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Orientation and mobility in Australia and New Zealand: situational analysis and census.

The orientation and mobility (O&M) profession is well established in Australia and New Zealand. This paper gives a situational analysis of O&M in these countries, including a brief history, an overview of professional training and current activity, and data gained from two censuses of the profession undertaken in 2002 and 2011. Social observation comes from the perspective of Melbourne-based authors who maintain contact with O&M personnel and agency managers across the region via e-mail, teleconferences, gatherings of the professional body, and local and international conferences.


The dog guide movement began in Western Australia in 1951, but O&M launched as a profession in Australia in 1971, when the first graduates, taught by O&M instructors from the United States, completed their training at the National Guide Dog Training Centre in Melbourne (Ford, 1971). In the early years, New Zealand sent some candidates for training in Australia and the United Kingdom, while other O&M personnel were recruited from Commonwealth or European countries (Neustadt-Noy & LaGrow, 2010).

In 1971, the Orientation and Mobility Instructors Association of Australasia (OMIAA) was established (OMAA, 2012). This professional body was active in producing regular communications and in working to consolidate the role of the O&M profession within the allied health sector. By 1994, members of OMIAA had reached agreement about minimum standards for training courses, a code of ethics, and criteria for membership in the professional body, but it could not agree about criteria for assessment of instructor competence (OMIAA, 1994, February).

Unfortunately, OMIAA dissolved in 1995, after executive roles were accepted by instructors who were located far away from most of the membership. Australia and New Zealand are sparsely populated, and although largely based in urban centers, O&M professionals and clientele are widespread and communication can be challenging.

In 1998, the state-based Orientation and Mobility Specialists Association of Victoria (OMSAV) was founded. This group worked towards the reestablishment of a regional professional body, and became the Orientation and Mobility Association of Australasia (OMAA) in 2008 (OMAA, 2012). E-mail, Internet access, and conference attendance have helped to connect members and diminish professional isolation over the past 15 years.

In Australia and New Zealand, O&M services are generally available free of charge through charitable organizations. Some of these agencies focus on mobility services, while others offer more comprehensive services for people with blindness and low vision, addressing employment, literacy, leisure, mobility, activities of daily living, early childhood development, and assistive technology issues. Some government education departments also employ O&M specialists, usually requiring a teaching degree in addition to an O&M qualification. Most O&M work has not been compensable through insurance or government sources. Although independent O&M specialists are occasionally contracted by the agencies, freelance work has never flourished in Australia and New Zealand, because free services are already available.


In Australia, O&M personnel preparation has evolved from in-house, one-year programs offered by dog guide agencies in Melbourne and, later, Sydney during the 1970s and 1980s (Branson & Rutt, 1982; Neustadt-Noy & LaGrow, 2010). A range of tertiary-level O&M programs have been developed, delivered for a time, then discontinued, in four separate states.

Tertiary education in Australia has two streams: a university stream and a vocational education and training (VET) stream where government- and industry-accredited programs are delivered by registered training organizations. Both streams use the same Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF, 2013). However, VET courses adopt a competency-based approach to curriculum delivery and assessment, and some VET options have an entry requirement lower than university qualifications.

Since the 1980s, O&M qualifications have included diploma courses (in-house); certificate and graduate certificate courses (VET); and degree-, graduate diploma-, and masters-level programs (university). All have been dependent on the sponsorship of O&M agencies for funding, professional knowledge, staffing, and resources, and for the hosting of field placements. Accordingly, each course has been vulnerable to changes in agency policy and most have been short-lived or are offered intermittently. In a restrained financial climate, smaller courses are targeted during university cutbacks, and O&M agencies tend to prioritize service delivery to clients over the training of staff members. Only one agency in Australia employs O&M assistants (see Table 1), and that agency has developed a VET-accredited certificate course to facilitate the standardized training of its personnel.

In 1988, Massey University in New Zealand established the first O&M course outside the United States to be accredited by the United States-based Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). There are now three O&M specialists employed by Massey University, although the O&M course is not currently on offer (S. LaGrow, personal communication, May 20, 2013). Since 1998, a government-accredited course in developmental O&M offered by the Royal New Zealand Society of the Blind has equipped O&M specialists to work particularly with children from birth to age 18 (Neustadt-Noy & LaGrow, 2010).

