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Spring 2005 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

How I Learned What O&M Means

By B.J. Bond, Deafblind Family Leadership Participant, Wylie, TX

Abstract: One of the Deafblind Family Leaders share her experiences in learning what O&M means for her young daughter who has multiple disabilities.

Keywords: Family, blind, deafblind, Orientation & Mobility

I’ll never forget the very first IFSP for our younger daughter. Milena was only three months old and had already been diagnosed with Cortical Visual Impairment before she ever left the NICU. There was a teacher of the visually impaired present (TVI) at the IFSP and vision services were set at once a week. As we were signing the papers, she leaned to me and said, “I’m certified in O&M, so I’ll be working on some of that too even though it’s not in the IFSP yet.” She smiled and patted my hand, so I assumed this was a good thing and smiled at her with a convincing, “Okay.”

Whatever O&M was, she was welcome to do it. Milena had endured what we call “a bumpy start to life,” which amounted to an extreme lack of oxygen at birth (she was resuscitated after delivery), followed by a massive cerebral stroke during her first week struggling to survive. We knew we were going to need all of the help we could get for Milena to make any progress at all. So whatever this O&M thing was that the helpful vision teacher would be squeezing in was certainly fine with me.

During that first year, I learned how to explain to my friends what the TVI does with my daughter. They would look at me puzzled, asking what on earth would be done during the times she came to our home. I finally learned to say, “the teacher of the visually impaired works with Melina on learning a particular objective through directed play with specific toys.” It sounded fancy enough. But I never mentioned that the vision teacher was also doing O&M. There was no way to explain what I still didn’t know. During her visits, I noticed that our TVI was using descriptive words like, “behind”, “beside,” and “next to,” as well as colors of objects such as “the red ball” or “the pink pom-pom.” I thought she was insane for using these specific terms that Milena obviously could no more understand than our cat could. Why was she so insistent on specifics?

The answer would come during our second IFSP meeting, when O&M services would actually be added in formally. It was here that O&M was spelled out for me, and I learned that it meant Orientation and Mobility. Once I had the official name, I bravely stepped in by asking what exactly would be done during the O&M session. The TVI/O&M teacher explained that she would be working on helping Milena get oriented so that she could move about in her world. Now this really sounded crazy. Milena had just been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and wasn’t even sitting up by herself, much less trying to crawl or walk or anything else. And we’re talking about moving through her world? The look on my face gave me away. The O&M teacher smiled at me and said, “I know she’s not moving anywhere on her own. But if we start now, giving her ideas about relations in space—directive and descriptive words—then when she is starting to move on her own, she’ll already know where her left and right are, along with beside her and behind her, as well as all the colors to help her navigate. We have to plant that seed now.” Okay, now this made sense. We were laying groundwork for the day she would walk and tool about on her own.

In the next few months, it became apparent that walking was a further-reaching goal than we had thought. Milena had finally just learned to keep herself in the sitting position without holding on to anyone. She made it perfectly clear that she wasn’t going anywhere alone. During O&M sessions, the teacher would get down in the floor with her and try to get her in different positions: resting on her hands, kneeling, all fours. This looked like the same work that the Occupational Therapist was doing. If Milena wasn’t going to walk, and everything during O&M seemed a repeat of the occupational therapist visit, why were we even keeping O&M in the mix?

It seemed pointless until one afternoon when I was playing with Milena and I tried to convince her to get on all fours to play. By this time, we could tell she could see people, and she would often look at us right in the eye. On this particular day, she began fighting me immediately so I somehow positioned myself where I could see her face better and she would hopefully see me. She looked up at me and cried out with the most pained and scared look on her face. I instantly scooped her up and held her close to let her know that she was okay. When I mentioned this the next day to the O&M teacher, she looked at me and simply

said, “Well, of course, wouldn’t you be scared if you had always felt something underneath you your whole life and suddenly someone was trying to take it away?” A million lights, buzzers, and bells went off right then for me—I GOT IT.

Orientation and Mobility wasn’t about teaching someone to walk around in the world. It was making someone who is visually impaired want to move through the world. This explained why the teacher insisted that I carry Milena next to me as much as possible instead of in the baby carrier. It would help Milena learn the way a person moves around. Because she is visually impaired, she’s not as likely to just start moving through her world on her own. To drive this home, I decided to get in some of her favorite positions on the floor and close my eyes. I imagined that I didn’t know the room I was in, or anything about it, and that someone was trying to make me move. This was so scary! My heart ached for my little girl, who now, understandably, never wanted to leave the familiar confines of our living room floor.

But we worked and worked, as other parents do, and Milena did leave the living room floor. She is four years old now and will crawl from the dining room to the living room (a straight shot, but still hard to navigate) to get to her favorite toy. She also recently has begun pushing her own wheelchair, which seemed years away. She can wheel herself around the house provided someone is there to help her back up when she hits a corner, wall, or piece of furniture. She has become braver out in the world, attempting to wheel herself through school to her classroom as well as through Home Depot on those slick cement floors. (We were running to keep up!) She also discovered how the automatic doors work at Walgreen’s, where her father had to chase her outside to keep her from rolling right into the parking lot. Yes, we have come a long way with O&M, and as evidenced from the Walgreen’s experience, we still have a long way to go. But isn’t it all about the journey anyway?

Editor’s Note: On behalf of the Deafblind Family Leadership group, congratulations to BJ, Roy, Katrina and Milena on their double blessing of twin boys, who are due this summer.

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Last Revision: September 1, 2010