Even if you have some usable vision and think you are safe, don't take the risk: Never—never—bend over without using this safety technique!

To learn the upper protective technique, begin by positioning one of your arms so that it is parallel to the floor from shoulder to elbow. Next, bend that arm at the elbow, bringing the forearm diagonally across the body and bringing your hand about 10 inches in front of your face, with the back of your hand toward your face and your palm facing out. Point your fingers at a slight angle toward your face to protect them from injury. Maintaining this position when you bend forward allows the forearm to serve as a buffer should you collide with any surface or object. If arthritis or lack of strength prevents you from maintaining this position, wear a visor to protect your face.

man using hand across lower body to protect from lower cabinets

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on the upper protective technique.

Protecting Your Torso: The Lower Protective Technique

To protect your torso using the lower protective technique, extend the other arm diagonally down, across, and away from the body about a foot. Face the palm toward the body just below the waist with the fingers curled slightly inward. The back of the forearm and hand will protect the middle of your body from contact with chairs, tables, and other thigh-high objects. If you cannot extend your arm to protect your torso, use a paper towel tube, a rolled up magazine, or a ruler to provide complete coverage.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on the lower protective technique.

Trailing

woman trailing wall with right hand palm pointing down, fingers curled

Trailing is a technique that allows you to stay in contact with your environment. It's useful in situations such as when you want to walk in a straight line down a hallway or when finding your way around the counter in the kitchen. Trailing also provides some protection from unanticipated objects that might be in front of you. To trail, stand approximately 6 inches from a wall. Extend the arm closest to the wall about a foot beyond your body at hip level. Hold your hand with the palm toward the floor and then cup your fingers in a loose fist toward the palm to protect your fingers from any object they might encounter. Place the side of this hand against the wall and allow it to move along the wall lightly as you walk forward. Orient yourself by visualizing any landmarks that may be encountered along the wall. Perhaps there is a closet door or protruding object that your hand may come across along the way. Landmarks such as a closet door can be helpful if, for example, you have two similar hallways, but only one has a closet. As you continue walking forward, you may come to an open doorway. With a couple of steps, you will reach the other side, and you can continue trailing the wall. For safety purposes when trailing, it's recommended that you use the upper protective technique with your other arm to prevent accidental collisions as you explore various parts of your home. Again, use something as an extension of your arm if necessary.

Echolocation

As you trail along a hallway, you may sense a closed-in feeling. When you reach an open door, you may not only feel the open space with your trailing hand but also detect a change in sound. When you leave the hallway and enter the living room or another large room, you may sense that you've stepped into a large space. This ability is part of your sense of hearing and commonly called echolocation. Echolocation is the detection of sound bouncing off walls, furniture, trees, buildings, and the like. As you move about, speak, or make any kind of noise at all, that sound bounces off the objects and surfaces in your environment back to your ears. Sound bouncing off walls in places like hallways, bathrooms, and closets will sound closed-in because the sound doesn't travel very far before it comes back to you. If you are standing near or pass by a tall item of furniture, you may experience the same phenomenon. In time, you may develop this skill even in outdoor environments. You may realize you've passed a car parked on the street or that you've moved from an open area to one enclosed by a wall, all based on how the environment sounds. Some people like to hum a song or make some kind of noise to help them detect objects in their pathway. Begin using this skill when getting around in your home.

Squaring Off

This technique can be very helpful when going from one location to another across a large open space. Squaring off involves aligning or positioning your body in relation to a specific object or location in a room and then walking in a straight line toward the item or location. For example, you can use this technique when the refrigerator is more than three steps across the kitchen from the stove. Place your back against the refrigerator door and walk straight across the opening toward the stove, visualizing it in front of you. As you approach the stove, use the lower protective technique to protect your body from crashing into the stove. Try this technique in other rooms of your home as well as the kitchen. At times you may need to align the side of your body or the back of your legs with an object before walking across the open space. Eventually, you will feel confident enough to walk diagonally from one place to another across an open space.

Room Familiarization

If you feel unsafe moving around some of the rooms in your home, the room familiarization technique may help you gain confidence. To begin, stand in the doorway and visualize the room as you have arranged it. Point to the bed, then the window, then to the chair in the corner, and every other item in the room. Then begin on one side of the door and trail around the perimeter of the room. If you have a mobility cane, it's recommended that you hold it in one hand diagonally across your body while using the trailing technique with the other. The features in the room—such as furniture you have arranged against the wall, a closet, or a window—may serve as landmarks to aid your orientation. When you encounter a piece of furniture while trailing, stop and carefully examine it using your tactile skills. Use search techniques and the grid pattern to determine if items are arranged on top of furniture surfaces. Continue around the room until you are familiar with everything in the room. Next, move to the center of the room and explore everything there. If you are in a room that has furnishings in the center of the room, such as a dining room or family room, place your back against a wall or piece of furniture and walk toward the center of the room using the cane or lower protective technique until you locate the dining room table or sofa or chairs.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on the trailing technique.

