Future Reflections          Cane Travel and Independence

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Common Questions about Canes and Cane Travel

What can the cane do for my child? Who should teach my child to use the cane and travel independently? What type of cane is best? How long should the cane be? How should my child hold the cane? What should I do, as the parent, to encourage good cane habits? What should I avoid doing? These are among the most common questions that parents raise about cane travel (O&M) instruction. Here are answers reprinted from the publications of our favorite authors and cane travel experts: Joe Cutter, Doris Willoughby, and Sharon Monthei (see the Resource section in this issue for details about those publications and how to obtain them). Also included is a do’s and don’ts list compiled by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Let’s get started with the most basic question:

WHAT CAN THE CANE DO FOR MY CHILD?

Functions of the Cane

by Joseph Cutter

Reprinted with permission from Joseph Cutter, Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children: A Promotion Model. A Volume in Critical Concerns in Blindness (IAP--Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2007), 149-153.

Joe Cutter leading a session at the 2007 NOPBC SeminarEditor’s Note: Although a couple of the functions listed below are specific to very young children, most of the list applies to all ages. Perhaps the only function of the cane that Cutter does not list is the use of a cane as an identifier to others that one is blind. Since most states have legislation based on the model White Cane Law which require vehicles to give the right of way to pedestrians carrying a white cane, that can be an important function. As a side note, the passage of the state-level White Cane Laws were part of a national campaign led by the National Federation of the Blind. In the mid-sixties, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, founder of the NFB and a constitutional law expert, reviewed the state of the law for the disabled in an article entitled, “The Right to Live in the World: The Disabled and the Law of Torts.” Stimulated by his research, Dr. tenBroek drafted the model White Cane Law that declares that the blind have a right to be on the streets, highways, and walkways and in public buildings and facilities. In short, it protects blind citizens against discriminatory practices in public places based solely on blindness. But back to functions of the cane. Here is Cutter’s list:

The cane is a handheld tool used for independent move¬ment and travel. It performs many functions. Under the blind child’s direction, it can inform, explore, inspect, detect, protect, and most of all, facilitate getting to know and moving in the world.

To illustrate, the cane is more than a windshield wiper on the world. It is the steering wheel that can be manip¬ulated to where the traveler wants to go and gives direc¬tion for whenever the traveler wants to circumvent an obstacle. It is the headlights giving preview of what’s ahead. It is the bumper protecting from unexpected encounters. It is the antennae receiving resonance infor¬mation about the sound space world. It is the tires, adjusting to the terrain and providing a smoother safe ride. Like the car, the cane is as effective as the driver who must obey the laws of the road. The cane gets children where they want to go.

Below is a list of the basic functions of the cane.
• Tool Usage: In the progression of tool usage, the cane is used intelligently by the child to reach off his/her body and touch the world. It is a handheld tool. With practice, the cane increases the safety, confidence, effectiveness, and efficiency of the child moving about in the world.
• Protector, Detector, and Previewer: The cane conducts information through its shaft into the blind child’s hand. This is often referred to as feedback. The child, as a traveler, then uses this information to decide how and where to go and what to do to get there. Like vision, the cane tells the child what is ahead, detects what is to be avoided or approached, and gives general preview, not only of where the traveler will be stepping next but also echolocation information of objects further away.
• Tool for Action and Sensory Integration: The cane is a tool for active movement. It gathers information. Sensory integration is what children do with sensory information. The cane facilitates sensory integration, as it is a handheld tool used by the upper body that connects to the ground, and this connection affects the movements of the lower body. Occupational and physical therapists who work with blind children can be given guidance to incorporate the cane into their therapy activities. When this is done therapists find that the use of the cane facilitates sensory integration of information. This occurs because the cane conducts information to the child’s hand that travels up the arm into the child’s brain.

The cane decreases the need for self-stimulation by increasing the active movement of the blind child in a purposeful and satisfying way. Therapists agree that the less the child needs to think about the movement, the more automatically it will be done. I can think of no other tool that affords such facilitation of the goal of automatic movement with a handheld tool than the cane.

