Future Reflections Cane Travel and Independence
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by Denise Mackenstadt, NOMC
Orientation and Mobility Specialist
Editor’s Note: Denise Mackenstadt has over thirty years of experience working with blind people. For ten years she was a paraeducator and Braille transcriber in the public schools. From 1994 to 2004 she served as a trustee of the board of the Washington State School for the Blind. In 2001 she received the National Federation of the Blind’s Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award for her exemplary performance as a paraprofessional working with blind students. In 2004 she graduated from the Stephen F. Austin State University preparation program for orientation and mobility instructors, and in 2005 she was certified by the National Blindness Professional Certification Board as a national orientation and mobility certified (NOMC) instructor. She currently works under contract for two local school districts in the Puget Sound area of Washington State as an itinerant mobility instructor. She is also under contract with a local birth-to-three program. Her current caseload includes students from preschool through high school, including students with multiple disabilities. Her professionalism is solidly grounded in a lifelong relationship with consumers. She is the wife of Gary Mackenstadt, a long-time NFB leader, and is a leader in her own right in her state affiliate and in the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. In the following article Mackenstadt sets forth her vision of the components of a good orientation and mobility program for students in a public school setting.
Author’s Note: I wrote this article to articulate what the components of a good program serving public school blind students should look like. Much of the literature in the field has been written by instructors from residential programs for blind or visually impaired students or university professors. In recent years the education of blind children has been affected by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and changes in the delivery of special education services. We have literature that addresses the itinerant programs for visually impaired students, but very little about orientation and mobility programs. Very little material addresses the delivery of services using the structured-discovery learning approach in the itinerant setting. I hope that parents, mobility instructors, and others interested in the teaching of travel skills to blind children will read this article and begin to expect better mobility training for blind students.
Terminology: The instruction in independent travel by blind people is variously called mobility, orientation and mobility, O&M, or cane travel training. I use all of these terms interchangeably in this article. Also the student who uses these skills may be called blind, visually impaired (VI), partially sighted, legally blind, or low vision. I do not like to use the term legally blind because this definition does not apply to all of the students who need mobility instruction. To simplify and to save space, I use the term “blind” to describe all students whose vision cannot be corrected to within normal limits and who, for safety and efficiency, need to learn to use nonvisual tools or techniques as alternatives to limited vision.
In this section
• Guided Learning
• Structured Discovery
• Nonvisual Skills Training
• Role Release
• Family Role
In the field of orientation and mobility instruction, two terms describe distinctive instructional philosophies and methods: guided learning (conventional approach) and structured-discovery learning. Many instructors trained in O&M university programs may assert that they use discovery learning in their teaching; however, this is not always demonstrated by the way they work with students.
Typical elements of the guided-learning approach
• Rigid sequence of instruction
• Route travel
• Technique-driven instruction
• Primacy of the O&M instructor--does not incorporate other staff or the family in instruction
Guided learning methods are organized in a rigid sequence of instruction. For example, the typical sequence is to begin with human-guide (sometimes called sighted-guide) technique. This is a skill that can be taught in a half hour, but in the conventional approach instruction takes place over several lessons. Even the student who has been using a human guide is required to go through these lessons. This rigid sequence of instruction can lead to frustration and boredom in a student who is ready for instruction in the use of the cane.
Abiding by this sequence can also delay progress for students who have problems mastering a specific skill. For example, some students with motor difficulties have a hard time learning to hold the cane in a particular way. The conventional approach requires the student to learn to hold his or her cane in a prescribed manner, even if the student can meet the standard of effectively and safely covering the path of travel by using a modified cane hold. Again, this rigid approach can be frustrating and defeating for the student.
Routes (set patterns of travel) are a major component of the guided-learning approach. Diverging from the route is discouraged. A good deal of the instructional time is spent on a series of routes to locations that are part of a student’s daily activity. A typical route for an elementary student may be learning to go to music from his or her regular classroom and back. For example, the student might be instructed to shoreline a building, turn right at the end of the wall, cross a short passage way, then use the building line to find the door to the music classroom. No deviation from this route is tolerated even if the student could reach the same destination by another path. In addition, the student is not expected to use other orientation skills that could transfer to other parts of the building or campus.
