LightHouse student Jim Askin, wearing a mask and holding a white cane, walks outdoors on a pathway surrounded by grass.

Putting the mobile in mobility: LightHouse O&M Instructors serve virtual lessons

Since mid-March, all LightHouse programs have been online, in accordance with shelter in place orders and to keep our students safe. Our program staff had to adapt quickly to ensure there wasn’t a long gap in training for students. Through online classes and phone appointments, we’ve continued to teach accessible technology, braille and independent living skills

But how do you adapt Orientation & Mobility (O&M), something that relies heavily on in-person training with limited social distancing, for a virtual class? LightHouse O&M instructors share how they’ve found ways to continue working with their students.

A tactile diagram of a typical four-way intersection with two lanes of traffic in each direction on each street; four city blocks are connected by crosswalks.

Sarah McIntyre acknowledges that it’s been an adjustment. She’s meeting the challenge by teaching herself new skills so she can better work with her students.

“I have a student who’s just started a new job and although she doesn’t know when she’s going to start work [in person], she’s nervous about teaching herself a new route. I am not able to get there to teach her in person, so what do I do? I send her a TMAP.”

TMAP (Tactile Maps Automated Production), designed by LightHouse’s Media and Accessible Design Lab, cover an area of several blocks surrounding a given address, TMAP uses both braille and large print to identify streets, represented by crisp, raised lines that can be easily followed with the fingertips. Sarah also realized that she could create a different type of tactile representation for her students as well.

“I have downloaded a free program called Inkscape and in a week, taught myself how to draw street intersections. Fortunately, I’ve just bought a swell paper printer and can print tactile graphics of the intersections at home. I mail these out to students, and we talk about concepts such as intersection analysis and street crossing timings.”

Tactile graphics are just one way LightHouse O&M instructors have continued working with students. Katt Jones incorporates technology into her students’ online trainings.

“It’s about maps and apps. I’m helping them apply the tech skills they’ve learned with their Access Technology instructors. We’re working on route planning with Apple and Google Maps and exploring surroundings with BlindSquare and Microsoft Soundscape. Sometimes I have my students share the screen on their smart phone through Zoom [the videoconferencing app] so I can monitor what they’re doing. It can be challenging when they are using [the iPhone screen reader] VoiceOver, because I can’t hear what their VoiceOver is saying. One student called me using her Amazon Echo so that I was able to hear her use VoiceOver on her iPhone.”

When students use Zoom on their iPhone, the person on the other end of the call cannot clearly hear VoiceOver, which makes it challenging for an instructor to monitor how the student is using their screen reader. Because Katt’s student called her using the Amazon Echo smart speaker, Katt was able to clearly hear the student’s VoiceOver on their iPhone through the Amazon Echo call.

But while technology and TMAP certainly have their place, now more than ever, one of the most basic and vital tools is the trusty white cane as Danette Davis observes.

“I have my students stand up with their canes at home and we talk about the cane mechanics of intersection crossing. One time, a student put their phone case on a lanyard and walked down their hallway in their apartment building so I could watch how their cane moved.”

Other O&M instructors have also found creative ways to work with their students remotely. When a student didn’t yet have tactile maps, Chris Williams had the student create intersections with pencils. Dawn Leeflang has students problem-solve the scenario of a bus never showing up. Jennifer Huey has gone outside to record the surge of oncoming parallel traffic so her students can hear what that sounds like. Marie Trudelle has students use a GPS app to practice making turns and tracking cardinal directions.

Robert Alminana, who works with many students who don’t have smart phones or internet access, talks about how he’s shifted the focus of his training.

“I’m doing a lot of assessments, asking students questions [about their mobility skills]. I’m helping students with Paratransit and DMV [Disabled Person] Placard applications. We are planning transit routes.”

Several of the instructors expressed that one of the things they miss most is not getting the “mileage” with students, that is, the in-person walking that is the heart of most O&M lessons. Gina Di Grazia found a workaround for one of her students, Jim. One time, she observed Jim using his white cane to walk a pedestrian pathway that runs through grass, thanks to a real time video his wife took through a cell phone. Gina comments that Jim seemed primed for the unorthodox approach to cane skills training.

“He is brand new to cane use and running with it.”

LightHouse continues to accept new students for O&M training by appointment, including Department of Rehabilitation and Veterans Affairs students. For more information, please contact Debbie Bacon at dbacon@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7357.

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