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Teaching Orientation and Mobility to Blind or Visually Impaired Students in Wheelchairs

From the AFB Press book, Teaching Orientation and Mobility in the Schools: An Instructor's Companion.

Students who are visually impaired or blind are a low-incidence population, and those in wheelchairs represent an even smaller segment of this population. Although many of the basics of teaching O&M can be applied to teaching students in wheelchairs, the O&M specialist may need to learn more about the mechanics of the wheelchair the students use and the safety issues associated with wheelchair use.

Here are some general suggestions for working with a student who is blind or visually impaired and is in a wheelchair.

  • When approaching the student or entering a room where she is, say something, if only a word, to let her know of your presence. If you are unfamiliar to her or she does not yet recognize your voice, let her know who you are. For example, "Hello Karen, it's Ms. Black." It is also important to tell the student when you walk away or leave the room, so that she will not be left in the position of talking to someone who is not there.
  • When escorting the student into a strange setting, tell him in a quiet voice where things are in the room and who is there, so that he can feel more comfortable.
  • When it is necessary to move the student, when performing a transfer or when pushing her in her wheelchair, announce your intentions prior to moving her. For example, "Kati, I am going to assist you out of your wheelchair so you can spend some time on the mat." This type of communication helps her to anticipate things she cannot see, such as your approach, and puts her in the position of feeling more like an informed participant and less like an object being manipulated. Talk the student through each step of the movement, so she can anticipate the actions and ultimate outcome.
  • When talking to the student, it is important to be concrete and specific when designating the positions of objects and obstacles relative to his position. For example, say:
    "To your right."
    "Directly in front of you."
    "Next to your right foot."
    "To the right of your head."
  • When referring to the position of the student's wheelchair relative to various objects, obstacles, or architectural details, be specific in relating parts to the environment. For example, "There is a chair in front of the right wheel of your wheelchair." If the student cannot figure out how to negotiate the obstacle, verbalize how he must move his chair to negotiate it one step at a time. For example, tell the student, "Back up." After he backs up, tell him, "Make a quarter turn to the left." When he does so, say, "Go forward a little," then,"Make a quarter turn to your right," and then, "Go straight," until the entire maneuver is accomplished.
  • Communicating in concrete terms that describe the position of objects in relation to the student's position in space will help her to form an inner image of the environment. This inner image will enhance her motor planning and help her to make correct movements to negotiate the chair, allowing her to feel less helpless and dependent and to gain a greater sense of control over her movement in the environment.

For more information about working with a student who is blind or visually impaired and in a wheelchair, including wheelchair safety, the environment, and maintenance, read Teaching Orientation and Mobility in the Schools: An Instructor's Companion by Natalie Isaak Knott, available in the AFB Store at www.afb.org/store.

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