Listen to learn

18th February 2000 at 00:00
Many teachers will encounter visually impaired pupils at some time. Tineke Smith explains how mobility training courses can help.

What do bamboo canes, a photo trail, a musical box and snow blizzards have in common? They are all part of a "mobility training in educational settings" course run by Henshaw's College in Harrogate.

The college itself offers education and training in adult independence for visually-impaired students aged 16 and over. But it has recently branched out into professional training.

The mobility course, which costs pound;1,500, is now in its third year with its sixth cohort of six students. The only admission requirement is that you be employed in an educational setting. Participants include teachers, support staff and classroom assistants from mainstream and specialist schools.

It was set up in response to a demand from professionals working with visually impaired children who wanted teach mobility and orientation skills, best described as an "awareness of self and environment". In some situations, local authority mobility or rehabilitation officers may be involved and are able to teach these skills (see box), but their caseloads often prevent them from doing so as often as they want - or they may not be involved at all if the child is under 18.

A visually impaired child can develop a wide range of skills, techniques and strategies to help them with independent mobility - and this is before they even think of a cane or other formal mobility aid. In a slightly different guise, they are skills and strategies that can be taught to youngsters in secondary or tertiary education.

The 10-week Henshaw's course gives background information on child development and discusses the implications that visual impairment might have on, for example, motor development and movement. It provides ideas and suggestions on how to make the tuition age-appropriate and fun, and encourages course students to integrate mobility and orientation techniques into daily living. There is not much value in children being able to name five European countries yet being unable to use their residual senses to orient themselves in their surroundings.

The course also looks at some additional impairments, and helps students develop a better understanding of children who have learning difficulties, a hearing impairment or use a wheelchair. It looks at how formal techniques can be adapted to promote greater independence, with anemphasis on education as opposed to training.

The course is accredited by Leeds Metropolitan University. Participants attnd one day a week for 10 weeks and are required to practise their skills, complete directed activities, research the topics discussed and reflect upon current practices. They then devise and deliver a mobility programme to a child or student in their work area. They have tutor support throughout, and a final assignment is assessed by the school and the university.

Tutor involvement does not stop after the course finishes. Students can receive further support, particularly if they work independently from other colleagues. The tutor will also observe the student again following successful completion of the course.

Tineke Smith is course coordinator at the school of visual impairment studies,Henshaw's College, Bogs Lane, Harrogate, HG1 4ED.Tel: 01423 886451.E-mail:


Mobility is the capacity or facility for safe movement within your environment. Orientation has been defined as the use of the remaining senses to establish your relative position in that environment. Purposeful mobility can only happen if you are properly orientated.

There is no automatic compensation of heightened senses following a loss of vision. A visually impaired person has to train his or her senses and use them with greater discrimination than a sighted person. Sensory training is a vital part of mobility training and the earlier in life it starts, the better. Examples include:

* Being able to identify a sound helps a visually impaired person evaluate his or her surroundings and decide how best to proceed in them. People quickly learn to orientate themselves at home by identifying common household sounds and they can then use that skill outdoors. As well as the more usual street sounds, they need to listen for and explain the unusual ones like wind in the telegraph wires, tapping of flagpole ropes, the scrape of workmen's tools, etc.

* Tactual skills can be developed by feeling articles of different textures, shapes, size and weight, and by walking over different ground textures. Temperature changes can be felt on windows. Heat from radiators and draughts from windows can also be useful.

* Plenty of practice is needed in order to make accurate 90 and 180 degree turns - a vital skill for visually impaired people so that they can be sure of the direction they are taking.

* A child with a visual impairment may have no concept of "front", "back", "top" and "bottom", and will have to learn what these are, in relation to themselves, to other objects and then to the outdoor environment.

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