Braille Monitor                                                                                July 1986


Mobility: Blind Instructors?

by Allan G. Dodds

(Allan G. Dodds is a member of the Blind Mobility Research Unit, Department of Psychology, University of Nottingham, England. His article--which appeared in the May, 1985, New Beacon--is particularly relevant in view of the lawsuit which Fred Schroeder has filed to compel the American Association of Workers for the Blind (now the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired) to cease its discrimination against him and give him the certification as a mobility instructor which his training and expertise entitle him to have. Mr. Dodds describes his visit to the Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired and his observation of the teaching techniques of Christine Roberts Boone. Federationists need no introduction to Christine Boone, either as mobility instructor or President of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. The truth is that, whether some of those who plan to be "professionals" like it or not, blind persons can teach mobility to the blind as competently as the sighted can teach it. Mr. Dodds, sighted and trained in the field, bears this out.

The Schroeder lawsuit is not yet set Led, but the depositions which have been taken in the case make a record orth reading. They tell of bigotry, ignorance, and a desperate attempt to Duilc a mystique and hold a monopoly. They also tell of courage, determination, and the struggle of the blind to be free.

The Dodds article is a refreshing change from what we sometimes get from what is called the "field." It is worth thinking about.)

Last year I approached the Royal National Institute for the Blind with a request for funds to vist an agency in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA, which for some years now has employed totally blind mobility instructors. Since I was already being funded to give a paper at a conference in California, it seemed a pity to miss the opportunity of extending my trip to take a close look at the way in which blind mobility instructors operate. I was therefore delighted when I received word that my request had been approved, and I immediately set about making up my new itinerary. I had asked the Director of Nebraska Services for the visually Impaired--Dr. James Nyman--if he would have any objections to my visiting his agency in order to make some critical observations. As it turned out, he was only too pleased that an impartial observer should come and visit the center, for its practice of employing blind instructors has by no means received universal approval in the USA.

The degree to which one accepts or rejects the idea of blind people working as mobility instructors in advance of any evidence for or against their competence is conditioned by one's own prejudices about blindness. I observed this many times during casual conversation with a number of people before my visit. Few took a middle position on the issue. Some rejected the idea outright, and I got the impression that no amount of reasoning or presentation of factual evidence would ever cause them to change their minds. Others took the opposite view. They thought that blind instructors would be the ideal people to teach mobility, since they were themselves practicing it on a daily basis. My own position on the matter was quite neutral: I would reserve judgment until I had seen blind mobility instructors in action.

When I arrived in Omaha, Nebraska, I was welcomed by Mary Ann Karstens, the headmistress of the local school for the visually handicapped, who took me to the school where the parent-teacher group was waiting for me to give a talk and answer questions about my research interest in the spatial problems of the congenitally blind. My duty thus performed, I was whisked off by car to Lincoln, where I was to spend the next few days.

The motel to which I had been booked deserves a mention. We arrived after dark and entered a large lobby. Strains of country and western music permeated the building, and the local clientele looked like they had stepped out of "Dallas." Practically every one of them, to a man, sported a ten-gallon hat, checked shirt, blue jeans and long, high-heeled leather boots. Bushy moustaches seemed to be de rigueur, and no one except myself seemed to be under six feet tall. I felt definitely in the minority, but once I had been reassured that this was normal for the Midwest I began to relax and enjoy chatting to some of the staff members, until jet-lag caught up with me.

Next morning at seven the phone beside my bed wakened me from a profound sleep. It was Dr. Nyman's secretary reminding me that I was expected to give a seminar at eight! I have no recollection of the process of getting up, showering, etc., which I presumably carried out on autopilot, or of getting downstairs for a breakfast which apparently I didn't have time to eat. I only recall standing in front of a large group of staff and students with a large cup of coffee in my hand, being introduced as the guest speaker. I realized that this was the price I was to pay for being allowed to put them under the microscope.

