Wednesday 2 May 2018

First Steps: Orientation and Mobility Training and Canes

By Roiben

I was first offered the Orientation and Mobility Training to use a cane when I was a teenager. At that time the last thing I wanted was something else to differentiate me from my peers. I always regretted that decision. As I grew older and travelled further and more often, the idea of something which could help things be a bit better became more appealing. So when, at the beginning of the year, my Sensory Services adviser from the local council suggested putting me forward for Mobility Training I naturally agreed.

Today I had my first meeting with the Mobility Officer and she agreed that a Long Cane would be good for me. I got to try a cane to see how it felt. Even from those few steps in my small flat I felt the potential. I am now booked in for once weekly training in using a cane, with specific focus on stairs, walking in the street and a little on using escalators. The specifics and focus change from person to person depending on individual needs. In my case these were the things highlighted as needed when I described my issues to the Mobility Officer.

So, what is Orientation and Mobility Training and what is a cane? Most cultures are familiar with the stereotypical image of a blind person walking along sweeping or tapping a white stick in front of them. That white stick is a cane. I am focusing on the canes used for visual impairments here — the word cane is also used when referring to mobility aids such as walking sticks.

There are actually four types of cane. The first is the Symbol Cane. This shows that the person holding it is partially sighted, that is they have low but useful vision. It is typically held in front of the person and quite close and is much shorter than the other canes.

The second is the Guide Cane. This cane is longer and is used for finding obstacles in front of the individual. It is typically held diagonally across the body.

The third, the Long Cane, and the one I will be trained in using, is probably most people’s stereotypical view of what a visually impaired person would be using. It is the longest of the canes and you need specialized training in order to use it.

This training is called Orientation and Mobility training (or O & M for short). This instructs individuals who are blind or visually impaired how to travel safely and effectively. Orientation is about knowing where you are at any given time. Mobility is about how one gets safely from A to B. This is the training I will be starting on Monday.

The fourth cane is the Red and White cane. Any of the other three canes can be banded with red and white stripes, and the Long Cane I eventually get will have this colouring. The red and white stripes symbolize that the person using the cane has both visual and hearing impairments. There is a shocking lack of awareness of this despite it being in the Highway Code. Deafblind UK explain it much better than I can and include a link to the specific Highway Code sections, just in case you don’t believe it.

I am excited to start the training but as with anything new, I am also anxious about it. I have done research online into Orientation and Mobility and I have asked people in Facebook groups about their opinions on canes, what the pros and cons are, and what they thought of training. One of the key things I have picked up from this is that canes can be incredibly helpful, although they also draw a lot of attention and the occasional unexpected grabbing of the arm to “help”. I will say here, always announce yourself first and please ask if the individual needs help before dragging them off somewhere!

I was also told that training works best when blindfolded. I have had a panic about this: How am I meant to know what the trainer is trying to get me to do with a blindfold on? How could this possibly work? I have a severe hearing loss and wear hearing aids which typically squeal when subjected to things like blindfolds, phones, ear muffs etc. Even with the hearing aids I am largely reliant on lip-reading to figure out what someone is saying. Even with people I have known for years and who talk clearly and loudly (such as my boyfriend) I need to lip-read to fill in the blanks that residual hearing doesn’t pick up (typically lip-reading picks up 30–40% of speech, if you are good at it).

So yes, I am anxious, but am sure I can let the Mobility Officer know about this. She knows I class myself as Deaf. She is getting me a Red and White cane and in our first meeting, made sure to check I was okay with lip-reading her (not all deaf people can lip-read) and that I didn’t need or prefer an interpreter for switching to BSL (British Sign Language). She also made sure I could see her to lip-read when she stood across the room to show me the primary technique used with the cane (sweeping).

As I am very new to all of this it would be great to hear from more people, whether blind, partially sighted or deaf-blind. What are your experiences of Orientation and Mobility training and the use of canes? Do you have a preference of cane and what are your experiences of using them in the Big Wide World of people out there?


About the Author

You can find Roiben on Twitter (@roiben).



  1. Hello! As an Orientation and Mobility instructor from the US I applaud your willingness to learn the long cane! I hope you find it useful and helpful!

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