• Tool for Normalizing Posture and Gait: Use of the long cane assists with the child’s development of normal gait patterns and posture. The research on movement in blind children typically reported a wide¬-based stance, abnormal gait patterns, poor posture, and constriction of the body when moving. These abnormalities were thought to be due to blindness. We now know otherwise: they were due to lack of opportunity to use the cane. The lack of opportunity for the blind child to use the appropriate tool at the appropriate developmental time caused the abnormalities in posture and gait to occur. With the long cane the child can stand relaxed and erect, develop typical gait patt¬erns, and move faster and more confidently.
• Tool for Play: Initially, the cane is used and enjoyed by blind children in their play. The child has fun with it, poking it in snow and bushes or exploring a play¬ground. The child taps it on different surfaces for the fun of hearing echoes. In an amusing, fun way the cane introduces the child to the world beyond the fingertips. Use of the cane stimulates the creative and imaginative nature of the child.
• Low Vision Aid: The cane can be used by partially sighted children to look where their eyes cannot see; for example, the cane looks down or to the side so they can look up. It touches the world for children, offering the possibility that they may want to visually view what it touched. The use of the cane as a low vision aid was covered more extensively in chapter 3 in the section titled “Succeeding with Partial Sight.”
• Tool for Confidence and Self-Esteem: O&M is a confidence-based skill and the early use of the cane introduces the blind child to experiences that increase self-confidence. When introduced early in life, the cane affirms who the blind child is and what must be done to be independent. The child develops confidence earlier in the what and how of independent travel. Such confidence integrates into the personality of the child.
• Tool for Freedom of Movement: The cane affords the opportunities for freedom of movement and joy of movement that is every child’s right. With it children decide where and when to go, and how fast or how slow. The cane facilitates awareness of the child’s movement and this increases attention span while moving and traveling in the environment.
• Tool for Cognitive Development: The cane is a tool that provides opportunities for children to use intelligence in thinking about self-directed movement, making decisions, developing good judgment, and learning to problem solve. Through self-monitoring the child directs the movement of the cane to satisfy curiosity and understand the requirements of safe and effective travel. Driven by cognitive interests, the cane is a tool to learn about the environment. Its use facilitates the formation of basic concepts about the environment and prepares the child for learning more advanced O&M concepts and skills.
• Puts the Blind Child at an Advantage When Traveling: The use of the cane has so many functions that it places the child at a real advantage in learning about the world and in moving and traveling in it. Through everyday experiences with the cane, blind children learn through their own orientation and mobility to view themselves as independent travelers. To not get an early start on cane travel for the blind child is to place the child at a disadvantage and all of the aforementioned “functions of the cane” are not a possibility; instead limitations will be developed by the passive movement that following someone’s lead engenders. The child’s cognitive development, free¬dom of movement, and confidence to travel indepen¬dently is also at risk of not developing. Make sure the blind child in your care is given all the advantages.

WHO SHOULD TEACH MY CHILD TO USE THE CANE AND TRAVEL INDEPENDENTLY?

Who Should Teach?

by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Monthei

Doris WilloughbyReprinted from Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who are Blind or Visually Impaired: Preschool through High School, by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Monthei, National Federation of the Blind.

Everyone in the child’s environment is his/her teacher. A child learns daily living skills from parents and siblings, social conventions from neighbors and relatives, academic and other skills from various schoolteachers, and games and activities from young friends. Orientation and mobility is part of this large picture.

If a child does not develop increasing independence--including the use of a cane at an early age--he or she will expect continual assistance from others in getting around. If parents and school staff see that the child does begin cane usage early, then he or she will develop increasing independence appropriate for each chronological age.

Modular Instruction assumes that at least one person in the child’s life (probably a teacher or parent) has made serious study of how the cane is used, and takes the lead in guiding others to facilitate learning. There are many ways to gain this knowledge; the National Federation of the Blind will be pleased to help you find a source.

When this book uses the term “teacher” or “instructor,” it means whatever adult is working with the student in the activity.

Parents
The foundation of all learning occurs in infancy and very early childhood. The general development of infants and toddlers is beyond the scope of this book. However, many Modules contain suggestions which apply to toddlers and even infants.

Children walk with their parents to the neighbor’s house; to cross the street; to go from the car to the drugstore. They go with the family to the grocery store; the doctor’s office; the mall; the zoo. The Modules in this book give specific ideas for making each excursion an age-appropriate learning experience.

Sharon MontheiWhen an educator takes the lead in instruction, parents nevertheless continue to guide skill development outside of classes. Parents also monitor the instruction itself to assure that it is appropriate. And some parents, facing a lack of educators with appropriate knowledge, take the lead for instruction themselves.

Other family members--aunts and uncles, grandparents, siblings, and other relatives--share the responsibility. Often someone other than the parents (even a fairly young child) happens to have the best opportunity to teach a particular thing.

In a residential school, the houseparent is much like a part-time parent. Development of skill in travel is a part of this responsibility.

Specialized Teachers
Specialized teachers of blind students typically take the lead in cane travel instruction. The lead instructor should outline a curriculum to develop skills in an organized manner. He/she should ensure that the child learns what is currently needed (as by emphasizing street-crossing immediately for a city child.) At the same time, he/she should make sure no major age-appropriate skill is completely omitted. (For example, a rural high school student should visit a larger town and work with traffic lights.)

The specialized instructor must not exist in an “ivory tower” in solitary splendor. Continual consultation with parents and with other teachers is essential. Specific practical suggestions, with demonstrations as needed, enable other adults to guide the child in integrated, consistent progress.

At times, the specialized instructor may play additional roles by default. If the parents, despite much consultation, never take the child along to a store, the instructor should spend extra time with this. If the sixth grade teacher has promised to show the blind student the way to the rest room, but somehow this is not happening, the travel teacher may need to assist.

