Leader Dogs for the Blind Offers Excellent Orientation and Mobility Training

A few years ago, after several serious injuries, I knew it was time to seek white cane training. The wait for such services in my state can be 2-3 years long. I took to the internet to find alternatives and discovered the Accelerated Orientation and Mobility (AOM) program at Leader Dogs for the Blind. This week-long course was free, including airfare to the training center in Michigan. I knew this was a great opportunity so I applied. It was one of the most important steps I have taken to adjust to my vision loss.

I had no idea how much there was to learn about Orientation and Mobility and how much it would change my life for the better. I had a wonderful experience at Leader Dogs and want to share this resource with others who may be considering cane training. Here you will find an interview with Erica Ihrke who works at Leader Dog with the AOM program.

Male student learning to cross a street with his O+M instructor looking on

Client crossing street with instructor looking on

Audrey: Tell me a bit about yourself, credentials, and professional experience.

Erica: I am a Certified Orientation & Mobility Specialist (COMS) and the Manager of Extended Services at Leader Dogs for the Blind. I’ve been employed at Leader Dog for the past 16 years. I have a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Central Michigan University and Master of Arts in Orientation & Mobility from Western Michigan University.

I have been a part of the team to incorporate GPS into the guide dog curriculum here at Leader Dog. Accelerated O&M Training has grown from an average of 26 clients per year to 75 last fiscal year. Summer Experience Camp was developed and O&M Interns are now a part of the Leader Dog culture. I have published two research articles with colleagues about GPS and its benefits for people who are blind or visually impaired. Additionally, I have presented at local, national & international conferences about the Leader Dog model used for O&M instruction and various topics related to accessible GPS.

Audrey: What do you find most rewarding about teaching O+M skills to clients?

Erica: The thing I love most about teaching O&M is actually teaching. Through the model that we use at Leader Dog we quickly see growth in skills. Clients that arrive on Sunday and depart the following Saturday are noticeably transformed with new skills for daily travel.

Audrey: Why are O+M and cane skills important? What do you see as the benefits to clients?

Erica: O&M skills are so important because if you know how to get somewhere and can do it safely then opportunities are made available. The benefits are endless… socialization, work, fitness and health, etc.

Audrey: Can you give a brief explanation of the training and highlight the skills needed to be a safe and independent traveler?

Erica: O&M training that occurs through Accelerated O&M at Leader Dog starts with arrivals on Sunday and departures on Saturday. One -on-one instruction with a COMS occurs Monday through Friday. On each day two to three lessons are completed in morning and afternoon sessions with short breaks in between each lesson to digest information. Generally one night travel lesson is accomplished after dark one evening. The skills taught to be a safe and independent traveler include using a white cane, utilizing a human guide,orientation skills and cardinal directions (i.e., north, south, east, west) to know where you are, where you want to go and how to get there, solving problems such as barriers, crowds, etc., crossing streets safely, re-orientating, shopping, soliciting assistance when needed, and more. Training takes place in a wide variety of environments, such as residential, semi-business, business, city and country settings.

Accelerated O&M training is provided free of charge at Leader Dogs for the Blind’s Rochester Hills, Michigan campus to those who are legally blind and at least 16 years of age, regardless of whether or not they plan to eventually train with a guide dog. Individualized, one-on-one instruction is provided during five days to meet goals agreed on by the client and COMS

Audrey: In your professional opinion, when is it time for O+M training? How do you know when you are ready for this as a visually impaired person?

Erica: It’s time for O&M training when you find yourself looking down to travel rather than keeping your head up, when you find that you are bumping into things that you didn’t see, or when you find you are limiting the places to which you go. O&M training is not a one-time instruction and then you are done. If you have had O&M training previously you should consider retraining if you are experiencing changes in your environment (a move or new traffic controls are put into place) or changes in your confidence or skill level.

