Orientation & Mobility Specialist

“People can range from what we would consider low vision to total blindness. Our job is helping people with orientation, knowing where you are in space, and mobility, being able to move around within that space.”

Donna Brotek Lee, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Kentucky

Low vision and blindness significantly impact a person’s ability to perform daily tasks and navigate life. Simple activities that sighted people take for granted, such as reading labels, recognizing faces, driving, or even walking through crowded or unfamiliar places, can be challenging and often insurmountable obstacles. There are many adaptations and assistive technologies, such as text-to-speech devices, Braille readers, and mobility canes that can help those with vision impairments lead more autonomous and fulfilling lives. However, adjusting to these tools and the dependency on them for everyday functions take time, effort, and often, outside help.

Orientation and mobility specialists are vital in empowering individuals with vision impairments to navigate their environments safely and confidently. This specialized field focuses on teaching skills that allow those with vision issues to lead more independent and fulfilling lives. Given the complexities and challenges individuals with visual impairments face, the demand for skilled professionals in this area is steadily growing. In the United States, vision issues are more common than many people realize. According to data from the National Institutes of Health, approximately 14 million people in the US have vision impairment, of which three million have impairment that cannot be corrected with glasses or contacts. 

Becoming an orientation and mobility specialist requires education, training, and certification. Prospective specialists must have a strong desire to help others and the patience and empathy necessary to teach individuals navigating the world without full visual cues. This career path not only offers the chance to make a significant difference in the lives of many but also presents a fulfilling professional journey filled with opportunities for learning and growth.

Keep reading to learn how to become an orientation and mobility specialist, which includes top degree programs, certification options, and licensing requirements.

 Meet the Expert: Donna Brostek Lee, PhD

Dr. Donna Brostek Lee, a clinical assistant professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Counselor Education, brings a wealth of experience in working with children who are blind and visually impaired. 

Previously, Dr. Lee was an assistant professor and co-coordinator at Western Michigan University, focusing on teaching children with visual impairments and orientation & mobility with children programs. She pioneered the teacher preparation program in visual impairments and actively contributes to the field through roles such as chair for the Personnel Preparation Division at the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). 

Dr. Lee’s research interests encompass sleep issues in young visually impaired children and electronic travel aids for the blind. She collaborated on developing the ViA iOS app with the Braille Institute of America and APH. With a doctorate from the University of Louisville and a strong background in orientation & mobility and elementary education for the visually impaired, she is dedicated to enhancing educational opportunities for individuals with visual impairments nationwide.

HealthcareDegree.com: What is something you wish the public understood about orientation & mobility specialists?

Dr. Lee: There’s a big misconception about blindness and visual impairment amongst the general public. People tend to think when we say blind, that means totally blind, but actually, a very small portion of people who are classified as blind are totally blind. People can range from what we would consider low vision to total blindness. Our job is helping people with orientation, knowing where you are in space, and mobility, being able to move around within that space. With those essential skills, they can do things like travel to work and live independently. 

Recently, we have seen a huge influx of visual impairment, both with younger people and the aging. Aging people lose vision for obvious reasons. We now live longer, so more natural degeneration of our eyes occurs. Things like diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and macular degeneration also play a lot into that. 

But we also have children now who, because of medical technology, survive better than 20 years ago and have multiple disabilities. Our statistics are not always the greatest because it’s really hard to get some really clear and accurate data at times, but we estimate on the low end that 50 percent of the kids we work with in schools have an additional disability. On the high end, it can be up to 90 percent. That additional disability can be anything from speech or all the way to what we would consider complex multiple disabilities. 

HealthcareDegree.com: What advice would you give to aspiring orientation & mobility specialist students?

Dr. Lee: The number one thing I recommend to anybody who contacts me about our program is to go out and shadow an orientation and mobility specialist for a day to really see what this job entails. There are just so many misconceptions about what we do. People walk away from shadowing with a very clear idea of whether the job is for them or it wasn’t at all what they thought it would be.

Orientation & Mobility Specialist Specializations & Degree Types

To pursue an orientation and mobility specialist career, students can follow several educational pathways. At a minimum, students must earn a bachelor’s degree in orientation and mobility, which provides foundational knowledge of the field. However, most students will opt to earn a master’s or certificate in orientation and mobility studies.  These programs offer specialized training and research opportunities, often leading to leadership positions or roles in innovative areas. 

Specialization options within a degree or certificate program often include a population focus. Students can choose to work with children, teens, or adults. Another specialization option can include special education, as many of those who have visual impairment also have other learning, cognitive, or physical disabilities.