Locating Dropped Objects

Many newly blind individuals experience frustration when trying to find things they've dropped on a counter, table, or, especially, the floor.

Fan Technique

When you drop something, immediately listen to hear where it falls. Face the sound and point your finger in that direction. Pointing can usually help you pinpoint the location. Take a few steps toward the suspected location.

Next, protect your head with the upper protective technique and then, if possible to do so safely, bend at the knees, squat, or kneel so you can reach the floor with your hands. Begin making small then progressively larger circular movements with your hands on the floor directly in front of you, then to the left and right. Move forward, continuing to use a fan-like pattern until you locate the item. If you are unable to bend over or squat, you can use a broom to locate the item. When you feel resistance, sweep the item out of the way toward a cabinet or stable piece of furniture, hold on, and then retrieve the item. Or use the broom and a long handled dustpan to pick the item up or sweep the item out of the way and have someone else pick it up for you. If your hearing is limited and you cannot pinpoint the location of a dropped object by sound, use a broom and overlapping strokes in the area where you dropped the object. When you feel resistance against the broom, check to see if it’s caused by the object you dropped. Practice dropping various items; instead of pinpointing a sound, see if you can locate the items from the vibrations as the items hit the floor.

See the VisionAware Resources list at the end of the lesson for more information on searching for dropped objects.

Systematic Search Patterns

Especially helpful for individuals with severe vision loss, tactile systematic search patterns can reduce frustration for individuals with residual vision who have field losses interfering with visual scanning. When looking for an object on the kitchen or bathroom counter, a desk, or dresser, use left-to-right, front-to-back patterns to ensure full coverage. You will notice that this technique is very similar to the grid and overlapping movement patterns described in the previous lesson.

Other Safety Tips

Other environmental modifications can help make your home safer. Large, non-slip rugs can be positioned to set off groups of furniture, leaving tile or hardwood paths as walkways. Rugs under a dining room table or coffee table may serve as landmarks and prevent you from crashing into the table. Place small non-slip rugs or mats in front of each door, the kitchen and bathroom sinks, and at the top of stairs.

Stairs, hallways, and frequently traveled pathways should be kept clear and free of all clutter. Any object sitting on a step could mean a broken arm or worse. If you have some residual vision, make stairs safer by using appropriate lighting and textured edging in a contrasting color on each step. Since few people, blind or sighted, rarely remember to always close doors or drawers, push chairs under tables, or pick up the dog's toys from frequently traveled pathways, it may be safer for you to always use a mobility cane to get around your home.

The most important tip is remembering the rule, "everything has a place and everything in its place." This rule will be described in detail in the lesson on organization and labeling, but it's mentioned here because its use can prevent accidents. Sharp objects such as knives and scissors should never be left where the blades or points can come into accidental contact with any part of your body. For example, sharp knives should be placed behind the cutting board, not on it, when slicing vegetables, or placed behind the kitchen faucet not in the sink when washing dishes.

Explain Your Vision Loss to Others

This may sound like a strange safety tip, but it can make a difference. Describe to your friends and family what you can and cannot see. Explain the dangers of open doors, cabinets, and drawers. Ask them to wear a blindfold and let you demonstrate some of the safety techniques described in this lesson.

Summary

Soon, you will find yourself moving around your home freely going from one room to another. As you move about performing daily activities, you will discover more ways of making your home safe and easy to navigate. Locating dropped objects will become easier and—if you keep remembering the rule "everything has a place and everything in its place"—you will find it easier to locate most items in your home!


Learning Checks

What three methods of safely navigating your home were described in this lesson?

  1. Contrast, size, and lighting
  2. Trailing, squaring off, and room familiarization
  3. Systematic search techniques, visualization, and trailing
  4. Locating dropped objects, muscle memory, and upper and lower protective technique

Answer: b

Which safety technique should you always use even if you have some remaining vision?

  1. Fan technique
  2. A long white cane
  3. Trailing
  4. Upper protective technique

Answer: d

What can you do to help your family better understand your safety needs?

  1. Describe what you can and cannot see
  2. Explain why open doors and things out of place are dangerous
  3. Demonstrate techniques from this lesson while family members wear a blindfold
  4. Don't say anything until you stumble over your son's shoes

Answer: a, b, c

Which of the modifications below make stairs safer for people with some remaining vision?

  1. Lighting and carpet
  2. Carpet and contrasting textured edges
  3. Lighting and contrasting textured edges
  4. Carpet and handrails

Answer: c

Click here to return to the beginning of the lesson.


VisionAware Resources

The following links will take you to VisionAware online resources that support this lesson. Please be advised that information in these links may go beyond the scope of this lesson or this course.

Find Services for Orientation and Mobility Training

Introduction to Orientation and Mobility Skills

Upper Protective Technique

Lower Protective Technique

Trailing Technique

Searching for Dropped Objects When You Are Visually Impaired


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