For some students route travel is an appropriate approach. Teaching a set route does not require a great deal of time. Once the student has learned the route, her instruction is complete. However, some students will not be able to remember the complex steps in many routes. In addition, this method does not allow for flexibility. Let’s say that the student who has learned the route described above goes to school one day and the schedule has been changed. Instead of going to music from the classroom, the student has to go to the music classroom from the playground area. But the student does not have the problem-solving experience to use other environmental clues to get to music class. Routes have been planned for him or her without taking into consideration that these routes do not meet the needs of the student in all circumstances.
Guided learning emphasizes specific and detailed techniques. It dictates precisely how a student must hold a cane, use a human guide, or navigate a blocked pathway. Again, for some students this may be appropriate, but most blind people naturally adapt techniques for their own specific personalities and lifestyle. It is important to discourage sloppy techniques that will endanger the student, but some flexibility is necessary to allow for the development of a relaxed and confident traveler.
Many conventionally trained O&M instructors are convinced that only an O&M teacher is capable of giving instruction in the use of a cane. This would be adequate if the student were with a trained mobility instructor twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but that’s not possible. So, for real progress to be made, it is necessary to give guidance to the other people who are part of the blind student’s life. In this way, as it is with reading or writing, parents, teachers, and other responsible adults who work with the student need to reinforce and encourage the child to practice so that he or she can integrate mobility skills into everyday activities. This is one of the strengths of the structured-discovery learning approach, as described next:
Typical elements of Structured-Discovery Learning
• Sequence of instruction is guided by functional needs.
• Routes are not so much taught as discovered by using critical thinking and problem-solving.
• Emphasis is on transferable skills.
• Techniques used are guided by the student’s developmental stage.
• Other adults, professional and personal, are included as part of the instructional team.
It is important to have a sequence of instruction that builds to more complex and difficult skills. However, this sequence should be determined in part by the student’s immediate needs as well as his or her long-term goals. Techniques learned in isolation will not be internalized by the student. The instructor must be aware at all times of the student’s functional needs as the student progresses in learning mobility skills and techniques. This sequence must be flexible because opportunities for learning that may not fit neatly into the prescribed sequence of instruction come up. Flexibility is the hallmark of a good instructor. Good educators take advantage of unexpected teachable moments.
Structured-discovery learning demands that students work constructively with the environment. For example, if a student is learning to travel from the playground to the classroom at the end of recess, the instructor guides the student to notice other students’ movements and discover terrain details (restroom doors, water fountains, exhaust fan noise, etc.) that would be useful in finding the classroom. The instructor provides guidance only in interpreting the environmental clues and how to use them in traveling. As a result the student learns the clues that can be used in a variety of travel situations.
The student develops routes by interpreting the clues that come to his or her attention and discovers ways of using these clues to meet different travel needs. He or she learns to work with a variety of environmental clues while gaining flexibility and confidence.
Travel skills must be transferable to other situations to enhance one’s ability to live, work, and go to school. Discovering how to use basic clues, a young traveler becomes confident in tackling any travel situation.
Spatial orientation and motor skills begin developing at a very early age. Movement is the major ingredient in developing these skills in an age-appropriate order. This is why it is very important to include orientation and mobility instruction at a young age. Requisite skills such as good spatial orientation (knowing up from down, left from right, over from under, front from back, etc.) and motor skills (grasping with fingers and thumb, balance, pulling, pushing, crossing midline, etc.) must be in place before advanced skills can be taught. A solid foundation in these skills enables the student to discover and develop more and more complex skill sets. There is more to O&M than walking on sidewalks and taking buses. These advanced skills become more difficult for the student to learn if the basic developmental concepts that are a part of independent movement are not in place.