Female student walking with her new white cane

Client walking with O+M instructor

Audrey: What do you see as the barriers and resistance clients have to O+M training?

Erica: One barrier to O&M training may be that the individual is waiting for services in his/her home area and that service is not provided in a frequent and on-going manner. A resistance to O&M training may be that someone does not want to carry a white cane. In this instance it is best that the individual is accepting of needing some assistance. A cane is an identifier and does create more awareness of a person’s visual impairment. Additionally it is a tool that can help identify obstacles and locate landmarks. But there is more to O&M than utilizing a white cane. More importantly it is knowing where you are, being able to plan where you want to go & knowing how to get there safely.

Audrey: What do clients say once they have experienced the skills to travel with a cane?

Erica: I’ve had several clients tell me that they didn’t think they needed more O&M training and they just came because we required it for them to go on to guide dog training with a Leader Dog. They have ALL also told me that they were extremely glad they came for training because they learned so much and now felt more comfortable with their travel abilities.

“[Because my O&M instructor is keeping me safe during training] I know that I am going to be able to make mistakes, it’s going to be OK, and I’m also going to be able to succeed and feel good about it,” said client Sheila Roussey.

“I just wanted to get more proficient to use the cane so that I could get around a lot better and not have to depend on people,” said client Susan Miller.

Thank you Erica for sharing this information. And thank you Leader Dogs for the Blind for your commitment and dedication to the mission of empowering people who are blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind with lifelong skills of independent and safe travel. To learn more and apply to the AOM program visit: http://www.leaderdog.org/clients/programs/accelerated-o-m-program                                                                        Happy Trails!!

Advertisements

Happy Birthday Ms. Sophie!

My guide dog turned 5 years old yesterday. All day I pondered the ways she enriches my life and facilitates my independence. I celebrated her with extra hugs and special attentions and she ate it up. I even fixed her a “birthday” treat which my sister shared with me. (Take several doggie treats and place them in a small bowl. Cover with water or chicken broth and freeze. Pop it out of the bowl and give to your dog) Sophie loved her popsicle and worked on it out in the yard. She also got a juicy bone to chew today!

Sophie enjoying her birthday popsicle

Sophie enjoying her birthday popsicle

     ” Be the person your dog thinks you are.”

It just so happened that Leader Dogs for the Blind asked me to write a list of “Top Ten Ways My Leader Dog Assists Me” for a media campaign the day before Sophie’s birthday. I enjoyed thinking about that list and it marked her birthday in a special way. So here is what I came up with:

Top Ten Ways My Leader Dog Assists Me…

    10. My Leader Dog helps me to live a healthy walking lifestyle.

     9.  With my Leader Dog, I am more engaged in my community with    organizations like Lions Clubs and local school groups.

     8. My Leader Dog helps break the ice and start conversations socially.

     7. I feel confident and eager to go places with my Leader Dog.

     6. My Leader Dog gets me from here to there with style, grace, and efficiency.

     5. My Leader Dog keeps me on a schedule and encourages me to play.

     4. My Leader dog helps me walk in a straight line, maintaining my balance, pace, and route.

     3.My Leader Dog assists me to stay safe while walking, avoiding obstacles like curbs, signs, and people.

     2.With my Leader Dog, I am able to walk with my head up and enjoy my surroundings.

…and the #1 way my guide dog assists me is she provides unlimited love, adoration and devotion which lifts my spirit and enriches my life…what is not great about being adored?! 

Happy Birthday Sophie…I love you to the moon and back!

Walking With Sophie

I no longer take this for granted…the ability to walk out my door, unafraid and confident, into the bright and blinding sun to go for a walk in my neighborhood. It is still summer and temperatures will be in the 90’s today, so I try to go early. I don my sunglasses and hat and call to Sophie.

“Let’s go for our walk girl,” I coo. She stretches and eagerly comes forward.

“Get dressed,” I say with the harness out and she slips her head in gracefully.

