Future Reflections  Winter/Spring 2007

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The Teaching Cane

by Mary Jo Thorpe, NOMC

Editor’s Note: Mary Jo Thorpe is part of the Education Team at the NFB Jernigan Institute.

If valuing the blind child’s independent movement and travel is simple to understand, why do so many parents find independent movement and travel more difficult to achieve for their blind children? It has been my experience that the most formidable obstacle to valuing independent movement and travel in the blind child is negative attitudes.
– Joseph Cutter from Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children: A Promotion Model

Mary Jo ThorpeIn the education of blind children, including early intervention, certain practices and concepts sometimes take on specialized jargon, making them sound more sophisticated. We see this in discussing orientation and mobility for blind children. Apparently the more elaborately we package the concept and the more complicated the practice, the more validity it is perceived to have. This leaves the blind child’s most important teachers, the parents, feeling inadequately prepared to raise their child.

Joe Cutter, a pioneering specialist in pediatric orientation and mobility (O&M), has done much to demystify the concepts around teaching orientation and mobility to blind children and to empower parents to promote independence in their blind child. Mr. Cutter has presented professional workshops around the country and in Canada. He has also helped develop early childhood orientation and mobility and early intervention programs in several states. His credentials include over thirty-five years of experience as an O&M instructor, certification as a teacher of the blind and visually impaired, and a master’s in teaching the developmentally handicapped. Informed by the experience of skilled blind travelers, Cutter has developed a unique and highly effective approach to independent movement and travel for children. Mr. Cutter brings a child-centered perspective to his teaching, promoting independent movement and travel from an early age. An advocate for parental involvement, he encourages parents to trust their own expertise as their children’s first teachers.

With the aim of empowering independent travel in blind children and promoting innovative practices, Joe Cutter will release a book this year titled Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children: A Promotion Model. This book synthesizes Cutter’s years of professional experience, sound early-education practices, and the collective experience of skilled blind travelers in a way that will expand the perspective of parents and professionals alike. To provide a glimpse into Cutter’s revolutionary book and to help demystify independent movement and travel in young blind children, this article discusses a technique, the teaching cane, that Cutter has taught parents to use effectively. He introduces it in Chapter Four.

Joe Cutter demonstrates proper cane travel techniques to a seminar at the 2004 NFB convention.In providing background on the teaching cane, Cutter writes:

As a sighted, conventionally trained O&M specialist, the thought of using a cane in instruction to teach blind children never occurred to me for twenty years. I was trained to use my sight to monitor the movements of blind children. Blind children had their canes, and I had my sight. The thought occurred to me for the first time when, observing blind travel instructors teaching blind students, I began to realize the attunement between the student and the blind instructor. Blind cane travel instructors were using their canes not only for their own travel, but also to give information and role model positive cane travel skills for their students.

Despite this revelation, it was a year, Cutter explains in his book, before he would alter his teaching strategy. Here’s how he describes that first experience:

I was going down a hall in an elementary school, walking with my student to her class, as we were going to do a little show and tell about the cane. I took out a telescopic cane from my briefcase to show her the cane I would be using for the cane demonstration to her classmates. I tapped it on the floor and walked with her as she used her cane. This student broke into a beautiful smile and said, “You use a cane too, Mr. Joe?” … I explained that because I was sighted that I use my vision for travel but a cane for demonstration purposes like we were going to do today with her classmates.

Then an idea came to me. This student had been having difficulty with sliding and tapping her cane wide enough for adequate ‘coverage.’ I asked her to listen to my tap and think about the sound my cane made and if she could do the same. Within one minute this kindergarten child expanded her coverage to an adequate width. I never had to place my hand over hers or physically monitor her movement in any way. She simply heard my cane, internalized the information, and developed a new motor plan. This is an example of bottom-up learning that this child exhibited and taught me. From then on I had a new teaching strategy and teaching tool, the “teaching cane.”

After Cutter became comfortable with this new teaching strategy, he passed his knowledge and experience with the teaching cane on to parents and finally to classroom teachers and instructional assistants of blind students. Cutter explains that through this process, “Cane travel was demystified as I ‘role-released’ my O&M information and teaching cane to the significant others in the blind child’s life.”

