Future Reflections Cane Travel and Independence
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by Barbara Mathews
My daughter, Kyra Sweeney, will start high school in a few months. It’s a huge school with three thousand students and multiple buildings spread out over a couple of acres. So mobility is on our minds.
We all like to tout the skills and accomplishments of our children (and, implicitly, I suppose, our own). Well, here’s an admission: mobility is not Kyra’s greatest skill. We have a couple of excuses. One is that she seems to have inherited my sense of direction, or lack thereof. Those “You are Here” signs just confuse me. And at our vacation home in the mountains, I swear the sun rises in the west. Another reason is even harder to admit. It’s that we’re busy. We’re often in a hurry. It’s usually quicker just to guide her.
But I’m not really concerned about how she’ll get around in high school. Why not? Because, with the help of the NFB, we have actually been preparing for a long time. Here are some steps along the way that I remember most vividly.
Wake-Up Call at Convention: When Kyra was four, we attended the NFB national convention in Dallas. It took place in a big hotel in the middle of the Dallas-Forth Worth airport. The hotel is no longer there, but some readers may remember the long, long hallway connecting the two towers. We were walking down that hallway. Kyra was holding my hand. Along came a blind mom and her blind daughter, who was probably under two years old. They were not holding hands. The daughter was walking independently using a cane. She seemed to be having fun walking by herself. They passed by us. I realized I was doing something wrong. Kyra was already behind where she should be. We bought an NFB cane and, since that day, Kyra has not left the house without her cane.
Big Step into Middle School: Three years ago, we were preparing for Kyra’s transition to middle school. It’s also a big, sprawling school with twelve hundred kids. She was coming from a small elementary school where she had more help than she needed, or we wanted her to have, from staff and friends. Three things made a difference in developing her independence. First, we developed an IEP goal that she would have mobility lessons on campus during the summer. She went every day during the week before school started to learn her way around. Second, we had it written into the IEP that she would get her class schedule before school started, so that her mobility lessons could include learning the routes to her classes. For reasons that escape me, getting the class schedule early is always harder than it should be. But we kept after the counselor, and got the schedule a bit early. Finally, and most importantly, Kyra was motivated to learn. She did NOT want an aide or a classmate guiding her from class to class.
I will never forget the first day I dropped her off and watched her walk by herself down a long, outdoor corridor. I wondered if she would remember where to make the left turn toward the classroom. She did. I was very proud.
Taking Ownership: Kyra recently returned from her eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C. When she, together with two good friends, boarded the plane to come home, the flight attendant tried to take her cane, saying “Your nice friends can help you.” They all laughed; Kyra said, “No, thank you,” and they proceeded down the aisle. When she told me about it, I said, “You should have said, ‘They won’t be able to help me if they’re dead.’” But we agreed that might have sounded a little harsh. I was really thinking, “All those times I embarrassed even myself by insisting that she keep the cane with her--it paid off; the lesson did sink in!” And beyond that, even her friends get it.
Finally, we have not depended entirely on school mobility lessons to teach travel skills. Summer is a great time to take advantage of other opportunities to learn. When Kyra was ten, she first went to Buddy Camp at BLIND, Inc. She went for two more summers. This summer she is planning to go to the middle school program at the Colorado Center for the Blind. It’s a great way to make friends, as well as to boost mobility skills. [Note: Both of these programs are owned and operated by the National Federation of the Blind.]
Here are some lessons learned:
Have your child start using the cane when she is very young. It will become a habit before she realizes it’s “different.”
Convey a positive attitude about the cane. Help the people around her understand that the cane is not only essential; it’s a symbol of independence and pride. When people call it her “stick,” I say, politely I hope, that it’s called a cane, then go on to respond to whatever point they’ve raised. It’s a matter of respect. It’s also a matter of remembering that part of “changing what it means to be blind” is teaching others. Our children are ambassadors from the blind community to the sighted world.
Take the time to let the child travel independently. There’s a story about an old man walking through the forest who sees a young man cutting down trees for firewood. He watches a while, then says, “Young man, if you’d sharpen that saw, you could get the job done faster and better.” The young man responds, “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. I have to get this all done by sundown.” When we are impatient, and we don’t take the time to let the child learn and explore moving around independently, we’re not thinking logically about the future.
Be a pest about the mobility lessons and “cane rights.” It’s hard sometimes to keep after educators. It takes time to learn about the rights you have. But it’s worth it, and sets a good example of self-advocacy skills that your child will need when she leaves home. An aside on that: No school or mobility instructor has the right to tell your child what kind of cane to use or when she can use it. You should buy the cane (or canes--having a spare around comes in handy) yourself. Canes are not expensive. They are easy to order from the NFB Independence Market (<www.nfb.org>). If the mobility instructor insists on teaching with a different type of cane during lessons, you can decide whether to fight it or not. If they try to tell you what kind of cane your child should use otherwise, you can laugh and say, “No, thank you.”
By the way, and this is especially important in the teen years, Kyra’s friends have opinions on which canes are “cool.” Needless to say, the sleek long white NFB cane is cool; those short heavy canes are not.
Kyra’s IEP meeting is coming up soon. I have requested that an administrator from the high school be present so that we can include provisions for getting her class schedule early and mobility lessons on campus before school starts. I’m prepared to work through the summer to make sure the promises are carried out. And on September 2, I plan to drop her off at school at 7:00 a.m. and watch her head off to her first class--probably Marching Band--with her backpack, her lunch, her flute, and her cane.
Barbara Mathews is a member of the board of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and the president of the California Parents of Blind Children Chapter of the NFB of California. Her family lives in Santa Monica.
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