With one fluid motion, clipping the leash and harness, we are off. We have been a bit off schedule with a recent vacation and extra hot days of late. We both need this walk today to maintain our girlish figures. We have several routes to choose from and will walk two-three miles in all. As we leave the driveway, Sophie demonstrates a strong preference for the route that will take us directly to the ball field where she likes to romp. Not today girl, we need to get in a couple of miles. I coax her in the opposite direction and she obediently but ploddingly complies. I think she is feeling a bit lazy today and I can certainly relate.

“Hup up girl!” I sing to her.

And then I feel it…the spring in her step. Her head is up and she is moving jauntily now. That’s my girl! I have pocketed a couple of treats in case she needs additional motivation today. Sophie knows our routes and she anticipates my commands. We are doing country travel at first. She takes me around several parked cars and trash cans, gliding along. The sun is so painful that I close my eyes as she expertly guides me. She slows when our first turn comes up and angles her body slightly toward the turn.

“Good girl, Sophie! Right!” I praise her as I sweep my arm sideways.

We cross the road and enter the wooded path. Immediately, we both appreciate the shade of the leafy trees and take note of the bird sounds. Sophie’s ears and nose twitch and she is alert. We are walking at a good exercise pace now, stretching out our stride. Suddenly, she stops abruptly and I wonder why. There is debris on the path; fallen tree branches after a storm which I discover with my feet. Ahhh, that’s my girl.

“Good girl, Sophie-that’s it! Good job!” I exclaim and rub her ears.

She saved me from tripping and kissing the asphalt, which I have done many times in the past before I had Sophie. And she earns herself a piece of kibble just because I appreciate her skills. Off we go again. Along the way, we encounter the neighbor’s squawking tropical bird, a barking dog or two, and people on bicycles who whiz past me before I even realize they are there. Sophie takes it all in but remains focused, only needing an occasional reminder to “leave it.” We move as one.

The walking path leaves the woods and we are at a crosswalk, in full sun again. It feels good but the day is definitely heating up. Sophie stands at the crossing, waiting my command. I survey the street; look, listen, and look again.

“Sophie, forward,” I say and we step out into the road and then “find the curb” when we are midway.

There is no fear and no hesitation any more on my part…I am enjoying our morning walk, able to attend to my surroundings and walk with my head up. Because I am not anxious and I can depend on Sophie to do her job, it is a pleasant daily excursion. We cross another road expertly and pick up the path again. Sophie picks up her pace as she knows we are nearing the ball field at the end of our route. A golf cart appears out of nowhere and Sophie angles me to the side of the path, just out of the way of this passing vehicle. She always sees them and hears them coming before I do and is ready to make way. We top the hill and the recreation complex appears. Sophie is excited. Yes girl, we will go play for a while.

“Sophie, right,” I motion and say. She quickly turns on a dime.

We enter the ball field, close all the gates and I release Sophie from her harness. It is like a giant playpen for her and her favorite place. She takes off in a fit of zig-zags, circles and figure eights which I call her “zoomies.” When she tuckers out, she leisurely wanders the field, taking in its intoxicating scents. She could sniff all day-one of her greatest pleasures as a golden retriever. I walk the fence line, listen for the jingle of her collar and keep in touch with her.

“Sophie, touch!” I call to her.

She runs to me and puts her wet nose in the palm of my hand, never very far away. Sometimes, we lie in the sun on the grass together, enjoying the freedom, the exercise, the ease of our relationship and the beauty of the day. It is no small thing to be able to enjoy a walk by yourself with your guide dog. I am blessed and I am grateful for Sophie.

 

The White Cane: A Useful Tool

There comes a time when it just makes sense to use a white cane when you are losing your vision. Most of us resist this rite of passage, fearing the stigmas, myths, and images associated with the “dreaded white cane.” In my case, something awful had to happen to wake me up to the reality that I was no longer a safe traveler. I had many falls and sprained ankles which I attributed to clumsiness. As my vision worsened, the falls became more frequent and I was forced to admit it was not just clumsiness. While at work, I took a series of falls which raised concerns with my employer. Then I fell at home and ended up having ankle reconstruction surgery. I knew it was time to consider using a cane.

