"Orienteering," the speaker explains, "is like when you go someplace new and they give you a map to see how to get around. Sometimes you come into a new building and you see a map. Have you ever looked up on the wall and seen a map as you come into a building?"
Several members of the audience answer "Yes," waving their arms for emphasis. "Sometimes we get lost," interject two or three others.
"Well, I get lost, too," says speaker Bruce B. Blasch, much to the delight of his listeners. "In fact, I got lost in this museum the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and they had to help me a little bit."
The Wisconsin mobility training expert was beginning the third, and final, day of "Orienteering: A New Route to Travel Skills," a workshop sponsored by the Administration on Developmental Disabilities, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service. Among the most enthusiastic members of the audience was a group of mentally retarded young men and women.
The first two days, Blasch, 40, and his associate Susan Riley, 28, both from the Waisman Center on Mental Retardation and Human Development at the University of Wisconsin, worked with more than 20 professionals and at least one parent.
"Teaching the teachers" to teach their clients how to use orienteering, says Blasch, is "a key to independent or more independent living.
"What we are doing is trying to teach disabled people environmental problem-solving, how to take cues from the environment and use them to achieve increased mobility on their own."
As a result of the program, professionals working with the handicapped are realizing that their clients don't have to be taken around in groups, says Blasch, and that they may not need special transportation. "With proper training, the handicapped person can do it alone."
Blasch cites a program in Milwaukee in which 36 handicapped clients were given mobility training, taught how to get around town on their own. The result: "They saved $117,000 in specialized transportation costs in one year."
In orienteering, a sport originating in Sweden in the early 1900s, participants use a map and compass to go from control point to control point over an unfamiliar course.
The Veterans Administration, according to Blasch, originated mobility training for the blind. "That program was so successful that civilian programs were started in the early 1960s, beginning with Boston College in 1960."
"When I saw how successful it was for the blind," says Blasch, "I decided to try to apply the same principles to other disabled groups. Later we saw orienteering as an efficient way to reinforce the teaching of mobility to the disabled."
Where the visually impaired use sound and tactile cues -- and sometimes a Braille compass -- to find their way, people confined to wheelchairs use visual aids, including the traditional map and compass. Participants have included all ages, from children as young as 4.
Another aid used for the visually impaired is the Mowat Sensor, a sonic device that can detect objects from 6 to 10 feet away, allowing users to identify such things as tree lines and other obstacles.
While European countries were the first to develop orienteering, Americans were the first to include handicapped individuals. "We've looked at it not just as a competitive thing," says Blasch.
The orienteering that the handicapped are doing now, he says, "is just the front line. We've gotten a national significance grant from the Administration on Developmental Disabilities in HHS basically to do these kinds of workshops for people and it's just now that we've begun disseminating information."
At the Smithsonian workshop, clients went through a number of exercises: fairly simple map-reading treks through the museum, a challenging outdoor path-finding adventure and an indoor orienteering treasure hunt (the bounty was new compasses, which everyone found).
"Some of the trainers had trouble learning to do it orienteering the first two days," says Blasch, "and they thought their mentally retarded clients wouldn't be able to learn it at all. When they say what their clients were able to do, it was like, 'Wait a minute!' They couldn't believe it."
The HHS grant runs out in December. "We don't have any renewal," says Blasch. "It's like any new idea -- it takes a while for it to catch on. Now that the orienteering thing is just starting to move, we have no more funding."
Jean Elder, commissioner of Developmental Disabilities' Office of Human Development Services and a participant in the final day of the program at the Smithsonian, awarded special certificates to clients taking part in the workshop.
"Most rewarding to me," she said later to Blasch and Riley, "was the obvious pride the participants showed in their achievement and new skills.
"Thank you for the profound reinforcement that our expectations often limit persons more than their disabilities."
The Smithsonian Guide for Disabled Visitors, describing the Institution's accessibility to disabled persons, is available by calling 357-1697 or 357-1696 (TTD line).