So which approach is best--guided learning (the conventional approach) or structured-discovery learning? Good cane travel (O&M) instructors will include elements of both approaches. In the end, whatever the approach, the outcome must be that the student has the ability to process environmental information, think through what this information means, and do it while traveling independently.
• Build confidence in learned skills
• Build on efficient use of partial vision
Most blind people have partial vision. Often this limited vision can prove to be more of a hindrance than a help. Most people use partial vision beyond what is practical or efficient. It is presumptuous to think that the student is not using his or her vision to its fullest degree. In fact vision is a consuming sense. Using sight generally overpowers our other senses. To learn nonvisual skills effectively with our senses of hearing, touching, and smelling, one needs to incorporate a method that will not allow vision to dominate. Anyone who has learned to keyboard (touch type) has had this experience. Often the only way to counter the bad habit of looking at our hands is to cover the keyboard during the learning process. This is common sense. This is why using a blindfold is the most effective and efficient way to teach nonvisual techniques.
However, we must not expect children to react to blindfolds the same way adults react. We do an injustice to the flexibility and openness of children when we project onto them our own fears and apprehensions. All of which is to say that most children will not have problems accepting blindfolds in O&M training if it is presented to them in a positive, creative way.
• Training additional staff to reinforce skills learned when the O&M specialist is not present
• Including family members in the student’s daily O&M training
The O&M instructor has a limited amount of time to spend with a student. This creates a challenge because repetition is an essential element in skill development, and mobility skills are used in every aspect of the blind person’s life. So how can students get the practice they need? The student comes in contact with many other staff members throughout the school day. It is important, therefore, for the O&M instructor to spend time with these staff members to train them and support them in working with the blind student. With repetition and practice the student will develop confidence and belief in him- or herself as a competent traveler. Independent travel is directly related to what can be called road time--that is, practice and repetition. Clearly, including other school personnel as part of the O&M support team is essential in meeting the educational needs of the blind student.
The professional O&M instructor must include family members as part of the educational team. Most families understand the importance of the goal of traveling independently, but rarely if ever see it in practice. They may never have seen a blind adult or child travel independently with a cane. Imagine what it would be like to be a nondriving parent whose teen is taking driving lessons, but who has never seen a car, much less seen one driven. It is not reasonable for the instructor to believe that a parent can support meaningful travel training for a child without having knowledge of the capabilities of independent blind travelers. Therefore it is important for the O&M instructor to educate parents about the skills their children are learning. Blind children are usually delighted when they can share these new skills with their own families.
• Appropriate length of cane
• Tactile and resonant qualities of different cane materials
• Rigid versus folding canes
• Cane tip characteristics
• Blindfolds (sleepshades)
One of the primary functions of the cane is to detect objects and drop-offs. Just as in driving a car, a certain amount of reaction time is necessary to slow down or stop. Using short canes either trainees have to extend their arms, locking the elbow in place to extend the reach of the cane to provide greater reaction time, or they have to slow down. Young children get tired or bored or frustrated too easily to extend their arms stiffly for any length of time, so why not avoid these problems by starting with a longer cane? Blind kids also need to run, skip, and physically move about and play just like sighted children. A longer cane allows them to do this with greater safety and security.
Regarding the composition of the cane, some materials, such as fiberglass or carbon fiber, conduct tactile information more efficiently than others such as aluminum. In addition, lighter canes made of fiberglass or carbon fiber also provide better resonance--a sensory input that helps a blind person determine surface texture and other meaningful characteristics in understanding the environment.
For the beginner a rigid cane is ideal. Tactile feedback is enhanced by the continuous shaft of the straight cane. Breaking a cane into its connecting pieces adds to the weight, and the breaks in the cane inhibit sensory feedback. Then there is the mindset of the student who is just beginning to use a cane every day. A student, especially an older one, may be uncomfortable using a cane at first. An easy way to avoid using it is to fold up the cane and put it away. Of course, as the student matures and gains skill and comfort with the cane, he or she may need different canes, including a telescoping or folding cane, for many reasons, and that’s certainly okay.
