Imagine that you are assigned to an unfamiliar school for your student-teaching placement. Your vocational rehabilitation counselor has purchased the Picture Maker: Wheatley Tactile Diagramming Kit for your use in learning routes in the school and new community because he understands the benefit of this tool. Now imagine that you meet your new orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor and show him this tool. You ask him to make a tactile map of the targeted indoor routes. He has worked as a mobility instructor for many years. He says, “I’m teaching you to survive without the use of tactile maps.”
Imagine no more. This experience happened to me in 2005 as I was preparing to begin my student teaching at a local high school. Through this experience, I learned a valuable lesson related to self-advocacy: you have the right to request a new instructor if things are not working for you.
My Story Requesting the Wheatley
Here is the story. I was assigned to student teach psychology at a large high school in my home state in the fall semester of 2005. Prior to beginning the placement, I met with my vocational rehabilitation counselor and discussed with him what tools or devices I would need in order to be successful in this field experience. One of those items was the Picture Maker: Wheatley Tactile Diagramming Kit, often called simply called the “Picture Maker”. I intended to use this in conjunction with O&M instruction to learn the layout of the school and to study the map in between lessons. Tactile maps benefit me as I can feel the shape of the route, which helps me imprint the route in my memory. My counselor agreed.
Fast forward to when my orientation lessons began at the high school. During the first lesson, the instructor taught me the route from the front door of the school to my assigned classroom. His method of teaching routes, which did not include the use of tactile maps, involved having me look at the ceiling or floor and count tiles or light fixtures.
When I repeatedly struggled with the method, I asked once more for the instructor to make a tactile map of the route using the Picture Maker. Again, he refused because he felt it was unnecessary. He seemed to believe that a student with low vision should rely strictly on their vision to learn a route. However, I easily lost track when counting light fixtures or tiles on the floor, so this proved unreliable for me.
From Lacking Confidence to Advocating
After that instructor and I finished our allotted number of hours together, I still lacked confidence to travel independently in the school. I ultimately contacted my very first O&M instructor for additional support. He helped me relearn the routes using techniques that worked for me, including use of the Picture Maker.
Now, with 17 years of hindsight, I know I should have been a stronger self-advocate. Had I asked for a different instructor, I may have had a more successful overall experience in that school as I would have been more confident in navigating the school setting, but I was young then and less proactive than I am now.
Since then, I have moved to various locations around the country. The Picture Maker has been an invaluable tool in my O&M toolbox. Each subsequent instructor I worked with was glad to use it to help me learn routes, whether outdoors or indoors. Combined with a small notebook where directions were written, I was able to learn routes with greater efficiency and confidence.
Tips for Advocating
If you find yourself in a situation where an instructor is not listening to you and is teaching using one method without being open to anything else, advocate for what you need. You have the right to be comfortable working with the instructor, and if that means asking for modifications to the instructional method, don’t be afraid to speak up. If all else fails and there are no changes, talk with someone higher up in the agency or school chain of command to request a change in instructor. Having an instructor whose teaching style matches your learning style will increase your success.
When you make a request, do it with a polite but firm manner. Think carefully about why you need the change and write the reasons in a list. This will help when you explain your situation. It is important to articulate why you are making the request. Having your list of reasons in writing will not only help you in your conversation but may also help if documentation of your request is needed.
Advocating for yourself is a never-ending commitment. Remember the end goal and be ready to stand up for yourself.