Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Canaries in the Coal Mine? Dog Guide Schools Look at the Current State of Orientation and Mobility

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Canaries in the Coal Mine? Dog Guide Schools Look at the Current State of Orientation and Mobility

Article excerpt

As representatives of three major North American dog guide organizations--Guide Dogs for the Blind, Leader Dogs for the Blind, and The Seeing Eye--and as dually qualified certified orientation and mobility specialists (COMs) and guide dog mobility instructors (GDMIs) with many years of assessment experience, we have observed a deterioration in the independent travel skills and readiness for dog guide training of applicants to our respective dog guide schools.

For many years, applicants to dog guide programs could not avail themselves of orientation and mobility (O&M) services, because the services simply did not exist or were not yet widely available. The schools accommodated this learning gap, and taught mobility fundamentals themselves, albeit in travel environments that were simple to navigate compared to those that exist today.

Over the past several decades, dog guide schools began to be able to rely on applicants to have received O&M services prior to enrolling in dog guide training. It was expected that prospective students would arrive at dog guide schools with basic mobility skills and some independent travel experience. This change reflects the success of the mobility field, one that has made the work of the dog guide school much easier. Recently, however, we have observed the readiness levels of students beginning to regress.

Dog guide schools are now seeing increasing numbers of applicants who are unqualified to train with dog guides due to a lack of intependent travel skills. These prospective students often have limited ability to access services to develop these skills. This lack of opportunity to obtain O&M services is due to a number of factors that are related, in large measure, to a deteriorated economy, cuts in revenue, decreased program services, changes in eligibility for services, and deferred services (due to fewer personnel and burgeoning caseloads). Of course the increasing demand for services is due to the growing numbers of Americans with age-related causes of vision loss (10,000 baby boomers turn 65 years old every day). It is also possible that early models for service delivery that included basic O&M instruction worked well in a time of economic prosperity but no longer do so.

In today's world, more often than not, an eligible client is forced to wait for services, receives instruction less often (in the case of itinerant services), and receives fewer hours of instruction in total, leaving him or her unprepared for genuine independent travel, but with the belief that they have "had O&M training." The itinerant O&M practitioner knows the facts of this situation and is frequently frustrated by it, often feeling constrained by a system that values "closed cases" instead of a client's ability to travel widely, confidently, and independently.

To address these challenges, several strategies have emerged. Leader Dogs has begun a one-week accelerated O&M program (AMP) that brings clients with weak mobility skills to the Leader Dogs campus for a concentrated, practical O&M course. This instruction is followed by a period in which the client returns home to apply their new developed skills. The client may then be reassessed after a period of time. The Seeing Eye also has the ability to provide in-house, mini-O&M intensive instruction, when necessary.

Over the last several years, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in the United Kingdom, the largest program of its type in the world, changed its service delivery model by shuttering most of its national training centers (each with its own pub! …

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