Future Reflections                                                                                 Volume 20, Number 1

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Rights, Roles, and Responsibilities in the Orientation and Mobility Process

by Joe Cutter

Editor’s Note: Joe Cutter, Pediatric Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist, New Jersey Commission for the Blind, is a “professional” in the best and most noble sense of the word. He is also one of the most truly humble people I know. He never feels he is above learning something new from his students, their parents, blind adults, or fellow professionals. Joe regularly attends National Federation of the Blind (NFB) conventions and freely shares his knowledge and expertise with parents and teachers. He makes presentations, gives group workshops, and voluntarily consults one-on-one with any parent who approaches him with a problem. The following article is an edited version of the speech he gave at the 2000 Annual Parents Seminar at the NFB Convention in Atlanta, Georgia:

     I know of no better place to come than the NFB and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) to hear about, be informed about, and learn about your roles, rights, and responsibilities. I know of no other venue that respects and values these three R’s more than the NFB.

     There is a Chinese proverb that says: “To know the way ahead ask those coming back.” The richness of human resources in this room today and at this convention all week will provide you with much fuel for thought and action in meeting your child’s requirements on the road toward independence. The positive role modeling, the rights that have been established by the individual and collective power of this NFB movement, and the personal responsibilities that have been taken by persons at this convention can provide you with comfort, confidence, hope, and skills as you travel the road ahead with your child.

     There is an interconnectiveness between these three R’s. Your role as a parent gives you rights that come with responsibilities. For example, you have a need to know about blindness and a right to information about it. You have a need for training for yourself and your child on the skills of blindness. This information and training will facilitate your role and responsibilities as your child’s first teacher. At this convention a few years ago a learned gentleman from India told me, “The mothers lap is the child’s first classroom.” No one will have a greater impact on your child’s development than you, the parent.

Two-and-a-half year-old Mikaella of Massachusettes has many adventures with her new cane at the 2000 convention.
 Two-and-a-half year-old Mikaella Besson of Massachusettes (right) has many adventures with her new cane at the 2000 convention.
    I would like to talk more about your right to information and training. You have a right to clear, reliable, and useful information. As a parent you are vulnerable to reading inaccurate information and misconceptions about blindness in the form of unreliable research about blind children. Much of the time this information will be with a negative perspective. Be careful what you read! It may leave you functionally illiterate about the true nature of blindness. At the worst, such material will leave you with less hope and less motivation. At the best, it’s like a mixed-up math problem from when you were a kid: Mary has three apples and Sally has four apples, so how many miles is it to Detroit? You scratch your head and think, “What?” You’re left not knowing what to do with what you read (or heard, for that matter) about blindness and your child.

     Therefore, you have a right to read about and hear about a positive perspective about blindness. It is my responsibility as an O&M professional to never take away hope, to do no harm by promoting unreliable practices, but rather to nurture your role with your child. To develop, along with you, options and opportunities for your child. And it is my responsibility to advocate with you in what, sometimes, is a formidable structure of misinformation and misguided practices in the education of blind children today, particularly in the field of O&M. (More about this point later.)

     You have a right to training: the “what” and “how” of O&M—or as I have come to know it through my involvement with the NFB—independent movement and travel. I am talking about training that is concerned with skills and skill proficiency and not the endless readiness and remediation for these skills. Training that respects early use of cane travel with the young blind child. Training in what I like to call the really long, long cane. The best way to learn how to use a cane is not with a pre-cane (you know, those PVC pipe, rectangular, push devices). The pre-cane will only slow down your child’s movement and make them vulnerable to not learning age-appropriate movement and travel skills. No, the best way for your child to develop cane skills is for your child to hold a cane in the hand and use it.

     The best way for your child to develop cane skills is for your child to hold a cane in the hand and use it.

     An unnecessary so-called readiness curriculum serves only the professional who uses it and, I believe, is used only by O&M professionals who haven’t learned the techniques for teaching long cane skills to the very young blind child.

How much independence and freedom can a young blind teen expect to enjoy ay NFB Conventions?   Wayne Pearcy of Texas, who got his first cane when he was two, is as mobile as his sighted peers at the 2000 convention.
 How much independence and freedom can a young blind teen expect to enjoy at NFB Conventions? Wayne Pearcy of Texas, who got his first cane when he was two, is as mobile and independent as his sighted teen peers at the 2000 convention.
       It has been my experience that the most misguided information parents get concerning O&M is about the method of sighted guide. It is not the practice in itself that is the problem but the misuse and abuse of it at home and school. All too often parents and classroom teachers are left with the idea that the child should do most of his or her traveling off the arm of another person. What the child learns, then, is how to observe someone else’s movement and not his or her own movement. Everything they experience about moving in the outdoor community and in the school is dictated and directed by someone else—the person guiding them—and they never get the opportunity to practice self-directed movement skills with a long cane.