Admissions Requirements for Orientation & Mobility Specialist Programs

Admissions requirements for orientation and mobility programs will differ from one program to the next.  For undergraduate programs, most schools will require students to have a high school diploma or GED certificate. Additionally, schools may require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores and transcripts from any prior college coursework. 

Graduate programs typically expect incoming students to hold a bachelor’s degree in orientation and mobility studies, education of the visually impaired, or a related field. Some programs will require applicants to have completed specific coursework, such as human anatomy and physiology, while others may ask for letters of recommendation from previous professors or employers. Work experience, volunteering, or job shadowing in this field are often considered as part of the admission process.

Orientation & Mobility Specialist Program Accreditation

Accreditation is a review process by an external organization to determine if a school or program meets established quality standards and educational requirements. There is programmatic accreditation for a specific degree or program and then institutional accreditation for the school as a whole. At a minimum, students should ensure that the program they attend is regionally accredited by an organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Orientation and mobility programs can be programmatically accredited by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER).

On-Campus Orientation & Mobility Specialist Degree Programs

Western Michigan University

Western Michigan University’s orientation and mobility program has a concentration for working-age adults and one for children. This one-year master’s program trains students to work with adults or children to travel independently around their houses and the world. Students in either track will receive comprehensive training in orientation and mobility techniques, environmental analysis, and assistive technologies.

Graduates of this program work in schools, agencies for the blind or visually impaired, Veteran Administration Medical Centers, and universities and colleges. While this program can be completed in as little as a year, most students graduate in a little over a year and a half. There is also a certificate option for students who have already completed a master’s degree in another field. 

  • Location: Kalamazoo, WI
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

Louisiana Tech University

Louisiana Tech’s orientation and mobility graduate certificate focuses on teaching the structured-discovery cane travel method to future instructors. Students undergo immersive training experiences at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB), where they learn alongside blind individuals to understand their capabilities firsthand. The program includes a quarter-long blindness immersion at LCB and six months of travel practice under sleep shades to enhance mobility skills. Students engage in various trips, such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and adventurous activities, like whitewater rafting and rock climbing, aimed at building confidence through non-visual travel experiences.

A 10-week internship at LCB precedes the National Orientation and Mobility Certification exam. This internship allows students to refine their teaching techniques by working closely with blind individuals and receiving feedback from experienced instructors. Graduates are prepared to teach in diverse settings like public schools, Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies, Veterans Affairs agencies, and rehabilitation centers for the blind, gaining valuable hands-on experience throughout their training.

  • Location: Ruston, LA 
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) 

Stephen F. Austin State University

Stephen F. Austin State University offers the only bachelor of science degree in rehabilitation services, focusing on orientation and mobility in the country. This four-year program includes traditional undergraduate coursework and 33 course hours in orientation and mobility. All students will also complete hands-on experience working with persons with disabilities and a summer internship. 

In addition to the concentrated orientation and mobility education, students will learn case management and community rehabilitation programs. This program prepares students for graduate studies should they wish to pursue additional education.  

  • Location: Nacogdoches, TX
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) 

San Francisco State University

Established in 1966, the orientation and mobility program at San Francisco State University is one of the nation’s oldest programs. This program is renowned for its comprehensive curriculum that equips future specialists with the necessary skills to assist individuals of all ages, from infancy to adulthood, with visual impairments, including those with multiple disabilities and diverse cultural backgrounds. There is a master’s degree option and a stand-alone credential option. Students can complete either or both, and there is significant overlap in the coursework. 

Classes are offered in the evening and on weekends to allow for students who may have other work obligations. Upon completion, graduates are adept at providing personalized training to enhance independent travel skills and foster productive lifestyles among their students.

  • Location: San Francisco, CA
  • Duration: 15 credits alongside a degree program
  • Accreditation: AER Accreditation Council (AERAC) of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER)

Northern Illinois University

Northern Illinois University offers a master’s of education in special education, specifically focusing on visual disabilities. Students can choose a specialization in orientation and mobility. This program prepares individuals to support and empower those with visual impairments to navigate the world, excel academically, and engage in daily tasks. As a nationally recognized program, graduates will be professionals in educational and rehabilitation services for individuals of all age groups with visual impairments. 

The specialization of orientation and mobility includes literary braille classes, basic orientation and mobility, anatomy, pathology, and eye functioning. Students receive generous financial support, including all tuition and fees paid, full health insurance, and a yearly stipend. 

  • Location: DeKalb, IL
  • Duration: Two years 
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

Online or Hybrid Orientation & Mobility Specialist Degree Program

University of Kentucky

UK offers a hybrid master of arts in orientation and mobility. It teaches specialists about the use of canes, canine guides, responsible mobility devices, GPS, and other assistive technologies. It requires one summer intensive and some face-to-face weekends.

To apply, candidates must submit a resume, personal statement, and three letters of recommendation.