Cutter’s teaching-cane technique puts a cane in the hand of the parent, sighted or blind, in order to model cane-travel techniques for the blind child. When the parent is using the teaching cane, the blind child holds the shaft of the cane to observe the movements the parent is making with the cane. Alternatively the parent can use the teaching cane while the blind child uses his or hers. This modeling technique allows the parent to play a vital role in helping the child to develop early movement and exploration. Through this developmental process, which Cutter calls the “bottom-up approach” (also explained in greater detail in the book), young blind children, including toddlers and preschoolers, begin to develop a kinesthetic approach to the world from the information their senses take in and from the feedback they receive from a push toy or a cane. Because young children are still mastering gross motor skills, the teaching cane allows parents to model these skills as well as to preview the necessary fine motor skills the child must learn.

Two beneficiaries of Mr. Cutter’s training, Melissa Fernandez introduces her son Jacob Trevino to the benefits of the white cane.The teaching cane also allows the parent to provide the child with a constructivist learning experience in which the child can feel successful. For example, a parent can demonstrate a technique such as sliding the cane in order to distinguish textures or surfaces or model how to problem-solve the identification of obstacles by probing with the cane around the obstruction. As a child holds the cane with the parent, he or she can observe the benefits of the cane and appropriate cane technique and build on the developmental schema.

Another aspect of the teaching cane is the way in which its use can help to instill a sense of normalcy for the child. If a child is exposed to the cane early on, it becomes a natural part of the environment, an extension of the self. In addition, seeing the parent using a cane can also help diminish any potential fears or self-consciousness the child may develop from being the only one with a cane. Parents can help to establish a child’s confidence and trust in the cane since he or she naturally trusts the parents’ judgment. Seven-year-old Anthony Tumminello illustrates the way early exposure to cane use can promote greater confidence and positive attitudes:

My name is Anthony Tumminello. I am seven years old and in first grade at Cozy Lake School in Oak Ridge, New Jersey. I am here today to tell you about how I get around with my cane. I’ve always had a cane, even before I could walk. My parents would carry me in their arms, and I would hold a very long cane. I could feel the bumps when we walked, and it would make me laugh.

I use my cane everywhere I go. I use it in school to travel to my classroom, the library, computer room, gym, cafeteria, and to recess. I go all over the school. One time we were getting in the car, and when we closed the door, we heard a loud snap. It was my cane. They are not strong, but they are very helpful. I love my new cane.

Cutter’s experience with putting a long white cane in the hands of parents and encouraging them to use it to model for their children has been extremely successful. Testimonials from parents who have worked with Cutter show that parents need not receive days of training in the long white cane before effectively using it to model for their children. By picking up the cane and running it over surfaces while carrying the child, parents have already mastered one of the most important skills--demonstrating confidence in the long white cane as a tool for independent movement and travel. That’s what Kathy Gabry of New Jersey thought was important, too. Here’s her testimonial:

My son had Joe Cutter as an O&M instructor from the time he was twelve months old until he was nine years old. Joe included me in every process of teaching. We had long conversations about the philosophies of travel by deaf-blind individuals. By giving me a cane and teaching me as he taught my son, I soon began to trust in the skills of blindness, and I was able to understand and reinforce proper techniques. My son is now sixteen years old and a very competent cane traveler.

All parents, whether their blind children are ten months or ten years old, can make a difference today by picking up a white cane and spending some time exploring the textures and surfaces that will become familiar to the child. Any parents who feel uncertain about incorporating the teaching cane into their relationship with their blind children should find a skilled blind traveler who can serve as a mentor and source of encouragement. In fact, it was the example of blind instructors teaching blind people how to travel effectively that helped Joe formulate the teaching-cane technique. Similarly, parents will find that, with the teaching cane in hand, the blind child will soon lead the way through natural curiosity fueled by parent involvement.

The novel concept of the teaching cane is simply that--the idea of teaching the value of a cane. Parents need not have intensive training or formal education to share in their child’s learning experience. Along with educators and others interested in the development of blind children, they will benefit from the fresh, positive, and proven approaches Cutter describes in his book. Those who have experienced Joe Cutter through seminars and his previous writings have long awaited a volume bringing together his varied experience.

 

Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children: A Promotion Model should be released in the summer of 2007 and will be available from Information Age Publishing, PO Box 4967, Greenwich, Connecticut 06831; (203) 661-7602; <www.infoagepub.com>.

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