Our Readers Want to Know: How Can I Travel Safely Outdoors if I’m Blind or have Low Vision?

Editor’s note: One of the many benefits associated with an online information center and website, such as VisionAware, is the ability to track readers’ search terms [i.e., information readers are seeking as they search the Internet]. The following questions about outdoor travel with low vision or blindness consistently rank within VisionAware’s top twenty information searches:

  • What is orientation and mobility?
  • How can I travel outside if I can’t see?
  • Is it safe to walk outside with just a white cane?

An Answer from Dona Sauerburger, COMS

Dona Sauerburger

This week, during National Glaucoma Awareness Month, our answer comes from Dona Sauerburger, a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) who provides itinerant orientation and mobility services to blind and visually impaired adults and teenagers.

Dona is the author of An Introduction to Orientation and Mobility Skills on the VisionAware website and Independence without Sight or Sound: Suggestions for Practitioners Working with Deaf-Blind Adults, which received the C. Warren Bledsoe Publication Award.

What is Orientation and Mobility?

Orientation and Mobility (O&M) is a profession specific to blindness and low vision that teaches safe, efficient, and effective travel skills to people of all ages:

  • “Orientation” refers to the ability to know where you are and where you want to go, whether you’re moving from one room to another or walking downtown for a shopping trip.
  • “Mobility” refers to the ability to move safely, efficiently, and effectively from one place to another, such as being able to walk without tripping or falling, cross streets, and use public transportation.

What is an Orientation and Mobility Specialist?

An Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist provides instruction that can help you develop or relearn the skills and concepts you need to travel safely and independently within your home and in the community. A Certified O&M Specialist adheres to a professional Code of Ethics and teaches a range of indoor and outdoor mobility skills that include the following:

  • Sensory development, or maximizing all of your senses to help you know where you are and where you want to go
  • Using your senses in combination with self-protective techniques and human guide techniques to move safely through indoor and outdoor environments
  • Using a cane and other devices to walk safely and efficiently
  • Soliciting and/or declining assistance
  • Finding destinations with strategies that include following directions and using landmarks and compass directions
  • Techniques for crossing streets, such as analyzing and identifying intersections and traffic patterns
  • Problem-solving skills to determine what to do if you are disoriented or lost or need to change your route
  • Using public transportation and transit systems.

O&M instruction is usually conducted on a one-to-one basis, and can take place either in the community where you live and/or work (itinerant O&M) or at a rehabilitation center (center-based O&M).

Indoor and Outdoor O&M Travel Skills

If you are an adult who is blind or has low vision, you may have experienced several – or perhaps all – of the following O&M problems and concerns:

  • Bumping into furniture, such as a corner of your coffee table
  • Falling or tripping on an obstacle or step that you cannot see
  • Feeling unsafe when crossing streets
  • Becoming lost or disoriented, either inside your home or out in the community.

Losing your vision, however, does not mean that you’ll have to give up your ability to travel safely and independently. O&M training can provide you with instruction and techniques that can help you maintain your independence. An O&M Specialist can work with you to plan an individualized program of instruction that reflects your personal needs and skills, which can include any or all of the following goals:

  • Getting around safely inside your home
  • Learning the route to your mailbox
  • Taking a walk around the block
  • Shopping independently
  • Using public transportation to get to work
  • Traveling around the world independently

Learning to Use a Cane to Travel

When used correctly, the cane searches the ground ahead of each step. It warns you of obstacles and drop-offs and informs you of what’s in front of you. The correct cane technique, which will provide maximum protection and information, is as follows:

  • The cane is held with the hand centered in front of the body;
  • The cane is moved with wrist/finger movement only, with the arm remaining still;
  • The cane tip is moved in an arc that is about an inch wider than the person’s body;
  • The cane is moved in rhythm with the feet, with the tip always being on the opposite side as the forward foot;
  • The cane tip either slides along the ground (“constant-contact technique”), or touches the ground at each end of the arc and remains no more than an inch above the ground (“touch technique”).

Using a Cane for Outdoor Travel

When used properly, a cane can provide information and protection, regardless of its color – it does not have to be white to be effective. Most canes used by blind people are white, but they are also available in red, black, yellow, and blue; for example, these canes from AmbuTech are available in a range of colors:

Photo of AmbuTech cane colors

However, only a white cane identifies the user as a person who is blind or has low vision. This can be an important consideration when crossing streets and requesting information from store clerks, bus drivers, and the general public. It’s likely that people will be more willing to help if they realize you’re asking for information because you are blind or have low vision.

Additional Orientation and Mobility Information

(Photo credit: AmbuTech. Used with permission.)