Future Reflections Fall 1992, Vol. 11 No. 4




Featuring excerpts from the Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students by Doris M. Willoughby and Sharon L. M. Duffy

From the Editor: You are a parent of a blind child age eight or younger. Your youngster is supposed to get cane travel lessons this year. Maybe you had to fight to get the service; maybe you had an enlightened school district which routinely provides cane instruction as soon as blind youngsters enter the system; or maybe you are in the middle of negotiations to get cane instruction added to your child's IEP. Whatever the circumstances, you know you need more information. You're sold on the benefits of early cane use, but you don't know what specific skills your child should be learning.

The following excerpts from the Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students by Doris M. Willoughby and Sharon L. M. Duffy provide an excellent outline of goals and expectations for the young cane student. What is reprinted here is only a small portion of the four chapters in the book which cover the topic of orientation and mobility for blind and partially sighted students of all ages.

The Handbook has 54 chapters, 7 appendices, and a reference section—a total of 533 pages. The print edition is $20 plus $3.00 shipping and handling (the Braille and four-track cassette editions are $30.00 plus $3.00 shipping and handling.) To order send request and check, money order, or purchase order to: Materials Center, National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. *Note: Discover, MasterCard, and Visa are also accepted if the order is accompanied by credit card name, number, expiration date, and card holder's signature.

Lesson Planning

Most students over eight, and some who are younger, can grasp the entire basic technique in a lesson or two. Lessons become a matter of keeping basic technique consistent, adding new techniques such as those for escalators, and applying the skills to an ever-widening environment.

Very young students, however, often cannot grasp very much at once. It may be necessary to spend several lessons in teaching the basic position and motion. Nevertheless, actual travel with the cane should be begun while the technique is still imperfect, with more and more elements of the standard form being gradually added.

Suppose, for example, that a beginner is still learning how to hold the cane and keep the tip down. She should nevertheless walk with the cane and find obstacles, even if she is not yet tapping in an appropriate arc. Part of the time the teacher might take hold of her and move her through the standard motions. But part of the time the child should move on her own, however imperfectly, as long as the cane is finding obstacles. If this is not done, the child probably will not understand the purpose of the cane and lessons will also be impossibly boring.

She Can't Learn It All At Once

I use the following sequence of skills when the child is too immature to learn them all at once:

(1) Begin to understand the purpose of the cane.

(2) Keep the tip down.

(3) Hold the handle with one hand. (Note: See exceptions.)

(4) Keep the cane hand centered at waist levels with the arm against the body.

(5) Use correct grip and finger position.

(6) Tap cane from side to side.

(7) Make the arc consistent on each side.

(8) Keep in step.

Note that this is a process of refining and improving techniques which are very imperfect at first. Some instructors say that this is wrong—they believe the cane should never be used except with perfect form. Their concern is inconsistent with the way other developmental tasks are handled. Recall the analogy to using silverware: The progression (for a sighted or blind baby) ordinarily is something like this:

(1) Begin to understand the purpose of silverware.

(2) Hold the handle.

(3) Insert spoon into mouth (with food having been loaded onto spoon by someone else).

(4) Lift the food to the mouth, keeping the bowl of the spoon upright (again, spoon having been loaded by someone else).

(5) Direct the bowl of the spoon into the food and proceed (receiving some help in loading the spoon).

(6) Scoop some food from the bowl and proceed independently.

(7) Consistently use correct grip and finger position.

(8) Avoid messiness.

Build On Experience

Any number of other skills are gradually refined and improved with maturity and experience: drawing, writing, walking, bathing, etc., etc. Withholding a cane completely from a young child is no more logical than totally withholding the washcloth because she flops it around.

"Improving and refining" includes developing more and more independence. At first we place the child's hand on the cane in the proper position. Later she holds the handle correctly when reminded. In time she will remember by herself.

Some beginners are better off using two hands on the cane for awhile. They may center the handle better, and overcome a tendency to reach out with the free hand.

Similarly, very young beginners may find it easier to slide the tip back and forth rather than tapping it.

As the child progresses introduce new elements of technique. Simply proceed for awhile with a given level of skill, and then say, for example, "Now you're going to learn how to move the cane just the way a grownup does." Avoid waiting unduly long between refinements lest the immature technique become too established. The ultimate example of "waiting unduly long," however, is to delay starting with the cane at all. Then the habits to be changed include shuffling feet, outstretched hands, slow motion, irregular gait, and crippling fear.

With a student in junior high or high school, the basic stance is quickly learned, and it is almost immediately possible to work on routes suitable for an adult—walking throughout the building, going up and down steps, crossing streets, etc., and proceeding into routes several blocks in length. For a youngster of nine or ten, the same is true but at a slower pace. But what about the very young child who would not be going far alone if she were sighted and who seems to need several lessons before even crossing the room?

Expectations By Age

First of all, let us consider what skills are reasonable to achieve at various ages. A rough guide for the average student is:

Under age 5:

* Use correct hand position.

* Arc the cane while walking on flat terrain (Keeping in step may be too hard at this level.)

* Detect obstacles and go around them.

* Use cane up and down stairs. (Adult may warn of presence of stairs.)

* Cross streets with assistance (not independently), and pay attention to traffic sounds.

* Detect major differences in surface underfoot.

