Leading the way

Leading the way

Mobility training for the visually challenged

In a corner room at the National Association for the Blind (NAB-Karnataka), V Jayakumar fiddles with a new set of white canes that arrived a few days ago. He grips the rubber handle and bangs the bottom edge of the long, aluminium club on the floor to test if the vibration carries to the handle.

“If there is no vibration it would be hard for the visually challenged person to feel the surface he walks on,” Jayakumar explains. Nodding in approval is K N Shobha, Jayakumar’s colleague at NAB’s Mobility Training Centre (MTC) which has been helping the visually challenged across the country for 30 years now.
Training the blind to walk independently using the white cane has no real appeal anymore, a reason why Jayakumar and Shobha, who are in their 50s, have to carry on doing the work they had begun 25 years ago.

Orientation is key
“Mobility may appear simple for an on-looker, but there is a lot of science behind it,” says Shobha. “There is a method in holding a cane and how to feel one’s way around. The visually challenged have to sway it widely in an arc and survey with care for obstacles or manholes. Their safety depends on this.”
In the 1980s, when MTC was establishing itself as a major institution for training both the blind and their trainers, orientation and mobility (O&M) was an important facet of training. “It is not just about getting them to use the white cane. It is also about training them in a host of independent living skills which covers the ‘orientation’ part of the training,” says R Anand of IAR (International Agency for Rehabilitation)-India, who was among the first batch of trained mobility instructors of NAB in 1982.
“The problem today is that most schools for the blind, which teach mobility, impart just the basic (mobility) skill but the ‘orientation’ part has largely been left out. This is because there aren’t many instructors.”

Why no takers?
Jayakumar, who heads MTC at NAB, says his department has not trained people for almost two decades now. “There are proper manuals and modules for training, but unfortunately, there are no takers... absolutely no takers,” he laments. “We often worry about who would take up this training after we retire in a few years from now. And we haven’t found a way out as yet.”
The situation around the country isn’t encouraging either given that the visually challenged across India are unable to find institutional training locally and are referred to places like National Institute of Visually Handicapped in Dehradun, Chennai and MTC in Bangalore.

NIVH Chennai also has instructor training like NAB-India in Mumbai. “But due to a lack of interest, these centres do not hold the training programme on a regular basis,” Jayakumar says.
Karnataka seems to be one of the states, possibly the only state in  the country, that has government recognition for orientation and mobility training. “Despite the fact that financial assistance is offered, people are not keen on pursuing the training,” says Anand. “There is no long-term financial support for  instructors, but the issue doesn’t entirely seem to be money. Today it is easier for individuals to make a visually challenged person sit before a computer and teach him how to operate it (with the help of a screen reader software), but helping them walk from Point A to Point B is a tougher task than indoor skill training,” he says.

Instructors also think the awareness about mobility is low. Shobha, who was recently felicitated along with Jayakumar for having completed 25 years of service at MTC, observes, “It is shocking to discover that even those who work with the blind consider mobility training to be easy.” But  over time, as more visual challenged individuals enter the corporate world and gain financial independence, instructors see a ray of hope.
“Perhaps it is time to get rid of the ‘charity’ angle and look at mobility as an essential service. If it can be included in the regular education system, particularly in PUC courses, it would perhaps motivate students to think of mobility training as a vital service for the visually challenged,” Jayakumar says.