There’s plenty of mystery surrounding orientation and mobility specialists. While many know about the work of occupational therapists and speech pathologists, this profession is less well known. It’s unique because O&Ms solely support people with vision impairment, so what does an orientation and mobility specialist do?
It’s a relatively new profession, with only a small number of universities offering qualifications in this field. Anyone who teaches white cane navigation in Australia has to be a qualified Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS).
What does an orientation and mobility specialist do?
How do they help someone with low or no vision?
Orientation and mobility specialists teach people with vision impairment safe, efficient skills to navigate and manoeuvre independently with a white cane. It’s a fairly long job title, often shortened to O&M. They can teach you:
- How to get about safely and move confidently in different environments with and without a white cane.
- Providing one-on-one instruction to use a white cane safely and independently.
- Developing skills for safe and independent travel including.
- Sighted guide technique. Also known as human guide, when someone guides the person to another area.
- Utilising a variety of senses to manoeuvre around your environment. Learning about visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular, olfactory and proprioceptive senses and how they inter-relate with one another.
- Echo-location skills to improve self-orientation.
- How to cross the road safely, using traffic control devices and how to confidently use public transport.
- Techniques to build a mental map of routes and using landmarks to help.
- Learning to use smart phone apps like Google Maps and specialist orientation apps designed for people with blindness and low vision.
- Assessment and training on use of secondary mobility aids like ultrasonic mobility aids and sensory development.
- Exploring motor skills and balance required for improved posture and gait.
The long white cane and its use as a mobility device came about a century ago. In 1921 James Biggs, a photographer from Bristol in England became blind following an accident. Concerned about being hit by traffic around his home, he painted his walking stick white to be more visible to motorists. His white cane invention spread to other countries.
After World War II, Doctor Richard Hoover developed the long white cane to help servicemen who’d fought in the war and had returned home blind or partially sighted. The Hoover cane became the tool for mobility. There are many types of white canes – from folding to telescoping to electronic – but their purpose is the same.
How do you become an O&M?
Anyone who wants to become an O&M in Australia must undergo specific training and this includes:
- Completing a one-year postgraduate qualification, which is only available in the Eastern states.
- Completing 250 hours of mobility training as a student.
- Becoming a professional member of the Orientation and Mobility Association of Australasia – OMAA.
- After graduating, they need to work towards becoming a certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS). To become certified, an online exam from ACVREP (Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals) must be completed.
Meet our O&M specialists
Our O&M’s are based in the north and south of the state. Let’s introduce the team and learn more about them.
Hasmukh – Team Leader
Hasmukh completed a commerce degree in India. While studying, he undertook some volunteering work at a rehabilitation centre in Mumbai and his interest in studying O&M developed from there.
“Family connections are strong in India. It’s common to find three generations living together. My Grandma had poor eyesight and cataracts, so I used to help her because of her vision loss.”
Hasmukh moved to England to complete a Diploma in Rehabilitation Studies and Vision Impairment. He worked with local authorities and charities providing sensory support services. In 2019 he migrated to Perth and joined VisAbility.
“I can’t think of a better job than an accredited O&M Specialist. There’s job satisfaction, you meet new people and spend most of the day outdoors enjoying the beautiful Australian surroundings.”
Elsa is based in Hobart, and has a Bachelor of Education degree and a graduate diploma in Orientation and Mobility.
Elsa has worked at VisAbility for four years. Before that she spent 20 years in special education teaching.
“I am a teacher at heart, so I am well suited to being an O&M because I teach and guide clients to access their community, build confidence and achieve goals.”
She says O&M is the perfect career for her because it involves an element problem-solving and improvisation.
Jodi is also based in northern Tasmania and has a Master’s in Special Education (Sensory Disability).
She has been working as an Orientation & Mobility Specialist since 2006.
Jodie enjoys her role because she’s providing people who are blind and have low vision with skills to be safe and independent.
“Orientation and Mobility is such a varied role because you are helping people to navigate their communities and working with a diverse group of people.”
Courtney is based in Hobart. She worked as a secondary school teacher for seven years, teaching health, physical education and dance.
With her background in teaching, she enjoys working with children and adolescents.
“I decided to switch careers after teaching students with low vision in the classroom. I also spent a period of time working with Guide Dogs, so both careers inspired me to become an O&M specialist,” she explains.
“There’s tremendous satisfaction knowing I am helping clients to find their way around their school or local community, safely crossing roads and independently use public transport.”
How to get support
Please complete the form below to make an initial enquiry about the low vision services and support we can provide. Our Client Experience Team will contact you to discuss your individual needs both now and in the future.
If you are a provider and wish to refer a client, please use our low vision medical certificate (online referral form) to make your referral.