Spotlight on J Steele-Louchart
“Non-Traditional Orientation and Mobility Coach”
I recently met Justin through the PALS (Peer Advisor Life Support) program with VisionAware, an outreach site of the American Foundation for the Blind. I was so impressed that he had studied to be an Orientation and Mobility Specialist. I thought it would be good to share his story during Blindness Awareness Month. I was also happy to find out we both loved languages! Meet Justin.
1. Hi Justin! Welcome to Friday Friends. Please tell my readers a little about yourself.
My name is Justin, or J, and I’m from Saginaw, Michigan. I’m an Orientation and Mobility specialist with World Access for the Blind. I have incredible passions for language, nutrition, and exercise, and I need books how most people need oxygen.
2. What kind of vision loss do you have and how does it impact your everyday life?
I became totally-blind in December 2012 as a result of bilateral enucleation, or the surgical removal of both eyes. Before then, I’d been totally-sighted until Halloween of 2005 and very, very low-vision between 2005 and 2012. The impact of my blindness on my everyday life is virtually unnoticeable. I never drove, so thankfully driving was never something I had to give up. I suppose it takes me longer to go grocery shopping or to run errands, but that’s the extent of it.
3. What is the most challenging part of your vision loss? Can you share any life lessons?
These days, the only parts of blindness which I find particularly annoying are the lack of public transportation options in my area and the fact that most recipe websites seem to insist upon being inaccessible.
When I first went blind, the hardest part for me was suddenly being seen by others as incompetent. My identity shifted instantaneously from a socially-awkward, but intellectually respected student to that of a social novelty and complete idiot. It took me many angry years to carve a different path for myself. Perhaps the largest obstacle I overcame was my belief that anybody’s perspective of my blindness was somehow tied to my self-worth.
4. That life lesson is huge! Justin, what kind of support system did / do you have and how has it enabled you to move forward? Have you had any role models?
I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in this regard. My high-school Teacher for the Visually-Impaired, Orientation and Mobility Specialist, paraprofessional, and Braille transcriptionist were all truly amazing. Those four people were single-handedly responsible for laying the groundwork of my success. They were gentle, but firm, and absolutely refused to let me believe that blindness was a free pass to do anything less than my sighted classmates. If anything, I was held to a higher standard, and I can’t tell you how much that shaped me moving forward. Those initial relationships eventually led me to befriend Daniel Kish. a totally-blind mobility specialist, who was (and is) my greatest blind role-model.
5. How did you become interested in the graduate program and in training to become a mobility instructor?
My interest in becoming a mobility specialist stemmed from my own journey in going blind, as well as befriending Daniel Kish, the world’s first blind Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist. I graduated high-school early to move to Los Angeles and begin interning at his company, World Access for the Blind, as a “mobility coach.” This is basically a mobility teacher who is closely supervised by a certified instructor. My internship saw me working between the United States and Europe, teaching children and adults of all ages and abilities how to use FlashSonar, cane-skills, and residual vision in order to navigate.
After completing my internship I moved back to Michigan to get my bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Western Michigan University while continuing to work part-time as a mobility coach. Staying at Western for an additional year to get my master’s in Orientation and Mobility for Children almost seemed like a foregone conclusion. Although the Perceptual Approach had taught me a great deal, I felt it was important to investigate the traditional approach, as well.
5. That first type sounds really interesting! As does your Anthropology degree. I didn’t know there were two approaches in O & M.
There are actually three O&M approaches. Traditional/guided-learning
(this is taught by most university programs,)
alternative/structured-discovery (this is taught by NFB centers and
Louisiana Tech,) and Perceptual/self-directed discovery, which is
taught by World Access for the Blind and is in many ways a combination
of the traditional and alternative models, but is ultimately its own
6. How is the ‘traditional’ course of study different? Were there any unexpected challenges in the different methodologies?
The hardest part of getting my Master’s degree in the traditional approach to O&M was that it was simply so different from what I’d been steeped in for the better part of a decade. I came from an approach which emphasized learning to explore and piece things together for yourself with minimal support from an instructor; whereas the traditional approach suggested that blindness was a deficit and that it was our job as mobility specialists to help a blind person compensate for that deficit by telling them how, where, when, and why to move through space, and what that space entailed. It was a far different perspective on blindness and equally as alien a teaching style to me.
7. What sorts of classes were required for your Master’s?
The training of a traditional mobility specialist varies slightly from program to program. At Western, you take one class each on the history of the blindness field, the anatomy of the eye, low-vision therapy, the medical aspects of disability, the Americans with Disabilities Act, perceptual and psycho-social aspects of blindness, issues in travel (focusing on difficulties involving rural, urban, and suburban travel,) the IEP process and working in an itinerant team, O&M and child-development, and O&M for the elderly. There are also ten-hour classes on guide-dogs, GPS/electronic travel devices, and adapting physical education for blind students which are each held over two-day weekends. Finally, undoubtedly one of the most vital classes for O&M specialists is the “blindfold class,” which is a semester-long class where you spend roughly 40 hours traveling under blindfold yourself, as well as doing some teaching and some observing of other blindfolded trainees.
8. How long did it take you to actually earn your degree?
The coursework usually takes 8 – 12 months to complete, and then you do a week-long practicum where you observe real-world O&M teams, followed by a four-month internship where you teach real-world students under a supervising mobility specialist. All-in-all, students in the Orientation and Mobility for Adults track are usually certified a year from their start-date, while students in the Orientation and Mobility for Children track are usually certified a year and four months from theirs.
(Oh, and the Michigan winter? Least enjoyable travel environment ever. My blindfold instructor deserves a medal for not pushing me in front of a truck).
9. Ugh! I’m not sure but Michigan winters might even be worse than those in Pennsylvania. When I started out in March, it was cold enough! Brrr! Justin, do you have a quote that has motivated you to keep going when you encounter an obstacle or do you have a word of advice to share?
There are two quotes which have formed the basis of my teaching style, as well as the way in which I try to move through life as a blind person. “I will find a way or I will make one,” (or in Latin: Inveniam viam aut faciam,”) reminds me to do my own impossible. The second quote is attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”
What have you taken on that has changed your perspective on life? Your self-confidence?
What do you know about echolocation? Check out the video link below to see J employ the technique!
You have just read “Friday Friends: Spotlight on J Steele-Louchart” by Amy L. Bovaird and J Steele-Louchart. Copyright October 28, 2016. Please take a moment to leave a comment. Thanks!