Using your Senses for Safe and Independent Navigation

A woman stands holding her white cane on pavement.

Mindy Coulman navigates her Dodgeville subdivision by using skills gained through Orientation and Mobility training on using her white cane.

When Mindy Coulman began to lose her vision, she knew that learning new ways to navigate her surroundings would be necessary.

“I needed to walk my child down to the bus safely and walk to my appointments so I wouldn’t always have to rely on my husband. I was definitely not comfortable crossing the street at the time,” says the Dodgeville mom of two.

Through the instruction of a Certified Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist serving Western Wisconsin and a Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist at the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired, Mindy gained the skills and confidence to get herself and her children where they needed to go safely.

Adults who are blind or have low vision may experience navigation difficulties which include bumping into furniture, falling or tripping on an obstacle or step, and becoming lost or disoriented inside their homes or out in your community. But losing your vision doesn’t mean giving up your ability to navigate your surroundings. O&M instruction can provide you with tools and techniques to move through your day safely and independently. An O&M specialist can work on an individual plan with you that reflects your personal needs, skills and goals.

If you’ve had vision throughout your life, you’ve used it to obtain the information you need to get around. With a vision loss, you may wonder how you can accomplish things you used your sight for, such as:

  • Locating doorways to rooms or the basement.
  • Avoiding an obstacle in your path.
  • Detecting the edge of a curb or step.
  • Finding a store or an office building.
  • Using buses and crossing streets.

All these tasks can be done safely and efficiently by pairing O&M training with non-visual information from your senses.  By using hearing, touch, smell and the perception of your body’s position and movement, you can determine where you are and what is happening around you.

Everyday sounds can provide many clues about your surroundings:

  • The hum of the refrigerator provides orientation to spaces in your kitchen.
  • Traffic sounds in the street outside your home gives a sense of time of day.
  • Muffled voices suggest pedestrians passing you on the sidewalk.

The sense of touch can provide valuable information:

  • Textures under your feet indoors tell when you are entering the carpeted living room from the tiled kitchen.
  • Textures under your feet outdoors can indicate moving off the asphalt driveway onto the concrete sidewalk.
  • The warmth of the sun on your face and clothing lets you know you are in the unshaded middle of the back yard.

The sense of smell can provide useful feedback, too. Noticing scents such as deodorizers, cleaning supplies, sawdust, pizza, leather and baked goods gives you tips about your surroundings.

Kinesthesia refers to the awareness of your body’s movement and position when you bend, reach for a door handle, walk or turn around, for example.  Your kinesthetic sense gives keys to detecting your body within its surroundings:

  • The change your body makes when a guide indicates going through a door that opens on the right.
  • The position of your hand on a guide’s arm as you hold it.
  • The speed of movement needed to cross a busy street with the light.

Developing a System of Landmarks
In addition to sensory input, you may also develop a system of environmental clues, or landmarks, to create a picture in your mind of your home. This mental map of landmarks will allow you to feel more secure and in control of your surroundings.

Some examples of landmarks that can construct your mental map:

  • Contrasting floor coverings, such as carpet, tile or wood that remind you when you are moving from the kitchen to the dining area.
  • The sounds of birds chirping, leaves rustling in the breeze or children playing outdoors that indicate the direction of a window, terrace, patio door or driveway.
  • Different household odors, such as laundry soap, cooking odors or potpourri that signal the location of the laundry room, kitchen or living room.
  • A distinct change in temperature, such as the cool air from a fan or air conditioner that differentiates your bedroom from a guest bedroom.

Safety First
Safety is key and working with an O&M instructor is the best way to learn how to navigate with vision loss. Coulman advises giving training a try, saying that instruction can make a difference.

“In the subdivision where I live there are no sidewalks. I learned to navigate around the corner by using the bumps in the road and how to walk safely so I don’t bump into anything,” Coulman explains of her O&M training experience. “I definitely gained more confidence to get out and about by myself and it has definitely given me some freedom back.”

To improve safety, clear your home of clutter and obstacles on the floor and stairs. Have things organized and in the same places so that you are familiar with where you are based on those landmarks. If you still have usable vision, place good lighting near stairways. You can find good lighting options that use batteries. And make sure to clearly define step edges with colored or tactile tape.

The Council can connect you with an O&M specialist who can assess your needs. Contact us by phone at 800-783-5213 or 608-255-1166, or email

In addition, the Council provides free white canes for all Wisconsin residents every two years if needed. There are different types of white canes based on function. Some detect obstacles and some are used mainly for identifying as a person with vision impairment. Please contact the Council for more information on which cane might be right for you.

With individualized training, use of non-visual strategies, and tools, you can become more independent and confident and navigate your surroundings safely.

Adaptive products and services available in the  Sharper Vision Store and Vision Services:

Portable LED Flip It Light: A small, bright battery-operated light that can be placed wherever you need extra light. Item #LA220
Aluminum Rigid Mobility Cane: Comes in 34- and 60-inch lengths. Orientation & Mobility training highly recommended for new users. Item #C250
Yaktrax©: Designed to stretch over the bottom of your shoes or boots to provide extra traction when walking or hiking on slippery or uneven terrain. Item #HP150

Vision Rehabilitation Services: Available home visits to recommend solutions and provide instruction for common tasks to create a safe environment. Request a consultation on our website or call 800-783-5213.

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