Cane tip characteristics are important. The commonly used nylon tip does not give the tactile, resonant, or auditory feedback that a flat, disk-shaped metal tip gives. In addition, a lighter tip (such as the metal tip) maintains the balance of the lighter cane shaft. If a student does not keep the tip on the ground, you can add weight just above the tip of the lighter cane without compromising these characteristics.
The positive results of learning nonvisual techniques by using a blindfold were discussed earlier in this article. To reiterate: the blindfold is a tool, nothing more, nothing less. It is not a device to mimic total blindness. It is an instructional tool in the same way that a number line on a student’s desk is an instructional tool. After the student has mastered place value in math, it is not necessary to have a number line placed on the desk. Another example is a young baseball player who uses a batting tee until he or she can hit a pitched ball. So it is with using a blindfold in mobility training.
Precane devices are constructed from PVC piping and are used as an alternative to the cane. They are often introduced to the very young student before he or she is instructed in the use of the regular long white cane. It has not been adequately demonstrated that learning to use the precane in any way improves the student’s capacity to use the long white cane later. In fact the pre-cane device requires a different set of motor skills than does the long white cane. Since it is more difficult to unlearn a skill than to learn a new one, it therefore seems more sensible to begin with developmentally sound instruction in the use of the long white cane. If the student has other physical problems such as an orthopedic disability, then techniques using common support devices such as crutches or walkers can be devised.
• O&M Goals and Objectives
o Age appropriate/stage appropriate
o Short term – long term
o Across a variety of environments
• Appropriate service time for O&M
As the educational team formulates an IEP, the mobility instructor must be an integral part of the process. The skills of independence are as essential as any academic achievement. Movement is an important ingredient in cognitive development. Movement encourages a developing neurosystem to mature. Body awareness, spatial orientation, and motor planning are all linked to movement experiences. These skills are also part of learning literacy skills, i.e., reading and writing. It is unfortunate when a highly intelligent blind student is limited because he or she is not able to move about independently in the neighborhood, home, or school. As much attention needs to be given to mobility goals as is given to Braille or other academic goals.
Each goal should be appropriate for the student’s age or developmental stage. Blind students should have the goal of moving about freely, safely, and independently in the same environments as their sighted peers. Instructors and parents should be aware of school and community activities in which children participate. These activities should be used to attain mobility goals. Goals must have long-term outcomes and reflect real life needs. For example, a family may be concerned about their child’s ability to be comfortable in the local playground. The goal then may be for the student to understand and learn appropriate use of the playground equipment at school (a skill that, when taught from the Discovery-Learning approach, will be transferable to the local playground equipment). A short-term objective should be a building block to achieve the overall mobility goal. Using the playground example, the question may be asked, does the student feel safe using climbing equipment? An objective for this goal may then be to use the large climbing apparatus independently.
It is helpful to break down the student’s daily activities and write objectives that reflect each step he or she will take towards performing tasks at school and in the community with peers. Keep in mind that orientation and mobility skills are life skills that will be necessary for an independent adult life.
A good orientation and mobility program considers the following factors when recommending O&M service time in the IEP:
• Minutes driven by goals and objectives
• Variety of experiences
• Extended School Year (ESY)
• Summer training programs
Service time is the most difficult aspect of the IEP. The minutes of service should be driven by the goals and objectives, not by budget constraints. If the orientation and mobility specialist provides good intensive service in the beginning stages of each transition in the student’s school career, then later, when the student has achieved the appropriate skills, the instructor can reconfigure the service time, such as having fewer sessions and longer lessons. The direct service time is accounted for in number of minutes offered in a certain time period, typically per week. The time should also include how long each session should be and how many sessions per week. In an ideal mobility program for blind students, there is no need for formal mobility training for the entire twelve years of school. Administrators have hesitated to provide appropriate minutes in the beginning of training, fearing that they will be locked into this service time for the student’s entire school career. This concern can be overcome if the educational team, including the parents, understand and agree upon the necessity of building in flexibility so that the focus is on the child, and therefore the child’s needs drive the program.