There are no O&M specialists employed directly by Australian universities to teach O&M. Instead, O&M course coordinators take up an honorary university appointment, but continue to be paid by the agency sponsor. Each O&M course is tailored to meet the employment needs of the sponsoring agency, and there is a risk that the body of O&M knowledge and expertise in Australia could become skewed and diminished through relative isolation combined with a lack of professional benchmarking and a low publication output. Aware of this risk, some course coordinators have utilized the AER curricular standards for university-based O&M programs (AER, n.d.) in their course design. In addition to the international canon of O&M resources, several locally developed texts documenting current techniques and practice are used in personnel preparation programs in the Australasian region (see, for example, Deverell, Taylor, & Prentice, 2009; Harrison, 2010; Scott, 2012).


All Australasian dog guide providers are members of the International Guide Dog Federation, which has clearly defined standards of service for member agencies (IGDF, 2013). Dog guide training cadetships are currently delivered in-house by individual agencies, but there is new interest in standardizing and externally accrediting these cadetship programs (P. Adrian, personal communication, March 28, 2013).

There is no O&M equivalent to the IGDF. The need for a certification program for O&M specialists in the region has been acknowledged since 1971. However, Australasia lacks the critical mass of personnel needed to fund, develop, and sustain a credible independent program. Thus, responsibility for maintaining professional standards has reverted to employers.

In 2009, an OMAA Standards Committee was convened. This group has drafted an O&M standards statement, including a code of ethics, which is currently being reviewed by the O&M profession. The OMAA is negotiating with O&M specialists, employers, and external bodies regarding feasible certification options for personnel.


Professional collaboration through live forums is valued in the region. Four Australasian O&M conferences have taken place since 2001, hosted by individual agencies in Adelaide, Surfer's Paradise, Perth, and Sydney. These gatherings have been well attended and serve as a lively showcase of O&M innovation. Biennial conferences of the South Pacific Educators in Vision Impairment provide opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, particularly regarding children's mobility (SPEVI, 2013). There is always Australasian representation at International Mobility Conferences, the most recent being hosted in New Zealand in 2012. Unfortunately, little of the novel professional activity aired at these conferences by Australians is submitted to peer-reviewed journals.

New Zealand has demonstrated a steady commitment to research and publication over the past two decades, with Massey University at the hub. There is no university locus of O&M research activity in Australia, and little investment or pressure from employers to "publish or perish." Accordingly, the profession in Australia seems to lack both incentive for further education and confidence in conducting and reporting formal research. Nevertheless, three O&M specialists in the region have doctoral degrees, and at least four more people are currently undertaking O&M-related doctoral studies, each through different Australian universities.

The International Journal of Orientation and Mobility, established in 2008 in Sydney, is helping to shift this reticence in relation to publishing, actively encouraging contributions from local and international O&M specialists (IJOM, 2013). The establishment of a federal National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in Australia has also raised awareness in the agencies of the need for evidence that O&M intervention benefits its clients and therefore requires government funding, stimulating a fresh and welcome interest in O&M research from agency managers (Australian Government, 2013).


The professional body OMSAV made its first foray into research in 2002, when a census of the Australasian O&M profession provided data for the newly established OMSAV website. This survey sought information about vision support services in each state or country in the region, the service profile of each agency, the number of O&M personnel employed, and their qualifications (Deverell, 2002). A total of 186 formally qualified O&M personnel in Australia and New Zealand were identified, including dual-qualified dog guide instructors and O&M assistants (see Table 1). Expertise in children's O&M and in neurological O&M (for clients with acquired brain injury or cortico-spatial developmental disabilities) featured in several agencies at the time.

In 2011, updated information on the O&M profession was sought from employers in Australia and New Zealand.


Beginning in July 2011, e-mails were sent to client services managers or heads of O&M teams in each organization in Australia and New Zealand known to employ O&M specialists. Survey questions were kept to a minimum, in recognition of the difficulty in gaining any data about personnel from short-staffed agencies. Employers were asked to list the number of full-time and part-time employees, both in O&M roles and in dog guide instructor positions. The majority of dog guide instructors in the region have some kind of O&M qualification. Follow-up over a 12-month period via phone and e-mail resulted in a comprehensive data set, with November 2011 serving as the census month for any retrospective enquiries.


There was a 36% increase in O&M personnel in Australia and New Zealand between 2002 and 2011. "O&M specialist" was not clearly defined in the request for census data, but some respondents made comments about the basis on which they included staff members in their tally. The results included personnel delivering O&M services, those managing O&M teams, those teaching O&M and vision-related rehabilitation and education programs at a tertiary level, and those employed in community education or fundraising roles for an agency in a way that used their O&M expertise.