I called various vision rehabilitation services to inquire how to get training. They pointed me to the state vocational rehabilitation agency where I applied for services, to include what is called Orientation and Mobility (O+M) training. Unfortunately, in my state there is a long waiting list and a shortage of funds to serve the disabled. After waiting a year with no word from the state agency, I tried to find private instructors to teach me O+M and was told there were none available and it would be cost prohibitive. So, I turned to the internet and found the Accelerated Orientation and Mobility (AOM) program offered by Leader Dogs for the Blind (LDB). This is a seven day, one-on-one, intensive course taught by certified O+M specialists at the training center in Rochester Hills, Michigan. The cost to the client: FREE.

I always thought I would eventually get a guide dog and when I researched this option I learned good O+M skills were a prerequisite to using a dog for mobility. However, the AOM program is for anyone who wants to learn to use a white cane, whether or not there is interest in using a guide dog in the future. With great anticipation and a bit of trepidation, I applied for the AOM program. LDB walked me through the process, made all the travel arrangements, and paid all the expenses. All I had to do was show up at the airport and be ready to learn. The flight to Michigan was easy with assistance from the airline escort service. When I arrived in Michigan, LDB staff was there to greet me.

My week at LDB was an incredible experience. The accommodations were very comfortable and visually impaired friendly. The staff was welcoming and professional. On the first morning, I was fitted with my new cane and the teaching began. It felt awkward in my hands, but I was eager to learn. The days’ lessons built on each other as my skills developed. There is so much more to Orientation and Mobility than I ever imagined. It is not just about thwacking a cane around. It involves cane techniques such as the grip, the swing, and two-point touch. There is shore-lining, stairs, and street crossings to master. I was struck with the difference the cane made immediately. I was able to walk with my head up and with a normal gait as I learned to use the information my cane gave me. No more staring at the ground and shuffling like a grandma! It felt wonderful to stand tall and take in the surrounding environment. I learned to plan a route, use environmental cues to orient myself, and get from point A to point B safely. It was so exhilarating to realize I could once again get myself to where I wanted to go. I will be forever grateful for the gift of this training from Leader Dogs for the Blind as it was the beginning of regaining my independence.

I like how the cane identifies me as visually impaired so I do not have to explain this. At first, I thought it would make me appear “disabled”, but on the contrary, I think I appear more “able”, traveling on my own with confidence. And so, I embraced my cane. Before long, instead of feeling awkward with it, I felt awkward without it. If your cane is stashed away in a closet, aging like fine wine, I encourage you to get it out and use it. If you have been putting off learning to use a white cane, consider the AOM program at LDB as a great place to start. Don’t wait until a serious injury happens. In the end, I learned the white cane is simply a useful mobility tool that helps keep me safe and independent.

Adjusting My Career to Vision Loss

The day I graduated from the University of Arizona in 1983 with a nursing degree was a personal triumph. I looked forward to a career I dreamed of since childhood. I was certain I had found my life’s passion in nursing and my future was full of promise and excitement. Then at age 25, a vision exam turned everything upside down. The diagnosis was Retinitis Pigmentosa and my future became uncertain.

A long journey followed as I struggled to adjust to vision loss and redesign my life and career. In the early stages of visual changes, I continued working in a hospital. My husband and I started a family. I tried not to think about the future possibility of more vision loss. At age 30, with three children and a part-time job at the local hospital, I lost my driver’s license. This was the first of many losses which would change my life forever. Grief, depression, isolation, frustration and disappointment set in. My life and career were not shaping up as I imagined.