A student may initially need frequent short lessons in order to learn the requisite skills for residential travel. However, when these skills are acquired, the student will need less frequent instruction but more time per lesson to perfect and internalize these skills through practice and repetition. It’s not unlike learning skills associated with a sport. It doesn’t take very long to learn how to hold and swing a bat, but developing that skill to the level of becoming a consistently competent player takes much time and practice. Attention span also needs to be considered. A young child will be able to work for only a short period of time, while an older student will be able to work for longer periods. A child’s maturation does not necessarily follow the school year or IEP cycle. A program needs the flexibility to change when a child’s maturity level suddenly takes a leap in the middle of the year.
The instructor will need time to consult with and provide support in the student’s school day. In addition to direct service, the school needs to allow time for the mobility instructor to do staff development. When the support staff working with the student is trained, the student will gain more practice during the school day than that which is allowed for by scheduling restrictions. The mobility instructor may need to use indirect instructional time. During this time the mobility instructor may want to observe the way the blind student travels during times not normally used for direct instruction, e.g., PE and recess.
Scheduling is a very difficult part of providing itinerant services. Time needs to be carved out of other areas of the school day, and that is not easy because everything is important. It is not fair to pull a student from his or her physical education or music class every year. The schedules of other specialists, such as occupational therapists, speech therapists, and so forth, need to be considered. The orientation and mobility specialist must work with a student in a variety of environments, some of which require extra time simply to get to the appropriate location (residential neighborhood, local business area, a local office building, etc.). Again, flexibility is essential. Some solutions include doing a multi-student field trip lesson. Kids gain much by observing each other and working together. O&M time can be scheduled before or after school, or on short attendance days. Instruction can occur in the home of the preschool or kindergarten student if the parents are willing. And, with approval from the school administration, a secondary student may be able to receive vocational credit for his mobility program, thereby working it into her or his regular schedule without losing precious time from other subjects.
Competency and confidence in independent travel with the white cane are directly related to what was earlier described as road time. The student needs to practice, practice, practice, and practice some more. Therefore the orientation and mobility program must incorporate practice time. Homework can be assigned. As an example, during summer break the student may be assigned to practice going to the bus stop twice a day. The family is an essential part of this practice experience. Many times parents are at a loss about what to do to support the development of their child’s mobility skills, but they want to help. The mobility instructor can give the family goals to work on at home. The family can take on the duty of practicing once a week going to the bus stop and returning to the house. A list of locations can be given for the blind child to explore with parents or siblings. Examples can be the local grocery store, the local mall, and the local playground. At these locations the parents are to describe and explore at the child’s pace and interest level.
The mobility specialist must enlist other school staff to help the student properly use skills during the regular school day. The regular classroom teacher can put into place incentive plans to encourage the student to travel. One of these tasks may be to go to the lunchroom independently. When the student performs this task on several consecutive occasions, the teacher may give special free time or even agree to have a special lunch with the blind student and a friend. Ask the parents and/or support staff to journal the student’s activities and highlight what she or he is doing independently. This will allow the O&M instructor to structure activities that will encourage continued practice in needed areas. Again, road time is the key to proficiency.
All children need a wealth of experiences. Childhood is all about experiencing new events and activities. The thrill of watching as a child takes her or his first trip to the zoo, rides a bicycle for the first time, or investigates an insect on the ground is one of the many joys of being a parent or teacher. While their children are young, parents should take the opportunity to expose their children to a wide array of experiences. The professional teaches the skills of good mobility in a constrained environment. Time and location are restricted. Families have the ability to expand on these mobility opportunities. This is why the cane travel professional must take the time to educate family members about the skills, tools, and principles of independent travel by the blind. The ultimate goal for the blind traveler is to be confident enough to travel in any environment, familiar or unfamiliar. Using these skills in a variety of environments in the presence of supportive family members will help the student to recognize that these skills can be transferred to any circumstance.
