Future Reflections                                                                                Convention Report 2004

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Stepping Out

by Connie Bernard

Editorís Note: Connie Bernard is an active member of the Indiana NFB affiliate and the Indiana Parents of Blind Children. She wrote the following item shortly after attending the 2002 NFB Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Here is what she says:

I knew that this yearís National Federation of the Blind Convention was going to be a learning experience for me. This was my third convention, but my first as a parent of a blind child. My seven-year-old daughter, Aryel, was diagnosed with tunnel vision and night blindness earlier this year. At the convention, I planned to learn about such things as IEPís and print-versus-Braille for partially sighted children. I had even decided to explore whether or not to get Aryel a long white cane.

After talking to Joe Cutter (an early childhood O&M specialist) at the parent seminar, I decided to get up bright and early the next morning and take Aryel to the annual Cane Walk; an activity sponsored by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and the Louisiana Tech orientation and mobility masterís degree program. I listened to the speakers talk about the need to get white canes into the hands of children as early as possible, and how even children with partial sight can benefit from using a cane, and I began to conclude that Aryel should get a cane, even if she only needed it in certain situations, as I do.

Next was the hands-on part of the walk. I knew that the instructor was going to put a sleepshade on Aryel and teach her how to gain information using the long white cane and her other senses. Imagine my surprise when that same instructor said, ďYouíre going to try it too, arenít you, Mom?Ē and handed me a pair of sleepshades. I couldnít refuse. I was not about to give my child the idea that using sleepshades was frightening. So, I slipped my glasses in my pocket, put the sleepshades on, took a firm grip on my cane, and said, ďLetís do it.Ē

Now, Iím not new to orientation and mobility lessons. As a partially sighted teenager, I had some minor training in high school and than a little more a few years ago. But I had always avoided the sleepshade. It scared me. I had a nagging idea that I wouldnít be able to avoid hazards in time. Even when using my vision, I have a huge fear of falling down stairs. But I wasnít about to show fear or hesitation to Aryel.

My instructor gave me directions on how to get around the large room we were in. There were tables and lots of people to avoid, but by trusting her directions and the information from my cane, I safely traveled the room. This was starting to be fun. Then she directed me to an area of the room and asked me to figure out what was there. I hit something slightly rounded with the tip of my cane. My first thought was a table, but it didnít quite feel right for a table. I put my hands up and out to see what it was, and was immediately stopped by my teacher. ďWalk up to it, and then put out your hands,Ē I was told. In no time I figured out that it was the cold drink machine. My instructor asked me to pretend to buy a soda; Coke, since itís always the top one. Once we examined the microwave, the microwave stand, and the other vending machines, it was time to take that Big Step out into the hallway.

At first, walking down the hall was disorienting. I had an odd floating sensation. I could feel every dip and rise in the floor under my feet, and feel the air currents on my face. I could tell simply by the air movement and the sounds whether the hallway was wide or narrow at a given point.

After learning the basics, my instructor began to give me more challenging assignments. She asked me to identify the elevators, a fire extinguisher, and finally a mail slot. At this point, she put something into my hand and asked me what it was. I knew by the feel, and the stamps, that they were postcards. She asked me to mail them for her. This required me to find the slot to put them in. That was one of the hardest things I did.

I didnít always get everything right. When I was directed to a window-like spot, and asked what it was, I had no idea. She

suggested I use my sense of smell. It didnít help. I was stumped, so guessed something to do with food service. I was wrong. It was a window that looked into a space with some sort of tarp in it. It looked like some kind of construction area. As soon as it was described to me, I knew right where I was though, because I had noticed it the night before. It was encouraging to know that I could use visual memories combined with other information to figure out exactly where I was.

After that, we rejoined Aryel and her instructor so that she and I could show each other what we had learned. Aryel had been a very good student, both under sleepshade and out. By the end of the lesson she could use proper cane technique. She also knew how a blind orientation and mobility instructor checks on how a student is doing. She watched my instructor checking my technique by letting me hit her cane with mine while she walked backward. A few minutes later, when my instructor was using sleepshades, Aryel got in front of her and did just what she had seen the instructor do with me. We were all very surprised at how quickly she learned.

As soon as the cane walk was over, before she lost her enthusiasm, I took Aryel to the exhibit hall and bought her a cane. She used it, sometimes willingly and sometimes not, the rest of the week. I also bought two sets of sleepshades so that we can both practice what we learned. I still want to learn to trust myself on stairs, and Aryel needs to continue to gain confidence in her newfound skill.

This experience taught me that just because a person is blind it doesnít mean that he or she doesnít have as clear an understanding of his/hers surroundings as does a sighted person. Sometimes I think a blind person may even have more awareness because he/she pays attention, whereas most sighted people just look and go on by. Blind people donít have better senses than sighted people; they just have better trained ones. I was amazed at what can be learned about a place without seeing it.

I recommend that any parent of a blind child try working under sleepshade with an orientation and mobility teacher so that he or she can better understand the amount of information that really is available through the use of a long white cane.

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