Learning from our past: the orientation and mobility archives.
Welsh, Richard L.
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness Publisher: American Foundation for the Blind Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 American Foundation for the Blind ISSN: 0145-482X|
|Issue:||Date: Oct-Nov, 2011 Source Volume: 105 Source Issue: 10|
|Persons:||Named Person: Hoover, Richard|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States|
Philosopher and poet George Santayana (1905) is credited with first
expressing the often-repeated idea that "Those who cannot remember
the past are condemned to repeat it." What is there to learn from
the history of the orientation and mobility (O&M) profession that
can guide our future?
The practice of teaching people who are blind to use a long cane to help them travel independently got its start during the U.S. Army's rehabilitation program during World War II. The field's historian, C. Warren Bledsoe, who played a role in this development, believed that it was facilitated by the fact that it took place outside the realm of existing services for people who were blind. People with an open mind on the subject were given the task of helping newly blinded soldiers learn how to get around their environment without the use of vision.
Although people who were experienced in the field of blindness visited the program or served as advisers, the rehabilitation programs at Valley Forge Army Rehabilitation Hospital and at Avon Old Farms saw themselves and were seen as something new and apart from the field. As Williams (1986) recalled:
In retrospect, it was interesting to see how this new approach was introduced to an already well-established field. A review of the holdings of the C. Warren Bledsoe Orientation and Mobility Archives shed some light on this bit of history. Richard Hoover, the developer and the most visible champion of the long cane technique, made a presentation to the 1947 conference of the American Association of Workers for the Blind (AAWB) in Baltimore. Hoover was a young man who had taught physical education and wrestling at the Maryland School for the Blind for a few years before enlisting in the army during World War II. AAWB was an association of members who worked in the existing network of services for blind adults. Many were blind themselves and took great pride in the level of independence they had achieved and in what they had helped their clients achieve. It is fair to say that many were skeptical about what this former physical education teacher could teach them.
Hoover began by acknowledging his own comparatively brief experience with this work and the lack of reliable data and useful information in the literature about travel without vision. But he did refer to a book by W. Hanks Levy published in London in 1872 that pointed to examples in both the Bible and Greek mythology of the use of a cane or a staff to help a blind person get around on his or her own. Levy also offered his own ideas about techniques and a rationale for people who were blind to learn to get around independently. Hoover noted that Levy's
In his 1947 presentation, Hoover wisely did not get into the specifics of the techniques that he and his colleagues developed and taught. Doing so would have led to endless questions and discussions of the effectiveness of each in any number of specific circumstances. Rather, he focused on the rationale for and the success of what was accomplished. He then described his efforts to bring these techniques to some of the students of the Maryland School for the Blind following the war and shared some data he had developed about the value of these skills, especially in new and complicated travel surroundings.
Over one particular route of six city blocks which was strange to the traveler, the following obstacles were encountered and passed without as much as touching one with anything but the tip of [the] shaft of the cane: crossed four intersections; sidewalks were less than 24 [inches] in width and there was a 2-ft. drop off the right side for a distance of two blocks; deep steps in height at unusual angles; and setting or standing in the middle of the sidewalks were four garbage cans, one wagon, one bicycle, one baby carriage and two children under two years. (Hoover, p. 30)
In closing, Hoover projected the value of these developments to all aspects of the field of services for people who are blind. He talked about the importance of spreading the idea and practice of independent movement to children who are blind as early as possible in their development. He discussed the importance of these accomplishments for the programs of vocational rehabilitation for adults who are blind. And he even suggested that these skills could be of value to people who lost their vision in old age. After the war, one of his army orienters had taught his 94-year-old grandmother to use some of these techniques successfully.
Many members of the O&M profession think of the extension of O&M to toddlers and older people as recent ideas and developments. They will be surprised to find these ideas in Hoover's initial presentation of orientation and travel techniques to the field of blindness.
Hoover expressed regret that much of what Levy discussed in 1872 had been ignored by those who were responsible for helping people who are blind in the 70 years that followed. Fortunately, in spite of the initial resistance of many in the field of blindness, Hoover's ideas and accomplishments and those of Russell Williams (1986) and many others in the field of O&M have not been ignored but have been embraced, enhanced, and extended to many who have benefited and will continue to do so.
In an effort to preserve the work of the early pioneers in the O&M field, the Orientation and Mobility Division of AER, with the cooperation of Warren Bledsoe and his family, the Maryland School for the Blind, the Blinded Veterans Association, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and many individual donors have created the C. Warren Bledsoe Orientation and Mobility Archives. These archives are located at the American Printing House (APH) for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. The collection is a treasure trove of letters, photographs, reports, professional journals, newsletters, and notes written by the giants of the field, much of it organized by Warren Bledsoe. APH not only protects and preserves this unique collection, but provides research assistance and support in its ongoing development. To learn more or to schedule a research appointment, contact APH at 502-895-2405 or by e-mail at
Time spent with the O&M archives reading the correspondence that passed between Bledsoe, Williams, Hoover, and the many staff members of the Veterans Administration helps us understand how we got started and the fundamental issues that influenced our beginning. These basic issues regularly reappear, and we can benefit from knowing how they were dealt with by those who got us started.
Hoover, R. (1947). Orientation and travel technique for the blind. In Proceedings of the American Association of Workers for the Blind, July 7-11, 1947, Baltimore, MD.
Levy, W. Hanks. (1872) Blindness and the blind. London: Chapman & Hall. (Reprinted in New Outlook for the Blind, April 1949, 106-110.)
Santayana, G. (1905). The life of reason, Volume 1: Reason in common sense. New York: Charles Scribner's.
Williams, R. (1986) Recollections by Russell Williams at Richard Hoover's memorial service, August 17, 1986. Richard Hoover Biographical File, AER O&M Division, Warren Bledsoe Archives, Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind: Lexington, KY.
Richard L. Welsh, Ph.D., retired president, Pittsburgh Vision Services; mailing address: 1536 Broad Hill Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15237; e-mail:
Some months before I came to Valley Forge the morale of the blinded soldiers and the staff of the eye program were critically low. Corporal Hoover, who had been sent to the program from the Combat Engineers, stated that while most people said blind people traveled well, he believed they traveled poorly. This pronouncement jolted the staff but he went off, blindfolded himself, [and] decided that canes were required for these fellows to travel well. He then prevailed upon a steelmaker in nearby Norristown to divert some steel from tanks and liberty ships to make three hundred long canes. He prevailed on higher-ups at Valley Forge and above to provide the teachers. Hoover taught them how to teach and was hard nosed that it be done right.
ideas of the methods and importance of acquiring the power of walking in the streets without a guide are so basically sound that it is amazing and a trifle sorrowing to note how little in the way of advancement or interest has been contributed in the past 100 years by those who by their position could have done so. (p. 27)
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