How To Help a Blind Person Memorize a New Area

The best way to help people is to help them help themselves.

Today on Safe Space, we’re covering a rather advanced sighted ally skill. Until last week, I’d never met anyone besides my immediate family who could do it. Want to learn? Keep reading!

O&M (orientation and mobility) is the term used to describe the method of showing a blind person around an unfamiliar place. It can be as simple as orienting someone to a single building, or as complex as assisting a blindy in learning a multiple transit route across the city. Trained professionals, O&M instructors, work with blindies around the globe to ensure they have the independence to get out and live their lives. O&M instructors scout out the easiest route from point A to point B both using Google maps and on foot, point out tactile and auditory landmarks along the way, and teach skills to new mobility aid users such as traffic checks and accessible transit protocol. All that jargon sounds overwhelming, but it is an O&M instructor’s job to take what’s overwhelming and make it manageable. For you super cool sighties who want to learn this skill, no one will expect you to do the fancy O&M instructor things.

Disclaimer: I would advise any well-meaning sighty to make sure the blindy they are going to assist has had training with a professional O&M instructor before you set out. They should be proficient in using their mobility aid of choice (white cane or guide dog) and know how to perform traffic checks (listening to the vehicles and crossing the street when they surge forward parallel to you).

O&M with Jenna Faris

That doesn’t sound nearly as cool as “Tidying up with Marie Kondo” but oh well. Every blindy’s strategy will likely be slightly different from my approach, but I’ll walk you through how I like to learn a new route. It should be pretty similar to most blindies’ tactics.

As many of you who follow me on social media know, I am moving at the end of this month, and I recently found a place. Better than that, I found a fantastic landlady. To make a long story short, she went to elementary school with several blindies and has an innate and personal understanding of how to do O&M. She helped my guide dog, Susie, and I learn the way from my new apartment to the bus stop in less than twenty minutes. Here’s how we did it.

Learning a new route can be nerve-wracking. There’s so much to remember and so much to focus on, and sometimes, it’s too much all at once. I like to begin the process by simply casually walking the route with someone first. My dad coined this idea when I was about twelve. My two older blind brothers hadn’t needed this step, but my dad recognized that I was a bit less confident and more prone to stress and anxiety. We found that going on a nice father-daughter walk along our route of choice was a great way to ease me into things. We would chat about our surroundings, him pointing out landmarks like overgrown bushes or tactile differences in the pavement, and me asking questions about what the large shadows I saw were and what businesses we were passing. By the time the walk was over, I always felt comfortable trying it on my own. My landlady and I took this tact, and we chatted companionably as we walked the three blocks or so from the bus to the apartment. She took care to show me push buttons, point out curb cuts, bushes, and the myriad of alleys and parking garages between the street crossings. When we reached the apartment, I recapped what I’d learned and she confirmed that I had remembered it correctly. Then we turned around and I took the lead on the way back to the bus. I checked things off my list, like the number of dips in the pavement that signaled parking garages, and she confirmed my step by step account and added more landmarks on the return trip. The first time a blindy walks a new route is important for two reasons. First, it is important to be confident in your decisions and know with certainty that you are going the right way. This is why our sighted companion walks behind us but still close enough to provide additional information and confirmation if needed. Second, for guide dog users with crazy smart pooches like mine, a route deviation on the first trip can be interpreted by the dog as the route itself. For instance, if I miscounted the pavement dips and went one block too far, Susie might think that our destination was always one block further and try to go that way every time we traveled that route. For this reason, I try to do the route perfectly the first time I walk it. I’m not the only one learning where we’re going, Susie is too. It’s important that the first time we travel the new route, we do it right. Then my sweet Susie will know what’s going on in future.

Anyway, we arrived at the bus stop with no issues, and I requested that my landlady tell me what buses stopped there. After that we went back to the corner, and she gave me a brief rundown of what businesses were around. We had some extra time, so we chatted at a sidewalk table in the sunshine for a while before heading off to our meeting. Half an hour later, Susie and I were on our way to the bus, walking the route we had just learned independently. I went home, gave Susie a treat for her brilliance, and briefly wrote out the route for future reference. I’ll review my written instructions before I travel it again to make sure I remember it correctly.

Step-by-step guide to boss O&M

  1. Walk the new route from start to finish with the blindy. Point out anything that can be used as a landmark to help them remember where they are, mention any potential difficulties like noise or construction, and answer any questions they ask about their surroundings.
  2. Repeat step 1 as many times as it takes for them to feel comfortable trying it without sighted guide. For longer routes, this may take a few walkthroughs, for shorter routes, they could be ready on the second try. Pro tip: if the route is super long, it can be helpful to break it up into a few smaller routes. I.E. route 1. Home to the bus stop. Route 2. Transition between bus stop and SkyTrain station. Route 3. From SkyTrain station to new workplace.
  3. Walk behind the blindy as they travel the new route for the first time. Answer any questions, confirm any correct observations, and assist them if they request your help. It’s a good idea to ask the blindy what they would like you to do before setting out. I.E. cane users may prefer to problem-solve on their own if they go a bit off course.
  4. If they request it, sit down with the blindie after they have walked the route and help them write out the details of the route. You may remember information they have forgotten or recall additional information you hadn’t yet mentioned.
  5. Stand back and watch them be independent, and be proud you had a part in it.

All right, that was a lot of information, take a moment to digest. If you have any questions at all, I’d love to answer them in the comments. Also, if anyone, blind or sighted, has any tips or tricks they’d like to share, I’d love to hear about them!

Before I end today’s post, I want to thank each and every one of you new followers. It’s so exciting to see my audience grow, and so rewarding to hope my words may spark more inclusion and more awareness. Thank you to all of you who have joined our little Safe Space community. Wishing you all a great week ahead.

Be kind, and be aware.

Have questions? Got a topic in mind you’d like me to write about? Please feel free to contact me

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