* Walk toward a sound, including following a person who makes a sound while walking.

* Tell left from right, with one hand marked tactually if necessary.

Ages 5-6:

* All above skills

* Detect stairs, even when unexpected, and proceed up or down.

* Keep in step when arcing.

* Begin to interpret echoes made by cane tip (when passing a side hallway, a parked car, etc.)

* Find open doorways and closed doors with cane.

* Walk independently (with cane, as always) to classroom, rest room, office, etc.

* Travel on playground, with assistance at times.

* Stay on sidewalk in non-complicated environment.

* Recognize when a street is being crossed.

* Independently cross uncontrolled intersection with little traffic.

* Cross simple intersection with traffic light (possibly with some guidance).

* Correctly identify the four compass directions, in a familiar place.

* Follow directions for a simple route of three blocks or less in relatively familiar territory.

* Attempt to correct errors or miscalculations before expecting help.

* Know left and right without aid.

Ages 7-8:

* All above skills

* Make continual use of echoes from cane tip, indoors and outdoors. Use this as one method to find open doorways.

* Follow directions to schoolrooms where student does not ordinarily go.

* Travel independently on playground, selecting play activities.

* Stay on sidewalk despite some complications.

* Independently cross simple intersection with traffic light

* Begin to understand variations in arrangement of intersections.

* Expand ability to correct errors.

* Correctly name the intermediate compass points: NE,SE,NW,SW.

* Follow directions for a simple route of up to six blocks, in an area which may be unfamiliar but is not difficult.

What Is Independence

Let us pause to discuss the term independently. This has a different meaning for a young child than for an adult or even a teenager. When we say that an adult "crosses streets independently," we mean that she can choose, at any time, to proceed to any intersection and cross it. If we say that a twelve-year-old "crosses streets independently," the interpretation is not quite as broad—her parents will exert some control over where she may go and when, but she will cross without necessarily having a helper nearby.

In contrast, consider what we mean when a six-year-old "crosses a street independently." At that age, sighted or blind, parents place tight guidelines over where the child is permitted to roam. If traffic makes safety dubious, someone will watch her. This prevents the young child from attempting to cross an intersection of unknown complexity without assistance. However, there is no reason why she cannot walk to a neighbor's house alone, over a simple and safe route, while someone is prepared to look for her if she is late.

Similarly, the adult uses self-discipline to extend correct procedure outside of lessons. But the child needs to be reminded often very firmly, if necessary. If the eight-year-old walks to the drugstore while merely carrying her cane (rather than actually using it) or crosses the street carelessly, the valued privilege of going alone can be temporarily withdrawn. The five-year-old who waves her cane around can be told, "You have to hold my hand until you keep the cane tip down."

Fit The Lesson To The Child

Yes, the little child can learn to use a cane with great advantage. No, she can't learn just like an adult. For a five-year-old, ten minutes is usually long enough for any one activity. Change the pace frequently, with the entire travel lesson probably not exceeding 20-30 minutes. A typical lesson outline might be:

* 10 minutes: Walk on sidewalk, trying to stay off the grass.

* 10 minutes: Go up and down stairs.

* 10 minutes: Walk around in the schoolyard. When an obstacle is found correctly with the cane, the child may examine it (and play on it if appropriate).

In the above sequence of activities, note that the most "fun" is last.

Making Lessons Interesting

A young child has limited stamina and a short attention span. If he has a lot of difficulty, he will cry or balk if the lesson is too easy or repetitive, he will "clown around," make irrelevant remarks, complain, etc. Since he cannot yet articulate feelings clearly he may even say the work is "too hard," when he actually is not challenged enough.

Suggested Ideas

The following ideas provide variety and a positive approach for early lessons in cane use: [Note: The ideas listed below are only a sample of the 33 given in the Handbook.]

(1) Set a specific length, appropriate for the level of skill, to a given task. With a four-year-old beginner you might say: "Walk straight ahead and find the wall with your cane," or "Make the cane go from one side to the other side, for ten steps." A six-year-old might walk to the end of the block or to the far side of the playground.

(2) Emphasize praise over criticism. Often correction should be nonverbal—simply take hold of the child and move him into the correct position, while praising his efforts.

(6) The use of sounds especially lends itself to "making a game" of a lesson. For example: -Hide and Seek: Place a beeping object within earshot. The child must use good cane technique to walk to the object and pick it up. -Howdy Do: Direct the child to keep still while you walk away. (You may or may not choose to move silently.) Then tell the child to walk toward you and keep on talking as he approaches. Shake hands ceremoniously when he arrives and finds your foot with his cane.

(12) When a child is careless in a familiar area, deliberately provide some unexpected obstacles (chairs, boxes, etc.).

(13) Take the child to a safe, interesting area and have him explore it independently.

(17) Work on part of a skill before expecting the child to do it all alone. For example, at first physically move the student through the motions of looking for a doorway with his cane, while he merely announces when it has been found. Later the child can move the cane himself, knowing how it feels to accomplish the task.

(22) Whenever possible, have a genuine purpose for the trip: - Buy the teacher's lunch ticket -Deliver a message. - Get the art paper.

(27) Work with two students together. If one is more advanced, he can help teach the other one. Two students who are equal in skill will pick up ideas from each other. Everyone will be stimulated by the change of pace.