  • Location: Lexington, KY
  • Duration: Two years 
  • Accreditation: Seeking accreditation from the AER Accreditation Council (AERAC) of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER)

Salus University

The master of science degree and certificate program in orientation and mobility at Salus University prepares specialists to instruct individuals with blindness or vision impairments in essential orientation and mobility skills for navigating their surroundings independently and safely. Students learn to help both children and adults remain oriented in various environments, including homes, schools, workplaces, and communities. 

This program provides flexible study options with full-time and part-time tracks. It offers predominantly online coursework supplemented by a summer residency and an additional on-campus week in the fall. The program’s conclusion involves an internship, where students can apply their knowledge in practical settings.

  • Location: Elkins Park, PA
  • Duration: Two years for the master’s degree
  • Accreditation: AER Accreditation Council (AERAC) of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER)

Portland State University

Portland State University offers a graduate certificate in orientation and mobility for children, youth, and adults. This Certificate can be completed as a standalone program or in addition to a master’s degree in special education or visually impaired learner licensing. The graduate certificate on it’s own is 35 credits, while the master’s degree with the certificate is 45. This is a primarily online program, although students must travel to campus for the first summer term in person. 

This program has excellent results, including 99 percent of graduates working in the field, 97 percent student retention, and 84 percent of graduates passing the optional ACVREP COMS exam. 

  • Location: Portland, OR
  • Duration: Varies based on the program
  • Accreditation: Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AERBVI)

North Carolina Central University

The master’s of education program with a concentration in orientation and mobility at North Carolina Central University is a 39-credit hour program that qualifies students to seek certification through the Academy of Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals (ACVREP). While primarily delivered online with courses scheduled in the late afternoon and early evening, students must also engage in hands-on travel experiences in natural settings over five to six weekends during the spring and fall semesters. 

This program focuses on training specialists to teach independent travel skills to individuals with visual impairments, covering topics such as cane and dog guide usage, instructional methods for independent travel, and advanced techniques for navigating various environments like streets, buses, and complex urban settings. Students gain practical experience by wearing blindfolds and simulation goggles as they learn to navigate different locations ranging from residential areas to downtown settings.

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) 

University of Arkansas at Little Rock

The online master of arts degree in orientation and mobility at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock trains professionals to offer services to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Specialists equip clients with skills to enhance environmental awareness and make informed decisions for independent travel using residual vision, canes, or guide dogs. This program meets the requirements for certification by the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP) through coursework and supervised fieldwork experiences. Students participate in intensive blindfold simulation classes and student teaching sessions over two consecutive summers in Little Rock, receiving accommodations and some meals during the training. 

Internships can be arranged locally under certified O&M instructors. The curriculum includes sensory and movement skill development tailored to individual needs and incorporates training on adaptive tools like canes and electronic travel aids. 

  • Location: Little Rock, AR
  • Duration: Two years and a half to three years
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

University of Massachusetts Boston

UMass Boston’s orientation and mobility certificate trains professionals to support blind or visually impaired individuals in achieving safe, efficient, and independent travel skills. Geared towards educators and other professionals working with the visually impaired, the program equips participants with the knowledge to assess the needs of individuals with visual impairments, teach them how to utilize tools like canes and low vision aids and integrate professionally trained guide dogs for enhanced navigation and safety. 

Students explore advanced learning technologies and gain hands-on experience through practical fieldwork, preparing them to assist individuals of all ages in diverse settings, including governmental agencies and educational institutions. Successful program completion qualifies individuals to take national exams through the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals, paving the way for professional certification.

  • Location: Boston, MA
  • Duration: Two years 
  • Accreditation: New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)

How Long Does it Take to Become an Orientation & Mobility Specialist?

The length of time it takes to become an orientation and mobility specialist can vary depending on the education pursued. Generally, a bachelor’s degree in this field can be completed in four years, while a master’s or certificate program may take an additional one to two years. A certificate program generally takes one to two years after completing a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

How To Become an Orientation & Mobility Specialist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

The first step to becoming an orientation and mobility specialist is to complete high school or obtain a GED certificate. This provides the necessary foundation for further education and training in this field.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years) 

Most orientation and mobility specialists hold a bachelor’s degree in orientation and mobility, education of the visually impaired, or a related field. This degree provides a strong understanding of the fundamentals and principles of orientation and mobility. 

Step 3: Complete a Graduate Degree or Certificate (Two Years)

While a bachelor’s degree may be sufficient for entry-level positions, many students choose to pursue a master’s or certificate program in orientation and mobility studies. These programs offer specialized training and research opportunities that prepare students for leadership roles in the field.