In the afternoon I was introduced to Chris, one of the totally blind mobility instructors. Not only was she prepared to let me follow her around whilst she was teaching clients, but she also insisted on giving me a mobility lesson under blindfold. This was more than I had hoped for, and I readily accepted her offer. She also agreed that I could take photographs during the lesson, and allowed me to place a personal cassette recorder around her neck so that I could get a complete record of what was going on. I know how intimidating this must have seemed, having experienced difficulty in getting sighted instructors in this country to agree to such a procedure, but Chris didn't show the slightest concern.

As a psychologist, I was interested from a number of points of view in being on the receiving end of blind instruction, and having undergone mobility instruction with a sighted instructor I was interested in making comparisons. For example, not knowing anything about how a blind instructor operated, I was concerned about how in touch she could be with her client in terms of monitoring his motor skills. It was here that

I had anticipated problems. How, for example, could the blind instructor monitor such important skills as keeping a good cane arc, keeping in step, etc.? I could not guess how this could be done without the benefit of sight. Perceptual skills are also important, particularly auditory ones, and again I was interested to know how the blind instructor could insure that these were being developed properly. Cognitive skills, such as mental mapping of routes and problem solving in general, are also vitally important for successful travel, and I was most concerned that these should be monitored. Finally, and this aspect should not be underestimated, I wanted to know how I felt towards a blind instructor--whether I trusted her, or whether I felt that she was not totally in tune with my performance. My first shock was to find that the long cane used in the States is about ten inches longer than the one used here, and that the one I was being given came up to my chin. The reason for this is that, instead of being held at arm's length, the cane is held in a much more relaxed fashion, with the elbow bent and upper arm by the side of the body. This effectively reduces the distance between the body and the tip, and hence accounts for the additional length of the cane. Chris showed me how to hold the cane by using a "hands-on" technique, similar to that of a sighted instructor. Then she asked me to practice my cane arc by walking up and down the corridor of the building. After only a few steps, she called out that my cane was not going far enough over to the left, and asked me to correct it. Slightly surprised, I consciously swung it further over to the left, and she told me that that was better.

Once I had made my way outside, Chris told me that we were facing a large Ushaped car park, and that she wanted me to travel up the right hand leg of the U, trying to avoid the cars which were parked on both sides. When I encountered the driveway, I was to turn right and step up onto the pavement. Chris also got me to understand which direction I was facing in, and drew attention to the cue which I could get from the heat of the sun on my face and trouser leg. Then she let me set off, clanging my way against car bumpers, until she stopped me to ask what I thought was happening and whether I could see a pattern in it. After a few moments' reflection and some debate, we cane to the conclusion that either my left arc was too wide or I had a tendency to veer to the left.

Eventually I arrived at the driveway and stepped up onto the pavement. My next task was to cross the road and turn left on the opposite upcurb. I squared myself off and crossed during a lull in the traffic. Stepping up, I found grass beneath my feet. Mmm. . .I thought, this can't be right. Searching with my cane to left and right produced only more grass, and I couldn't immediately see what the problem was. Then a hypothesis formed in my mind. Suppose the pavement were set back from the road and separated from it by grass? I took three steps forward and, eureka, there was the pavement! Now this was something I should have known, for I had seen the environment during the previous day's excursions--yet my visual impression did not transfer to my blind mobility.

The next episode was most enlightening. My task was to find a crossroads and make a crossing. The presence of the crossroads was signalled by an increase in the sound of traffic, and I found the downcurb without difficulty. Chris asked me what sort of crossing I thought it was: traffic light-controlled or not? After a few moments of careful listening, I concluded that it was an uncontrolled crossing, since the cars seemed to be taking turns in moving off in two different directions alternately. Fortunately this was correct, and Chris then asked me to line myself up with the traffic to do a parallel crossing. This, being out of practice, I did with some difficulty, and Chris briefly put her hands on my shoulders from behind in order to check that I was facing the same way as she was. Not satisfied, she asked me to listen some more, and requested that I wave on a car which had been waiting for some time for me to make up my mind. This I did with some embarrassment, for I had not even been aware that its big V-eight engine had been quietly ticking over whilst I had been concentrating on listening to other, moving vehicles!

