By Rachel Pulver

“It has been a wonderful career,” says Tom Brew, a retired Orientation and Mobility (O&M) instructor for the blind.

O&M stands for orientation and mobility. The purpose of an O&M instructor is to provide tools, skills, confidence, and intuitions toward navigating the world’s landscape without visual cues. O&M instructors teach a variety of topics such as how to utilize the right techniques for a white cane in different situations, familiarizing a student with the local transit system, how to use technology to help orient a person in travel, or even how to decode directions to find a location or cross a street safely.

Tom’s Journey

Tom first became familiar with the spectrum of blindness during his time as a Peace Core volunteer when he became friends with a fellow Peace Core member who was blind. As a Peace Core member, Tom lived with the Kuna, a native tribe of indigenous people in Panama. The Kuna have a large percentage of tribe members with albinism, which is a condition that affects a person’s skin, hair, eye color, and vision—often making a person blind or visually impaired.

In the 1970s Tom began working at Arizona’s Department of Economic Security in the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) sector. He was a VR counselor who connected blind individuals to services that would help the betterment of their lives. He frequently accompanied O&M instructors who traveled to Nogales to help bridge the language barrier since he spoke Spanish. He noticed a lack of O&M teachers in his area and applied for VR’s grant to become an O&M instructor. So, Brew continued to expand his knowledge in order to help others and went back to school, receiving a master’s in special education with an emphasis in orientation and mobility from California State University.

Now working as a VR counselor and O&M instructor, Brew was assigned to the northern region of Arizona which included the Hopi, Navajo, and Mojave Reservations.

Tom at FBC

In the 1980s, Tom began aiding individuals who were blind at Arizona’s Industries for the Blind. He began teaching O&M to elementary and high school level kids in the Mesa School District. The first student that he taught in this position was a girl named Sarah. He happily recalled accidentally running into Sarah years later at Mesa Community College while she was teaching a course there. Tom told of another lucky coincidence, as he and his student were getting on the bus for an O&M lesson. Tom and his student ran into one of Tom’s past students on the same bus; a humorist situation that he will always remember. Sometimes he will see his students from long ago navigating the streets of the Phoenix area and it always puts a smile on his face.

 

In 2004, Brew began working full-time at Foundation for Blind Children (FBC) where he taught O&M to the students in the Adult Transition Program. He said how he had always wanted to work at FBC, because the Foundation was a place for movers and shakers in the early days. During his time at FBC, he coached Goalball to kids at FBC’s schools. He continued to empower his students by teaching them how to advocate for themselves, so their disability would not be the only thing that people saw about them on the streets. Brew continued to teach invaluable O&M skills to students at FBC until he retired in 2023, after a wonderful career. Your strides toward knowledge, caring heart, and guiding hands are the reason why so many students have a voice in how they navigate the world. At FBC we sincerely thank you Tom for your steadfast devotion to your students and the blind community as a whole.