Step 4: Obtain Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professional (ACVREP) Certification (Optional, Timelines Vary)

Although not required, many orientation and mobility specialists choose to obtain certification from the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals (ACVREP). This can enhance job opportunities and demonstrate a commitment to professionalism in the field.

Step 5: Obtain State Licensing if Required (Timelines Vary)

Some states may require orientation and mobility specialists to hold a state license. Requirements for licensure vary by state, so it is important to research the state’s specific requirements where you plan to practice.

Step 6: Seek Continuing Education Opportunities (Ongoing)

To maintain certification and stay current with developments in the field, orientation and mobility specialists should seek continuing education opportunities. This can include attending conferences, workshops, or completing online courses.

What Do Orientation & Mobility Specialists Do?

Orientation and mobility specialists work in various settings, including public and private schools, rehabilitation centers, agencies for the visually impaired, hospitals, and residential care facilities. Some specialists work directly in clients’ homes or serve as consultants for companies developing products or services for the visually impaired community. Day-to-day duties will vary on the specific workplace but can include: 

  • Conduct assessments to determine the client’s current orientation and mobility skills.
  • Develop individualized training plans tailored to each client’s needs and goals.
  • Teach clients how to use mobility aids like white canes and electronic devices for navigation.
  • Instruct clients on safe and effective travel techniques in various environments, including indoor spaces, urban areas, and public transportation.
  • Guide interpreting and using sensory information (such as sounds and textures) to understand one’s surroundings.
  • Help clients develop skills for independent living, such as shopping, using ATMs, and public transportation.
  • Work with other professionals, such as teachers, occupational therapists, and families, to support the client’s overall goals.
  • Maintain detailed records of clients’ progress and adjust training plans as necessary.
  • Stay updated on the latest research, tools, and techniques in the field of orientation and mobility.

Orientation & Mobility Specialist Certifications & Licensure

Certification for orientation and mobility specialists is primarily through the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professional (ACVREP) credential. The requirements to earn a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) certification include:

  • Have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college with an emphasis in orientation and mobility OR complete orientation and mobility graduate-level preparation courses from an accredited university or college that meets the 13 domain knowledge areas OR complete an orientation and mobility professional preparation program that is approved by a national government body that approves such professional preparation programs that meets the 13 domain knowledge areas
  • Have 350 hours of “discipline-specific, supervised practice that includes, but is not limited to, direct service hours, and related phone calls, meetings, observations, report writing, etc.”  The practice must be supervised by a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS), either onsite or offsite
  • Pass the ACVREP Orientation and Mobility Certification Examination, demonstrating knowledge of O&M principles and applications

Licensing for orientation and mobility specialists will vary based on their job and the state where they work. In many states, orientation and mobility specialists are classified as occupational therapists, and they must hold a license as such to practice. In some cases, orientation and mobility specialists working in schools must hold an education-specific license to provide services. Aspiring orientation and mobility specialists should contact their local boards to ensure they have the qualifications to perform their jobs.

How Much Do Orientation & Mobility Specialists Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2023) classifies orientation and mobility specialists as occupational therapists. On average, the 133,570 physical therapists nationwide earned $86,210 per year. Here are the percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $56,800
  • 25th percentile: $69,710
  • 50th percentile (median): $84,950
  • 75th percentile: $101,590
  • 90th percentile: $121,490

Orientation & Mobility Specialists Career Alternatives

Here are a few alternatives to an orientation and mobility specialist career. 

Become an Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists help individuals perform daily activities. They assist with developing, recovering, and maintaining essential skills, providing personalized evaluations and customized intervention plans. They recommend adaptive equipment, train on its use, and suggest environmental modifications. Their holistic approach supports individuals in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and private practices.

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA)

Become a Speech-Language Pathologist

Speech-language pathologists specialize in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of communication and swallowing disorders in individuals across the lifespan. From helping children articulate words properly to aiding stroke survivors in regaining their speech, SLPs play a crucial role in improving their clients’ quality of life. They collaborate closely with families, educators, and other healthcare providers to create comprehensive care plans. SLPs are often found in schools, private clinics, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers dedicated to enabling their clients to communicate effectively and eat safely.

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

Become an Audiologist

Audiologists identify, diagnose, treat, and monitor auditory and balance system disorders. They administer hearing tests, fit and dispense hearing aids, and provide rehabilitation services for patients with hearing impairments. They also offer counsel and support to patients and their families, guiding them through the diagnosis and treatment processes for hearing loss and balance disorders.

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

At HealthcareDegree.com, Kimmy Gustafson has delivered in-depth and insightful articles since 2019, aiding prospective students to navigate the complexities of choosing the right healthcare degree. Her recent work includes topics such as the ethics of gene editing and physician assistant’s fight for autonomy.

Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.

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