Future Reflections                                                                       Spring/Summer 2003

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Walking Independently While Following Someone

by Doris Willoughby and Sharon L. Monthei

The following article is Module 46 from the book, Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired: Preschool Through High School, copyright 1999, published by the National Federation of the Blind. The book is available for purchase ($20 plus shipping/handling) from the NFB Materials Center, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. To order online, select “Aids and Appliances” on the home page of the NFB Web site at <www.nfb.org>. For more information about this book or other literature from the NFB check out the Web site above, call (410) 659-9314, or send an e-mail to <nfbstore@nfb.org>. Please note that the three photographs that illustrate this article are not from the original publication. They are from the NFB archives and depict persons attending NFB functions.

Two adults--one sighted, one blind--walk and converse while the blind adult independently uses her cane.
Two adults—one sighted, one blind—walk and converse while the blind adult independently uses her cane.

Editor’s Note: A friend recently asked me for directions to a place she knew I had visited on several occasions. I had to confess that I couldn’t help her. Someone else had always driven me there, so I simply never paid attention to the street names, landmarks, or turns. I had only the vaguest notion of the general location of this place; and that vague notion was not nearly enough to get myself or anyone else there without assistance. A lot of drivers tell me that this happens to them, too. If someone else is driving, they simply don’t pay attention to where they are going.

The same thing happens to blind guys when they go sighted guide, or, as I, and many of my colleagues prefer to call it, human guide. If you are hanging onto someone else’s arm, then someone else is in charge, and you simply don’t pay attention to where you are going or how you are getting there. I think this is especially true of kids. Children and youth do not have the maturity or discipline to resist the natural inclination to relax and enjoy the ride, so to speak. They would much rather talk, plug into their Walkman, or simply space-out and daydream. The problem is, once expected to go solo, it doesn’t matter how often they may have traveled to, or within, a location. They will be as clueless as I was in the situation described above.

My observation is that kids who routinely use a cane and walk independently while following someone, are considerably better travelers in all respects. They walk faster, they have more confidence, they are more aware of their surroundings, they are more assertive and curious, and they are better at solving travel problems than kids who typically use sighted guide. It is my belief that the single one thing parents can do to promote independent travel, is to restrict the use of human guide. But a parent, or any sighted person for that matter, may feel awkward at first when trying to walk together with a kid using a cane independently. The following travel module, as well as other modules from this travel book, can, I believe, help a sighted parent as much as it helps a blind kid to become comfortable with this travel situation. So, from Willoughby and Monthei, here is a lesson on walking independently with a cane:

Module 46

These two children, one blind and one sighted, stay together as they independently follow an adult (not pictured).
These two children, one blind and one sighted,  stay together as they independently follow an adult (not pictured).

Objective: the student will use his or her cane and walk independently over varied terrain, while following someone else by means of sound and verbal explanation.

Age of Student: Preschool and up (see examples)
Primary Skill Emphasis:

Additional Skill Emphasis:

See also (Other Modules): [Note: These are titles of other modules in this book.]

Teacher Preparation: Find a location where the child can practice in a manner appropriate to his skill level. Select an interesting object or activity to approach.

Remarks: Avoid referring to “following a sighted person.” The leader could be a competent blind person. Instead, speak of “following someone.”

Activities:

Example 1: Preschool and Kindergarten

“Here we are in Mr. Kopecky’s yard. We’re going to swing on his big porch swing. Follow me, now—you know your cane will tell you if there’s anything in the way, and it will tell you what is under your feet. I’ll keep talking as we walk along.”

(Deliberately walk across both grass and sidewalk, and in a path where the child will probably encounter some small trees. Keep talking.)

“Now I’m on the porch. Did you hear how my footsteps sounded when I was walking up the steps? You’ll be finding your way up here too.”

Stand at the top of the steps and keep talking. The child finds the steps and comes up. Sit down in the swing and invite the child to join you. Enjoy swinging for a short while. Repeat this three times. Each time, the child follows you down the steps and across the yard for some distance, then back to the swing again. Note the sound of the cane on the wooden porch.

On the third trip, the child is allowed to swing for a longer time as the lesson ends.

Example 2: Preschool Through Elementary Grade

“Here we are on the sidewalk. I’m going to walk along the sidewalk, and I’d like you to follow me. I’ll talk some, but mostly you will listen to my footsteps. I made sure not to wear soft shoes today; you can really hear my footsteps! We will stay on the sidewalk all the time, and your cane can help you find it…

“I’ll go straight ahead for awhile. Then you’ll hear me turn, and you follow. Remember to sweep your cane to help you stay on the sidewalk, and to check in case anything is in the way.”

Walk along briskly, making sure your footsteps are clearly audible although not unnatural. After awhile, turn onto a branch sidewalk.

Continue in the same vein, with the length and complexity of the activity depending on the child’s ability and experience.

Remarks: It is important for a blind traveler to be able to follow a sound while walking independently. However, as the child matures, it should not be necessary to hear a constant sound. The example below brings this out.

A blind teen uses a cane independently while he and his father cross a street together.
A blind teen uses a cane independently while he and his father cross a street together.

Example 3: Elementary Grades

“Today you’re going to practice following me when you can’t hear my footsteps well, and when I am not talking all the time. I’ll talk a lot, but never every second. And I’m wearing tennis shoes, which are very quiet.

“I need to put a lot of things in my car, and I’d like you to help me. We’ll each carry a load.

“Now first, we’ll go out the south door and turn right, along the sidewalk… [keep walking, but deliberately pause in your speech]… Now, here, turn left across the teachers’ parking lot [pause in speech]… Yes, this way, straight ahead [pause]… that’s right, keep coming this way [pause]… Here’s my car. Thank you! Set things down here, please.”

Thus, the leader alternates between speaking aloud or making some other sound; giving specific directions; and continuing briefly without being heard. This is a realistic life situation that works well. The leader should not need to talk constantly except for a beginner or a very complex situation.

Depending on the route, the follower may be behind or beside the leader from time to time, just as anyone would do. This practice is excellent preparation for following along with a group.

Remarks: If this kind of practice is never done, some students become very dependent upon constantly hearing or touching the companion, and become frightened when they cannot.

Follow-up:

All Ages

Deliberately plan for the student to follow a person (with sound clues) from time to time. URGE PARENTS TO DO THIS ROUTINELY. [Emphasis added]

An experienced student can follow comfortably almost anywhere, and need not necessarily take someone’s arm. However, in a crowded and/or noisy situation, it may be simplest to take someone’s arm in order to stay together easily. But the blind person should continue to use his or her cane.

Don’t let this happen: A ninth-grade student followed me across a large parking lot to my car. “What’s this?!” he exclaimed each time as his cane encountered a low concrete barrier, a grassy traffic island, and then a utility pole. He had expected to walk around parked cars, but was genuinely surprised to find any of these other things in a parking lot. His parents had always guided him completely around them. They had also encouraged him to surrender responsibility for direction. Despite the straightforward path to my car, this student had no idea how to return to the school building.

Don’t let this happen to your students.

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