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While Tech Improves Mobility For Blind, Visually Impaired, UNC Program Endorses Old-School Tool

Kevin Cook standing in front of Rebekah Best and holding a white cane
Stephanie Daniel
Graduate student Kevin Cook, and his classmate Rebekah Best, navigate through a neighborhood while taking an orientation and mobility endorsement course at the University of Northern Colorado.

Kevin Cook is blindfolded and using a white cane to walk down a street near the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Greeley.

"I'm just listening for all the traffic sounds and clearing space in front of me," he said while stopped.

Cook, who lives in Chico, California, is getting a master's degree in special education and visual impairment. The program was created in 1969 and converted to an online curriculum three decades later.

"Praying a lot that I cross correctly," he said, making his way across the street.

Cook is in the middle of a drop-off experience. He starts in one place and must navigate his way to a specific location about six blocks away.

"Can I know what intersection this is?" he asked.

"This is the intersection of 17th Street and 12th Avenue," replied Silvia Correa-Torres, a professor at UNC.

Since the switch to an online program, every summer a small group of students from around the country gets an orientation and mobility endorsement. Correa-Torres teaches the course.

"They will learn their skills on how to teach students who are blind, visually impaired how to navigate and travel safely and independently within the environment," she said.

The endorsement course usually lasts four weeks, but was shortened to two weeks this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. A dozen students are attending and have been split into two groups, then paired up to work with each other on the exercises.

Rebekah Best and Silvia Correa-Torres standing on a sidewalk
Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Graduate student Rebekah Best navigates through a Greeley neighborhood while Professor Silvia Correa-Torres observes. Best is taking an orientation and mobility endorsement course at UNC.

"We have had to learn how to cross street blindfolded, understand a neighborhood, learn landmarks around the neighborhood to help us learn where we are," said Rebekah Best, a master's candidate and Cook's partner. She follows behind Cook, watching and giving feedback. It will be her turn next.

Best is from Kansas City, Missouri. In high school, she volunteered at a summer camp for blind and visually impaired kids. The experience was so rewarding, she decided working with this population was the career for her.

"I got to see the importance of independence for these kids," she said.

Best recalls helping the kids participate in activities like horseback riding and rock climbing.

"The pure freedom that they got when they were able to do it on their own," she said. "So the fact that I could be a part of that is something that really stood out to me."

"Good access"

After receiving a master's degree, most students will either work as a teacher of visual impairment, an orientation and mobility specialist, or both.

"So, blindness, visual impairment is a low-incidence disability. We don't have oodles and oodles of kids," said Tanni Anthony, who works with the Colorado Department of Education and is the state consultant on blindness and visual impairment.

The Colorado Department of Education has identified about 1,200 blind and visually impaired kids and about 100 educators work with them throughout the state. Most of the students are enrolled in their local public schools.

"Because this is such an intense-need disability, you really need somebody who understands it," she said. "It's not that the kids can't do things, they can do all sorts of things. They just need good access."

That access has increased through an explosion of technology, including mainstream devices like phones, tablets and GPS systems, as well as more specialized devices which, said Anthony, have been game changers for school districts, kids and adults.

"These are things that have absolutely kicked open the door for people who are blind, visually impaired," she said.

Silvia Correa-Torres standing on a sidewalk between Kevin Cook and Rebekah Best, who are holding white canes
Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
UNC professor Silvia Correa-Torres talks to graduate students Kevin Cook and Rebekah Best. They are getting master’s degrees in special education and visual impairment, and an orientation and mobility endorsement.

"Landmark legislation"

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recently turned 30. The landmark civil rights legislation was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. It bans discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, public accommodation, public services, transportation and telecommunications. The ADA mandates people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

The law also led to advances in technology and access to it in education. For example, a student with low vision can use screen magnification software while taking a standardized test.

"That accommodation and that ability to be able to interface with test content is something that the ADA uniquely brought to the experience of people who have disabilities," said Stephanie Enyart, chief public policy and research officer for the American Foundation for the Blind.

While the ADA has impacted grade school education, she said it was groundbreaking for students who wanted to continue from there.

"The ADA is really the landmark legislation that opens up the doors of opportunity for higher education access," she continued. "Meaning if you wanted to go on to college or some other vocational school or professional school."

The law also gives people with disabilities access to the same job opportunities and benefits as those without. The technological advancements allow them to be more capably employed.

"Makes blind people safer"

Kishia Mason is blind and works at a call center at ARC Thrift stores, one of the state's largest employers of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She has been there for about three years.

"I use a computer with a screen reader software. I use one at work also and it really helps a lot, of course," she said.

A selfie of Kishia Mason taken indoors
Credit Kishia Mason
Kishia Mason is the president of the Colorado Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired. She works at a call center at ARC Thrift Stores.

The 35-year-old is also the president of the Colorado Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired. Growing up in Aurora, she attended public schools but learned Braille and worked with an orientation and mobility specialist.

"I think one of the more challenging things was learning to cross streets, especially busy streets in a straight line and learning about the different types of intersections," she said.

Mason lives alone in downtown Denver and says navigating through her neighborhood has become easier with phone apps that give verbal directions. But there is one thing she has relied on for the past 30 years: a cane.

"I think a cane makes blind people safer and therefore more independent," she said. "You know without the cane, we don't know what's in front of us."

"I'm here"

Blindfolded graduate student Kevin Cook continues walking with his white cane on a street in Greeley. He is almost done with the orientation and mobility exercise.

"I can feel the sun on my left shoulder which is east," he explained. "So, I'll cross 12th."

Use of the white cane in North America dates back to 1930. It is a symbol of the blind, said Correa-Torres. While technology is great, teaching blind and visually impaired students how to safely navigate is crucial.

"Students can learn a lot of academics," she said. "But if they cannot move or travel to their jobs independently, taking public transportation or using a cane to travel around, they might not be able to find a job because they don't have skills."

About 30 minutes after Cook began navigating the streets of Greeley, he's finished with the drop-off exercise. Correa-Torres and Best wait expectantly for his announcement.

"Okay, I think I'm here," he said.

"You think, or you are?" Correa-Torres asked.

"I'm here."

Kevin Cook in front, navigating a sidewalk with a white cane, followed by Silvia Correa-Torres and Rebekah Best
Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
Graduate student Kevin Cook navigates through a Greeley neighborhood while Professor Silvia Correa-Torres and classmate Rebekah Best observe.

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