A Seeing Eye Superdog’s Guide to Orientation and Mobility

My sidekick is packing up our boxes. She’s packing up my food bowls and scavenging under the bed for my favorite toys (I’ve been wondering where that bone got to). She hasn’t packed my bed yet, but it’s coming. And I’m sticking close to her, because I need to be sure she doesn’t forget me. This is really happening, everybody. Next week, we will be moving to Cambridge to start at Harvard Law School. I am wagging my whole butt and grumbling in excitement. But packing isn’t all we’ve done to prepare. For the past two months, we’ve been doing orientation and mobility all over Harvard and Cambridge.


For those who don’t know, orientation and mobility is when a blind person is taught the basic layout of a new area, because you know, they can’t read signs and stuff, and that’s not part of my job description as superdog. If a blind person learns their way around, then they can get around pretty much independently. It’s a good thing. See, it’s my job to stop my sidekick from falling down stairs or smacking into tree branches or getting hit by cars, that sort of thing. It is not my job to know where to go. My sidekick decides which way to turn. She decides when to cross the street—I’ll stop her if she’s wrong, but most of the time she’s right, and when she’s wrong it’s because some stupidhead who’s not looking decided to cut us off at the last minute (sometimes I wonder who’s really blind in this situation). It’s true, I will learn the places we go to a lot, like our dorm room or where the food’s at, and if my sidekick overshoots, I’ll give her knee a nudge with my nose—like, hey, we want to go here, don’t we?—but generally it’s up to her.


My sidekick and I have been doing O and M together for six years now, so we have a lot of practice. Right after we went home from the Seeing Eye, we went out to Ohio and learned our way around Kenyon College, where we would spend the next four years. We started with Middle path—the path that runs from one end of campus to the other—and we worked outward from there, learning routes from  my dorm to the dining hall, my classrooms and professors’ offices, and the library. Over our four years at Kenyon, we learned more and more new places and new shortcuts, and by the time we graduated, we had it down.


The summer after our first year at college, we went to the Alpha workshop near Pittsburgh. Since it was such a short workshop, and since I would mostly be with the group, it wasn’t as important for us to know the whole campus, but we still spent a day learning the important routes.


When we studied abroad in Torino the summer after our second year at Kenyon, we didn’t really have O and M training. Unless you count an hour with an  O and M teacher who didn’t speak good English and we were super jetlagged and still getting used to how fast Italian really was outside the classroom, and I’m not sure I count that. I have to say, this was one of the craziest things we’ve ever done. And we’ve done some crazy things. When we went to Torino, we just went, and I do not recommend that approach, because we had to depend on the other students to not ditch us. Oh, and they ditched us. A lot.


When we went to Assisi to start my Fulbright year, we weren’t taking any chances with Italian O and M teachers—even if we had been able to find one, which we weren’t. My sidekick’s mother came with us for the first three weeks. She’s been watching my sidekick’s O and M lessons since she was little, so she knows what she’s doing. In Assisi, of course, everything we thought we knew about safe independent travel was turned on its head, but that’s another story story.


A few points about O and M that I feel I have to make, just so you have a better sense of what I’m talking about:


First, my sidekick is using her ears to navigate. I’m using my eyes to guide her, but she’s steering this operation. Note: hybrid cars are pure evil, but I’m all over their silent engines—they are not coming near my sidekick and me.


Second, we don’t always cross at the light. Remember, it’s not in my job description to read the walk signs. It’s up to my sidekick to decide when to cross, and she’s using her ears (see my first point). If there isn’t an audible pedestrian signal, or the intersection is too loud to hear the audible signal (some of these new ones that talk are way too quiet), or the audible signal is broken, we cross with what’s called the near parallel surge. That’s when the cars that are closest to us and going the same direction as us have a green light. We watch out for cars that are turning, obviously, but this means that no one will be going on the street we’re crossing, because there’s a wall of cars moving across their path. Sometimes, pedestrian lights line up with the parallel traffic, but sometimes they don’t.


Third, if there isn’t a sidewalk, I’m trained to walk on the left of the road, so my sidekick and I are facing oncoming traffic. This means I like to walk on the left of a lot of paths, just to keep myself in practice.


Fourth, and finally, and sometimes the hardest for other people to understand about how we travel, is that the shortest route is not always the safest for us or the route that allows us to stay most oriented to our surroundings. For example, we will always choose a route with a good sidewalk over one without (at least in America). Also, we tend to favor straight paths that run along the sides of courtyards or greens rather than diagonal cross-paths, at least while we’re still learning an area. As we become more familiar and comfortable, we’ll probably start taking those cross-paths. If we’re with a group, we’ll follow them, but if we’re by ourselves, we’ll do our own thing. And the only reason we’ll be comfortable taking a different route somewhere with a group than the route we might normally travel is if we know where that somewhere is so if we have to, we can get back ourselves independently.


So we’ve done this O and M thing a lot, but getting ready for Harvard was different for us. We’ve been to small town Ohio and small town Italy, and even in Torino we mostly stuck to the city center. Here, we have the Harvard Law School campus, and then the larger Harvard University campus, and we also have the surrounding city of Cambridge. And Cambridge means subways, which we have never done independently, and which we were frankly a little nervous about. Like always, we started small, with the law school campus. Then we worked on the larger Harvard University campus, and then we started on Cambridge and the subway. All right, we only sort of theoretically did it in that order, because we started taking the bus and then the T to get to Harvard for practice.


Like we always do, my sidekick made tactile maps of the area. She had the map printed on foam board, and then she and her mother used puffy paint to make raised lines and lock dots—these clear raised bubble stickers—to mark important landmarks. Finally, they made Braille labels for everything. They made tactile maps of the law school campus, Cambridge, and the subway—I watched them work and wagged my tail to cheer them on—and then we took our maps on the road.


Now, after working hard all summer, we’re comfortable with the law school campus and the Harvard University campus, and we know all the stops on the Red Line by heart and are even familiar with a few of the stations. We are masters of the subway! As we actually start living in Cambridge, we’ll get a good sense of where we actually go and how we get there, and we’ll start to learn more and more of the area. But for now, we’ve got a pretty good sense of where we are, which is what O and M is all about.


This is good, because let me tell you, I am getting sick of this walking back and forth or around in circles thing my sidekick insists we do. I got it, doesn’t she? I know, I know, I sometimes get too focused on just getting to our destination, but don’t tell me the journey’s the important part. The most important part is that the journey is safe, and I am totally on top of that. And if we sometimes have to walk back and forth along the same hallway so my sidekick can be two hundred percent sure she’s got a handle on it, I accept that. Sort of. But now that we know where we’re going, let’s go and get there already.


3 thoughts on “A Seeing Eye Superdog’s Guide to Orientation and Mobility”

  1. Hopefully your sidekick will have some GPS apps in her toolbelt to assist with navigation by identifying streets and landmarks and providing turn-by-turn directions running on her shiny new Braille tablet such as Google Maps or Nearby Explorer.


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