Some agencies included sponsored O&M trainees in their data set, but only graduates were included in the final tally (see Table 1). One agency noted that some of their dog guide instructors had not undertaken separate O&M qualifications, so were not formally dual-qualified. All dog guide schools in Australasia now offer O&M services, so these personnel were included in the 2011 data set. Dog guide mobility is loosely recognized as a specialty of O&M, regardless of the training pathway undertaken by instructors.

Note that prior to 2002, Seeing Eye Dogs Australia (SEDA) employed dog guide instructors with no O&M training, so they were not included in the 2002 census. SEDA has since merged with Vision Australia; most instructors have completed an O&M qualification and there is a much stronger recognition of the interrelationship between O&M and dog guide work.


In the past decade, the increase in O&M personnel has exceeded the predicted 30% increase in the number of Australian people with low vision or blindness (Taylor et al., 2005). Nevertheless, O&M specialists report having full caseloads and, in some areas, lengthy waiting lists--248 O&M professionals is clearly insufficient to serve the needs of an estimated 605,300 people with less than 6/12 (20/40) visual acuity, including 62,600 people with less than 6/60 (20/200) (RNZFB, 2009; Taylor et al., 2005).

Service expansion in O&M is primarily limited because of a lack of funding. Most agencies are dependent on a combination of public donations, bequests, government grants, and corporate sponsorships to sustain service delivery. Competition for funding is juxtaposed with an equally important awareness that collaboration can be more cost-effective and can give the O&M industry a stronger public voice. The advent of NDIS in Australia has stimulated new thinking and conversation between agencies about the best ways to fund and promote O&M and dog guide services.

The professional body has had little to say about the impending shifts in funding, and has instead invested its limited resources in the establishment of O&M standards for the profession as a whole. Agencies need OMAA to do this work from its neutral position; conversely, OMAA is aware that without critical membership mass, it cannot move forward--it needs O&M employers to promote consistent O&M standards and any associated certification programs for personnel. There seems to be a growing awareness that standards and certification will improve the credibility of the O&M profession in the allied health sector and with government bodies, incidentally helping to extend service opportunities beyond the current range of O&M employers.

Despite a long-held concern that O&M assistants might supplant O&M specialists during cost-cutting measures (OMIAA, 1994, February), the employment of O&M assistants has remained limited to one agency, and such assistants are integral to its particular service profile.

Individual agencies have developed O&M specialties (for example, children's mobility, multiple disabilities, acquired brain injury, services to remote regions, and cross-cultural work) in response to gaps in local services. Unique approaches to O&M are profiled at conferences, and O&M specialists return home inspired; in-house training opportunities are developed and personnel from other agencies are invited to participate. This innovation is exciting, and there is much to contribute to the global body of knowledge in O&M. A certification program, with its requirement of providing evidence of continuing education, would provide an incentive to publish these innovative practices.

It remains to be seen whether or not the current preoccupation of agencies with O&M outcome measures will translate into an ongoing investment in credible, peer-reviewed research and associated publications. The handful of O&M specialists currently undertaking higher research degrees shows some promise for the future employment of O&M specialists in the tertiary education sector, helping to further stabilize the future of O&M in Australasia.

Thanks to Frances Gentle, Paul Adrian, Steve La-Grow, Mark Battista, Mike Steer, and Desiree Gallimore for providing feedback on this article before submission for publication. Centre for Eye Research Australia receives operational infrastructure support from the Victorian government.


AER. (n.d.). AER university personnel preparation program application. Retrieved August 2, 2013, from http://www.aerbvi. org/modules.php?name=News&file= article&sid=1851

AQF. (2013, January). Australian Qualifications Framework (2nd ed.). Retrieved August 13, 2013, from Portals/0/Documents/2013%20docs/ AQF%202nd%20Edition%20January% 202013.pdf

Australian Government. (2013). Disability Care Australia: Our history. Retrieved August 3, 2013, from http://www. our-history

Branson, V. M., & Rutt, W. B. C. (1982). Lead with a watchful eye: The silver jubilee of guide dogs in Australia. Melbourne, Australia: Royal Guide Dogs for the Blind Associations of Australia.

Deverell, L. (2002). Unpublished O&M census data.

