Sowell Center Prepares Students to be Orientation, Mobility Specialists

Students practice being blindfolded and walking with canes to teach visually impaired individuals.

Sowell Center

Students learn how to use a cane themselves, so they can later teach others.

Trying not to bump into a building or fall down a flight of stairs has proven difficult for students of the Intermediate Seminar in Orientation class.

The Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research and Education in Visual Impairment at Texas Tech University prepares specialists in visual impairment, orientation and mobility and deafblindness. The Sowell Center was established in 1977 at Texas Tech and is now internationally recognized.

Students currently in the Orientation and Mobility Certification Preparation Program in the Sowell Center learn how to use a cane to get around while blindfolded. They also learn how to instruct visually impaired individuals who use Seeing Eye dogs and canes to assist them in mobility.

“The Sowell Center provides a place for students of the orientation and mobility program to really get a sense of the field,” said Nora Griffin-Shirley, associate professor in the program area of special education. “All of our students love what they are learning and are exciting to use their skills to help others.”

The students work toward certification in order to be orientation and mobility specialists. As orientation and mobility specialists, they will teach individuals with visual impairments to travel safely, confidently and independently in their environment. They work with infants, children and adults usually in a one-on-one basis in a home, school, hospital or in the community.

The class recently was visited by Chelsea White, outreach specialist for The Seeing Eye, the oldest existing guide dog school in the world. White, along with her guide dog, traveled from Dallas to give students a real-life experience in assisting a blind individual. The students set out a path for White to follow with her guide dog. The path started from the College of Education building and ended at the Student Union Building.

“Today I helped the class gain information and a better understanding about guide dog travel,” White said. “They orientated me to a particular path on campus and they did a great job. It is important for students to be hands-on with this skill so they can teach it. It’s like teaching someone to move through space.”

White has worked with The Seeing Eye for 14 years and this is her third year visiting Texas Tech to help with the class.

Sowell Center

The students work toward certification in order to be orientation and mobility specialists.

When they aren’t working with White, students are outside traveling with the perspective of a blind person. They use blindfolds and maneuver around campus while being observed by classmates. Once they’ve mastered campus travel they will cross streets, go to the mall and even walk through residential neighborhoods.

The class is split into groups led by instructors. Splitting the students allows instructors and fellow classmates to observe the cane-walking.

“I like working with one student at a time and really making a difference in their life. I want to be able to teach my students to do the same so that they can have that same feeling,” said Linda Hinkle, orientation and mobility specialist for Lubbock Independent School District and an instructor for the class.

“Now, the law says students with any kind of visual impairment need a specialist to work with them within the school, so now the demand is higher than ever.”

The orientation and mobility specialist hopefuls find passion in the field before completing the program.

“We are learning by immersion.” said Sylvia Ekdahl, Texas Tech graduate student and teacher for the visually impaired. “We feel a little bit of what it’s like to be blind and then being on the other side and being able to teach it. I’ve been a teacher of the visually impaired for 15 years and I absolutely love doing that. I am passionate about helping blind individuals in any way that I can.”

Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research and Education in Sensory Disabilities

The Virginia Murray Sowell Center at Texas Tech is part of the College of Education

The Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research and Education in Sensory Disabilities at Texas Tech is part of the College of Education.

The center promotes quality research to address the academic and social needs of school-age students with visual impairments and provides public service to assist local, national and international constituencies.

The program offers master's and doctoral degrees as well as certification and endorsement in visual impairment, orientation and mobility, and deafblindness.

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