In honor of Orientation & Mobility (O&M) Month, we sat down with Braille Institute O&M Intern Joey Hernandez to learn all about her journey into the field. Her energetic, empathetic leadership and passion for O&M inspire our adult and youth students alike. Here is Joey’s O&M story, in her own words.
So first, can you just tell us a bit about yourself? What is your name, your current role at Braille Institute, and what are you studying?
My name is Josephine “Joey” Hernandez. I am a Youth Assistant at Braille Institute, and I’m also a former Braille Youth student. I help plan and support fun and educational afterschool activities for blind and visually impaired children centered around the expanded core curriculum. Basically, I get to help put together and support really fun lessons. We do a bunch of different things: cooking lessons, technology lessons, field trips, you name it. So, I’m very lucky and I think I have one of the most fun roles at Braille Institute.
How did you get started with O&M?
For me, my vision started to change when I was in high school. I started high school with average vision, and then during my sophomore year, over the course of a couple of months, it progressed to the point of legal blindness because of Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, which is a condition that can cause a severe loss of acuity – how clearly you see things. Before that, I didn’t know anything about blindness, I didn’t know anything about visual impairment, and I didn’t know anything about O&M.
So, the next year, as I was kind of starting to get my life back together and figuring out how to do things now as a person with a visual impairment, I first learned about O&M in conversation with a visually impaired classmate who had mentioned something about crossing the street. I paused and went, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. We can cross the street? How does that work?”
After that, I started to receive my IEP (Individualized Education Program) and O&M was added on to that for me. I received Orientation & Mobility lessons through my high school. Those were great, and I felt like it helped me figure out how to be a person again. I learned how to cross streets and how to take the bus. I got lost on the bus a couple of times, but it was fun because I realized like, “OK, I have the skills to figure out how to fix this.”
Then flash forward a couple of years, I started college. I originally started college with one idea of what my career path would look like, but as I was going through my classes and working, I realized I didn’t necessarily want to be in the career path that I originally started out with.
I started reflecting on what I did like. I worked on campus at the time as a campus tour guide, and before that, I was in a few student leadership roles. I realized I love working with people and I like teaching, but I didn’t want to be a teacher in the traditional sense. I knew I was passionate about working with people with visual impairment, empowering others, and making sure people have access to the world around them.
This might sound silly, but I thought doing campus tours was fascinating, thinking about how people conceptualize and learn new spaces. For campus tours, I would walk backwards with my white cane behind me, leading groups of sighted people around and introducing them to a new location.
So, thinking about all these elements and putting them together, I started to consider that, hey, O&M could be a possibility. All these different things come together, and you also use creative problem-solving skills, which I love. I think that having that as a component in a job is so fun. It’s like you’re putting together puzzle pieces.
After that, I got started on my path and realized this is what I want to do in life.
Which school are you attending for your O&M program, and what has your experience been like so far?
I go to San Francisco State University, and so far, I have been happy with my choice. My professors are amazing and they bring in so much experience and knowledge.
To turn around and go back to Braille Institute – as part of the Youth program, how do you bring O&M skills into youth activities?
I think O&M skills can be woven into activities in many ways. For example, one thing that I have tried to do over the years is pull back. There are a lot of times where my first instinct might be to guide a student, because a student might not feel as confident moving around. You might think, “Okay, I’m just going to go up to them directly and offer to guide.” But something I’m trying to do now is instead give them verbal directions and try to figure out what they feel comfortable with.
For example, you might have some students who you can just give a few directions like, “Go around the right side of the courtyard, and follow along the wall until you find the doorway,” and they’re fine. You have other students who might want a little bit more information and constant feedback, and some students who might really want and benefit from a guide but are too shy to ask for it.
If possible, I try to let them know that it’s okay to ask but have them initiate that ask because guide techniques are important, but so is asking for help. There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it.
You also mentioned you were part of the Braille Institute Youth program as a student. How many years were you involved in that?
I was in the Youth Program for my junior and senior year of high school, and it made a huge difference in my life. Before my vision loss, I didn’t know anything about visual impairment. I basically just had the TV depictions of a blind person sitting alone in a room and not doing anything – all those inaccurate portrayals. Braille Youth introduced me to a lot of other teenagers who were going through the same thing as me. I realized that one, we are normal, and two, they have different strategies for how they do things. I thought I might want to try some of their adaptive strategies, and since a lot of them have big aspirations, I could still aspire to do things myself, you know? So, I think above any of the classes themselves, the most important thing was that connection to other folks with vision loss.
Congratulations on officially becoming an O&M intern for the Braille Institute. What do you hope to accomplish during your internship?
That’s a hard one. I am hoping to help my students build up their skills, and I’m excited to see the progress they will make. I can’t wait to learn from the other Orientation & Mobility Specialists at the Anaheim Center, Haw and Mari, as they’re very knowledgeable. I also hope to bring some new things to the table myself and share new educational tools.
After your internship, what’s next?
I am hoping to work in a school district because I really enjoy working with kids. There is so much that can be worked on with them and there is so much they can learn. I enjoy coming up with lesson plans, and there are so many different, creative ways you can teach. If I ever do end up leaving Braille Institute someday, then I hope I can come back as a volunteer, because I love what Braille Institute has to offer.
Finally, what is something you wish more people knew about Orientation & Mobility?
I wish more people just realized that it even existed! I think there is a definite need for more people to go into Orientation & Mobility, and the biggest reason why people don’t is because they don’t realize that it’s an option. If you are somebody who isn’t sure what you want to know, but you know that you like teaching, working with people, and problem solving – Orientation & Mobility is a great, fulfilling option where you know you’re doing something that has the potential to make a huge difference.
On the other end, too, if more people knew that O&M existed, it might change how people view visual impairment. I think that there’s this fear that vision loss comes with a loss of independence where you’re not able to live the life that you want. But I feel that with access to resources like O&M training, there are so many things you can accomplish. O&M helps you work towards living the life that you want for yourself – you can be more independent, you can commute to and from a job by yourself, you can meet up with friends by yourself. O&M gives you that access back. You’re not losing your ability to do those things – you’re just relearning how to do them.
Thank you again to Joey for sharing her journey with Orientation & Mobility, both as a student and now as a professional in the field! We are proud to feature your story.
While Orientation & Mobility Month may be wrapping up, Braille Institute offers FREE O&M support to students across Southern California all year long. To learn more, just call us at 1-800-BRAILLE (272-4553) – we’re here to help you find your way again.