For the next ten years, my vision deteriorated slowly. I struggled to keep up at home and on the job. There were times when I doubted my abilities to be a good nurse and mother. My husband and I pulled together and found creative ways to get around obstacles. Always supportive, he affirmed me and encouraged me to continue to pursue working as a nurse. Eventually, I gave up working in the hospital setting when the pace, lighting, and technical duties limited my ability to function. It was difficult to let go and even more difficult to find the next job. There was much to consider: personal limitations, employers’ reactions and concerns, transportation problems, co-workers’ attitudes and more. Out of sheer determination, I landed jobs in a variety of settings from student health on a college campus to doctors’ offices. Sometimes it required hiding my visual impairment, which was very stressful. On one job, I was confronted with it and told I was “too great of a liability” and let go. Through many such experiences, I learned to defend my work, advocate for my rights, present my limitations to employers and co-workers, and find resources that enabled me to perform the essential duties of my job. At times I wanted to give up, but was always driven by my passion for nursing and the belief that there was still some job out there for me. After all, nursing is more than the ability to perform technical tasks. It is more often about understanding patient needs, giving care and comfort, exercising skilled judgment, and educating patients and their families. With low vision, I could still do these things. The challenge was always in finding the right job, presenting myself as a capable and conscientious practitioner, and working out the transportation conundrum.

In 1994, I was declared legally blind. Undaunted by this, I found a job as a school nurse when we relocated to Georgia. This environment proved to be ideal and I enjoyed years of support and collaboration with my principal, the staff, students and parents. But it was not easy…it was never easy. The role was challenging and the job required lots of paperwork. I was having problems with mobility and reading printed word by then. So I sought vision rehabilitation services. I received a low vision evaluation, assistive work technology training, orientation and mobility training, and daily skills training. This was again a redefining and redesigning of self. For now, the vision impairment was known to all. Though I have never “looked blind”, all the new accoutrements and trappings proved it was so.

Upon returning to school one year, I had three serious falls in the first two weeks of school. I was tripping on obstacles I did not see because they were in my blindspots. I sustained minor injuries such as bruises and a sprained wrist. However, falls were becoming a growing concern both to me and my employer. At that point I realized I needed to take the initiative to keep myself safe in the workplace. An orientation and mobility instructor trained me in the use of a white cane and fall prevention.Before I began using the cane “publicly”, I asked to speak to the staff about this change. I wanted to allay their concerns, assure them I could still do my job, and ease the transition for myself. So I spoke at a faculty meeting and explained the whys and hows of using a cane for personal safety.

Assessing a student at school

Assessing a student at school

By now, I was using many tools and devices for low vision. I wore thick magnifying glasses which the students called my “goo-goo goggles”. A large video magnifier helped me read. I used hand held magnifiers and special lights to assess skin rashes and other boo-boos. ZoomText enabled me to manage student files on the computer. Eventually, I introduced the school to my first guide dog, Sophie who quickly became a beloved school mascot. I adopted a straightforward way of explaining these tools and taught the school community what it means to be visually impaired. I developed a no-nonsense approach to problem-solving and self-advocacy in order to keep my job and do it well. I demonstrated that people with disabilities are capable of contributing in meaningful ways. I learned to be tenacious and resilient. And I was grateful for the opportunity to practice nursing.

Sophie and I at JC Booth Middle School

Sophie and I at JC Booth Middle School

After 11 years as a school nurse, I retired. I recently worked with a vision rehabilitation agency as an adjustment to blindness counselor and diabetic educator, another attempt to hone my professional skills. I started a support group in my hometown to assist the visually impaired community to find resources, support, and services. I enjoy teaching, speaking, and writing on topics such as diabetes and vision loss, health and nutrition, adjustment to blindness, depression, stress management, self-advocacy and guide dogs. I draw on both professional training and life experiences as a visually impaired nurse. My career has not been what I originally imagined, but it has been rich and fulfilling. I am excited to see what comes next as I explore new opportunities.