During the IEP process and in the IEP itself, the O&M instructor needs to establish that mobility skills are essential life skills. Also IEP goals for O&M need to be written globally for what the child needs, not for what the school thinks it can provide within a school year. Continued instruction and working in a variety of circumstances are the advantages of using the Extended School Year (ESY) or summer school provisions of the IEP for summer experience. One of the major requirements for justification of ESY services is that, without it, the student will lose skills over the summer which cannot be recouped within a reasonable time when instruction begins in the fall. By asking for ESY services very early in the student’s school career, a good precedent is established. Orientation and mobility skills are performance skills that can become effective only if practiced and learned consistently. The only way to provide this instruction without missing critical classroom time is to provide instruction outside of school time. The summer is the logical time to provide this service. If the mobility instructor is available, he or she will perform the instruction. If an individual instructor is not available, the teachers and parents may need to look at alternative ways to provide this instruction. More intensive programs such as the NFB-run summer programs for blind kids, other camps, or programs at state schools for the blind may fulfill the requirements. Contracting with another school jurisdiction to include your child in their ESY summer program may be a solution. Your state rehabilitation agency may have private contractors available to provide mobility instruction. In other words, a staff person employed by the local school district is not the only way to provide ESY orientation and mobility service.
Orientation and mobility specialists are in short supply. At times, even with a good deal of hard work, a school district will not be able to find an instructor. This does not negate its responsibility to provide this essential training. Through collaboration and with some creative thinking, the staff and family can find other means of providing this service. One possibility is to place the student in her or his local residential school for the blind. Some schools have designed short-term placement programs to get students up to speed in skills and back to their local district in the shortest amount of time possible. Of course the student and parents must be in agreement on such a placement. In addition, because this is a more restrictive placement for the blind student, it is desirable to have a mutual understanding of how and when it will be determined that the child has achieved a sufficient level of skills that a return to the local district is possible. Again, the best solution may be to make creative use of the summer and vacation periods as opportunities for the student to gain intensive and comprehensive training.
A secondary student of transition age, fourteen to twenty-one years old, may qualify for a variety of training and work experience programs provided throughout the country specifically for blind students. All of these programs are used to including students from outside their own state. It is necessary to be sure that whatever program is considered will be appropriate for meeting the student’s needs. Some programs require a certain amount of independent living skill, while other programs will take students with minimal self-care experience and work with them on beginning skills. For a public school student who has had very little contact with other blind peers, these environments can be very uplifting and a boost to her or his self-esteem. In addition, these programs can provide an intensive and comprehensive period of instruction. Instead of seeing a mobility specialist once a week or even once a month, the student is immersed in an environment where daily instruction is provided, and furthermore, the student is expected to exercise independent mobility skills throughout the training program.
As much care and time needs to be given to the planning and implementing of a good orientation and mobility program for blind students as is given to academic subjects. Many times mobility instruction is an afterthought. Blind adults can vividly recall their mobility instruction as a blind child. It was an important part of their school career. In addition, good travel skills can make or break the future independence and fulfillment of a blind person. This article has only skimmed the surface. However, hopefully further discussion of good mobility services in the public schools will command the passion that Braille instruction initiatives have had in recent years.
Castellano, Carol (2005). Making It Work: Educating Blind/Visually Impaired
Student in the Regular School. Greenwich, Connecticut: Information Age
Cutter, Joseph (2007). Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children: A Promotion Model. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing.
Fazzi, Diane L. and Barbara A. Petersmeyer (2001). Imagining the Possibilities: Creative Approaches to Orientation and Mobility Instruction for Persons Who Are Visually Impaired. New York: AFB Press.
Willoughby Doris M. and Sharon L. Monthei (1998) Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired: Preschool Through High School. Baltimore, MD: National Federation of the Blind.
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