Deverell, L., Taylor, S., & Prentice, J. (2009). Orientation and mobility methods: Techniques for independent travel. Melbourne, Australia: Guide Dogs Victoria.

Ford, B. (1971). The rehabilitation of blind people. Melbourne, Australia: Royal Guide Dogs for the Blind Associations of Australia.

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W. R. Weiner, R. L. Welsh, & B. B. Blasch (Eds.), Foundations of orientation and mobility: History and theory (3rd ed., Vol. I, pp. 533-564). New York: AFB Press.

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OMIAA. (February 1, 1994). Annual General Meeting of the Orientation and Mobility Instructors' Association of Australasia: Minutes.

RNZFB. (2009). Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind: Statistics on sight loss. Retrieved August 3, 2013, from http:// statistics-on-sight-loss

Scott, B. (2012). I'm starting to walk--I can use a cane! Introducing orientation and mobility skills to very young children who are blind or have low vision. Melbourne, Australia: Author.

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Lil Deverell, M.Ed., COMS, O&M specialist, Orientation and Mobility Association of Australasia, Centre for Eye Research Australia, University of Melbourne, Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, Level 1, 32 Gisborne Street, East Melbourne, VIC 3002 Australia; e-mail: <>. Bronwen Scott, M.Ed., COMS, orientation and mobility specialist, Independent Options for Mobility, Unit 8/690 Lygon Street, Carlton North Victoria 3054, Australia; e-mail: <>.
Table 1

Number of O&M specialists, dog guide instructors, and O&M
assistants in Australia and New Zealand in 2011, compared
with 2002 statistics.

                            O&M specialists

Agency                      Full-time   Part-time   Total

Association for the Blind       1           3          4
  of Western Australia
Department of Education         2          --          2
Education Queensland            2          --          2
Freelance                       1           1          2
Guide Dogs New                 48          10         58
  South Wales/Australian
  Capital Territory
Guide Dogs Queensland           6           2          8
Guide Dogs South                9          --          9
Guide Dogs Tasmania             4          --          4
Guide Dogs Victoria             9           7         16
Kilparrin Teaching and          1          --          1
  Assessment School and
  Services (South
Massey University               2          --          2
  (New Zealand)
Royal New Zealand              10           4         14
  Foundation for
  the Blind
Royal Society for               6          --          6
  the Blind (South
South Australian School         2          --          2
  for the Vision
Vision Australia *             33          15         48
Total O&M personnel,                                 178
Total O&M personnel,                                 141

                            Dog guide instructors

Agency                      Full-time   Part-time   Total

Association for the Blind       3           1         4
  of Western Australia
Department of Education        --          --        --
Education Queensland           --          --        --
Freelance                      --          --        --
Guide Dogs New                 15           2        17
  South Wales/Australian
  Capital Territory
Guide Dogs Queensland           3           2         5
Guide Dogs South                3          --         3
Guide Dogs Tasmania             2          --         2
Guide Dogs Victoria            10           2        12
Kilparrin Teaching and         --          --        --
  Assessment School and
  Services (South
Massey University              --          --        --
  (New Zealand)
Royal New Zealand               8          --         8
  Foundation for
  the Blind
Royal Society for               5          --         5
  the Blind (South
South Australian School        --          --        --
  for the Vision
Vision Australia *              7          --         7
Total O&M personnel,                                 63
Total O&M personnel,                                 40

                            Dog guide instructors

Agency                         O&M       Total

Association for the Blind                   8
  of Western Australia
Department of Education         --          2
Education Queensland            --          2
Freelance                       --          2
Guide Dogs New                  --         75
  South Wales/Australian
  Capital Territory
Guide Dogs Queensland           --         13
Guide Dogs South                --         12
Guide Dogs Tasmania             --          6
Guide Dogs Victoria             --         28
Kilparrin Teaching and          --          1
  Assessment School and
  Services (South
Massey University               --          2
  (New Zealand)
Royal New Zealand               --         22
  Foundation for
  the Blind
Royal Society for               7          18
  the Blind (South
South Australian School         --          2
  for the Vision
Vision Australia *              --         55
Total O&M personnel,            7         248
Total O&M personnel,            5         186

* Vision Australia provides services in Victoria, New South
Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia, and includes the
Seeing Eye Dogs Australia (SEDA) division.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Around the World
Author:Deverell, Lil; Scott, Bronwen
Publication:Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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