     Now, this is so, I believe, because the traditional university programs preparing O&M instructors for the field place an overemphasis upon this singular skill. It is the first skill taught for indoor and outdoor travel. There are pages and pages demonstrating the technique in the textbook curriculum  and hours and hours in the practicum experience for the student learning to become an O&M professional. You will not find this singular skill overemphasized and over-utilized at the O&M program at Louisiana Tech  under the direction of Dr. Ruby Ryles. Instead, in this program the students preparing to be O&M instructors use valuable time learning about a full compliment of independent cane-based travel skills, the real skills of blindness.

     It is my thinking, based upon years of experience in the field, that the sighted guide technique has become “filler” in the curriculum and practice of the traditional trained O&M instructor. They do not know how to move forward with the skills of blindness that are promoted by the blindness community, blind travel instructors, and the NFB. Instead they fill the curriculum with sighted guide practice, and your child pays the price of sighted guide overload on a day-to-day basis. The blind child doesn’t need filler. Feed your child sirloin steak not hamburger helper!

     The next point I would like to make about training is that if your child is partially sighted he or she has the right to sleepshade (blindfold) training. Such training develops confidence in using the alternative (non-visual) techniques of touch, smell, and sound. Your child cannot develop full confidence in blindness-based travel skills if they are still relying mostly upon 10 percent or less of typical vision. This will produce doubt, stress, and a tentative style to their travel. The often-used argument against sleepshade training is that the student will go back to using their vision once the sleepshade is off. This is of course true, but what these naysayers don’t take into account is that the person will now use his or her vision with greater confidence and with better judgement about when to use their vision and when to use the non-visual technique. They will have new options and trust in using these options. It’s about developing good judgement.

Blind roll models are important to young cane users.   The Cane Walk, Youth Scavanger Hunt, and Braillew Carnival at the 2000 convention provided many role modelong opportunities.   In the photo, Sheila Koenig gives some gentle hand-underr-hand cane instruction to Winona Brackettt at the Braille Carnival.
Blind role models are important to young cane users. The Cane Walk, Youth Scavenger Hunt, and Braille Carnival at the 2000 Convention provided many role modeling opportunities. In the photo above, Sheila Koenig gives some gentle hand-under-hand cane instruction to Winona Brackett at the Braille Carnival.

      Remember how I told you earlier that you are your child’s first teacher? Well, as your child’s teacher you have the right to help train the other professionals and educators in your child’s life. You are the child’s most natural resource. The more clear, reliable, and useful information you have about blindness, the more persuasive you can become in advocating for your child. Your information will be confidence based. (The word confidence comes from “con-fidos” which means “with truth.”)

     Along with the parents of blind children in your state, you can work toward making a better life for your child and other blind children. An excellent example of this is in my own state of New Jersey. A decade or so ago Carol Castellano, Vice President of NOPBC and President of the Parents Division of New Jersey, informed, persuaded, educated, and trained me well. It was a gentle, one-on-one education. She worked with other parents in her state, and together they are making a difference. Some of these parents are here at this convention. Valerie and Ed Ryan, Amy Kaiser, and Donna Panaro.

     This September the New Jersey Parents of Blind Children will conduct a teacher training workshop for classroom teachers. Carol works closely with Joe Ruffalo, President of the NFB of New Jersey, to make these kinds of training opportunities happen. Together they have positively influenced the quality of life in New Jersey for blind persons. I have learned much from Joe and Carol. They—parent and blind adult—have taught me to be a better professional, a better person. There is truly an educational revolution developing in the field of education of blind children, and the NFB is leading the way.

     The blind child—your child—has the right to freedom of movement, the joy of movement, and the confidence that comes with self-directed movement. They have the right to take responsibility for their own movement and to practice and master the skills of blindness. It is your right, your role, and your responsibility to teach your child; and I—as the professional—have the responsibility to support, facilitate, and join you in this effort. And together we can be very formidable and persuasive in contributing to positive outcomes in independent movement and travel for blind children.

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