July 12, 2021

In 2014, Mimi Garcia was working as an intervener for people who are deafblind at the Austin State Supported Living Center. It was a rewarding job, but she felt she could do even more. She spent a lot of time as an intervener working alongside orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists, and eventually something clicked. “I want to do this,” she recalls realizing.

O&M specialists work with people who have impaired vision to help them remain oriented in their environment and use specific mobility skills to travel safely and independently in different settings.

Garcia appreciated that O&M specialists are certified to work one-on-one with clients, unlike interveners who partner with other professionals. When she decided to go back to school to become an O&M specialist, there was one obvious destination.

Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) in Nacogdoches established its O&M program in 1972. Graduate students can earn a master’s in special education with a concentration in O&M, and the university is the only school in the country that offers an undergraduate concentration in O&M.

SFA has an additional advantage — its productive partnership with the Lufkin State Supported Living Center.

With about half of its 260 residents having some form of visual impairment, Lufkin SSLC makes O&M training a key part of its new employee orientation. The partnership with SFA started with clinical instructor DJ Dean bringing her students to the center to volunteer at special events. Dean said it wasn’t long until she was helping the center tweak its O&M training, and with time her SFA students were conducting the blind mobility portion of the new employee orientation under her supervision.

Joyce Jackson, director of competency training and development for Lufkin SSLC, said the expert help has made a positive difference — from updating their instructional video and securing a grant for training blindfolds to the less tangible.

“They made it fun,” Jackson said.

Jackson said bringing in subject matter experts also highlights the importance of the training to new staff.

“I think it brought it home for them,” Jackson said. “I feel like the staff were really beginning to understand what it’s like for somebody who has a visual disability and how they can help them.”

This portion of orientation lasts a couple of hours and includes instruction from Dean and her students, followed by class members pairing up and taking turns wearing the blindfold and guiding the other person.

“They go through doors, up and down curbs and steps, and across streets,” Jackson said. “They discuss what they hear and where they think they are, using sounds and other clues. All during this, Dean’s students are watching the methods and correcting, encouraging and teaching.”

The program helps Dean’s students, including Garcia, earn required practicum hours before they begin their internships.

“I was learning how to break things down more to people, especially people who have no experience working with people who have visual impairments,” Garcia said.

Up until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the students would come from Nacogdoches twice a month to teach the classes. Plans are in place to resume these in-person trainings soon.

The SFA O&M group was named Advocates of the Year in this year’s All on DEC awards for their commitment to Lufkin SSLC.

The personal victory for Garcia is that she graduated from the program and returned to Austin SSLC as an O&M specialist, meeting her goal from years ago, and recently began working with Abilene SSLC as well. She hopes it’s a move more people make.

Visit the HHS SSLCs webpage for more information about state supported living centers.