Once Chris had satisfied herself that I was lined up properly, she left it up to me to decide when I should cross. Choosing a quiet gap in the traffic, I shouted to her that I was going, and after receiving the go-ahead from her I soon found the opposite upcurb with my cane. Chris was right behind me, and congratulated me on my good crossing line. "You've veered about a foot," she informed me. From there on it was back to the Center, and a chat about how Chris had been aware of so many aspects of my performance.

The first thing I wanted to know was how she could monitor my cane technique. "That's easy," she said. "I listen to how hard the tip hits the ground. If it raps, then you have too high an arc. If your arc isn't central, I can tell by the way the tip sounds in relation to your footsteps. And if you're out of step, then I can tell by whether the sound of the cane tip hitting the ground comes from the same or the opposite side of your concurrent footfall." Chris seemed surprised that I doubted if such auditory discrimination were possible: She took those skills quite for granted during he course of her work.

The following day Chris suggested that I ovserve her teaching a couple of clients. The first student, whom I shall call Bill, was partially sighted and had a slight hearing impairment. In common with all students at the Center, he was being trained under blindfold. Bill had been at the Center for only a week, and already he was doing outdoor travel in a residential area, although several independent road crossings were involved.

Before leaving the Center, Chris gave Bill a set of verbal instructions and made sure that he understood them correctly before allowing him to proceed. Satisfied that he knew what he was to do, she told him to carry on through the car park, find the driveway, cross the road, and do a right on the upcurb before proceeding with his route. So far, Bill had only traveled over the first part of it, the remainder being quite new to him.

Bill's progress through the car park was much better than mine had been, since he had traveled it several times before. He contacted one or two vehicles before gaining his line of travel towards the main road. His touch technique was good with respect to arc width, height, and centrality. He detected the driveway through the change in gradient and made a safe crossing in spite of his hearing impairment. Chris praised him for this and then let him concentrate on the next section of the route. Part of this contained a cul-de-sac, which Chris had not told him about. This produced some confusion when he found himself back at almost the same place he'd started at, after walking all the way around it. Chris patiently waited while he tried to figure out where he was, prompting him with questions which forced him to use the information he already had to solve the problem. This "guided discovery" method was typical of Chris's style of instruction, and it later emerged as an explicit philosophy of the Center.

The next student I observed was Phil, who had practically completed his nine months' training. Like Bill, Phil was partially sighted and had been trained under blindfold, although he often practiced his mobility without it. Phil's lesson was to consist of a drop-off, followed by a mile-long walk involving busy main road crossings, a pedestrian footpath through a park, and almost everything except the use of public transport. Phil set off at a cracking pace which was faster than my normal sighted one. He soon established where he was and chatted constantly as he walked. At one point we encountered a small shower of water coming from a sprinkler which was set back from the pavement, upon which Phil broke into a run, his cane working overtime as he sprinted out of reach of the water droplets.

So confident was he that I stopped checking up on his decisions to cross at busy junctions, simply putting my trust in his decisions and maintaining a conversation with him. That was the moment when I realized that my residual prejudices about blind travel had finally been put to rest. In spite of myself, I would never really have trusted a blind person to make a safety decision on my behalf without checking it out visually. Now I realized that good blind travel had to be judged on blind criteria, not sighted ones, and the fact that blind travelers don't get run down by cars is not due to the consideration of the motorist but rather to the sound judgment of the traveler. And yet I had trained blind people to do this myself, without fully believing that it was safe.

In a second article I will look at the whole issue of attitudes towards blind instructors. Already my own attitude was changing. I was beginning to feel that blind instructors had more to offer than the sighted were prepared to admit, and that I would do well to listen more to what blind students had to say about their experiences on the receiving end of blind instruction. For my own part, I was thoroughly convinced that blind instructors could do most of what sighted instructors could, and what they couldn't do was not vital to the teaching of safe and independent travel. But that is for the next installment of my story.