Similarly, there are many places around the school where the class may not go as a group, but which sighted students will understand through sight. The flagpole and the kitchen are two good examples. Sighted students see the flags flying and occasionally watch the custodian run them up and down. They see the kitchen when they walk by in the lunch line. But the blind six-year-old may not know what a flag and its pulleys are actually like (he cannot reach the flag in the classroom either). He hears the clatter of the kitchen, but may not really understand what is there. When the travel teacher’s lesson focuses on a single interesting location, it provides great interest and variety (vital for the young child) as well as filling in gaps in concepts.

Gaps in knowledge can occur at home also. The travel teacher may conduct many lessons near the home of a preschooler who is just learning to get around in a large yard and the nearby neighborhood. The teacher may help an older student walk between home and school, between home and the bus stop, between home and a nearby convenience store, etc.

Classroom Teachers and Activity Leaders
Many different teachers carry out activities which relate to these Modules. Day care providers, as well as school and preschool classroom teachers, are included. Leaders of Scout troops, religious groups, and other activities will also find this book relevant.

Routinely, preschool and elementary school groups tour the dentist’s office, the zoo, the grocery store, the City Hall, etc. Leaders will find these Modules helpful in making each excursion an age-appropriate learning experience.

When the specialized teacher introduces a skill, others must encourage and remind the child to keep it up. They must see that opportunities exist to put the skill into practice.

HOW LONG SHOULD THE CANE BE? WHAT TYPE OF CANE IS BEST?

Reprinted from Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who are Blind or Visually Impaired: Preschool through High School, by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Monthei, National Federation of the Blind.

The Length of the Cane:
In order to travel safely and efficiently, the cane should be long enough to detect objects well in advance of the traveler. Here, Kayla Harris stands with a cane that reaches just under her nose, as she shares a moment with her parents, Kevin Harris and Sharonda Baker, of Maryland.There is some debate about the appropriate length of the cane. Blind people have found through experience that the length of the cane is an individual matter, depending upon the length of stride, walking speed, and reflexes of the student. To consider the length of the cane, hold it vertically in front of the individual: ordinarily it should reach somewhere between the armpit and the nose. Shoulder height is a good length for a first cane. A cane reaching only to the sternum (breastbone) is not long enough for the average student to assume a normal walking speed with safety. The cane must be long enough to allow a student two steps to stop.

Generally speaking, a traveler will want a longer cane as speed is developed, and this should be left up to the student who is an experienced traveler. The desire for a longer cane should be viewed as a positive sign.

One way to check whether a cane is the right length is to observe where the foot steps in relationship to the cane touch which would cover it (i.e., the place where the cane last touched on that side). If the foot touches approximately the same place the cane did, the cane is the right length. If the foot touches in front of where the cane touched, the cane is too short. If the foot touches significantly behind where the cane touched, the cane is too long. (Or, occasionally, the stride may be found to be much too short.)

The cane also must reach two steps ahead on stairs. Although shoulder height is a good length for an adult’s first cane, this tends to be too short for a young child. For children, generally the cane should reach as high as the nose when held vertically.

Since children grow, it is necessary to change cane lengths periodically. Some National Federation of the Blind state affiliates have cane banks for kids, so that canes in children’s sizes are available on loan and can be traded in when necessary. Since it would not be unusual for a child to change canes ten or more times from early childhood through adolescence, this is a considerable saving.

Which Cane to Use:
The best cane currently on the market is called the “NFB straight cane.” It is hollow fiberglass with a rubber and metal tip and plastic cylindrical handle. This cane is the most sensitive because it is light and flexible, is made in one piece, and has a metal tip which provides information both through touch and sound. It is also weighs only a few ounces so that small hands do not become tired using it. Because of its construction, it can be used with either hand or switched from hand to hand when convenient. It is available in children’s sizes (with handle and shank properly proportioned for small hands) from the National Federation of the Blind at the National Center for the Blind.

In my opinion, the next best cane on the market is sometimes called a Rainshine™ cane after the company which manufactures it, and also sometimes called the Iowa cane. It is solid fiberglass and is otherwise much like the NFB straight cane. It is not quite as sensitive or as light as the NFB straight cane. Some people prefer this cane because it is virtually indestructible.

Many other straight canes are rigid, have nylon tips which do not slide easily, and provide little information about substances touched. They wear in such a way as to make the cane either left- or right-handed. (This problem is partly due to the “golf grip” handle often used.)

Collapsible canes have one main disadvantage--they do collapse. They are not very sturdy because they are held together either by nylon cord or by telescoping joints. The movement of the cane shakes the pieces apart. Because they are not one solid piece, they do not telegraph information as accurately. Many blind people buy them so that they can collapse them when they don’t want people to know they are blind. Use of a collapsible cane encourages avoidance of facing the real issues of blindness.

If a collapsible cane is used at all, the best use is as an extra to be kept in reserve. For example, it might be kept in the desk at work in case something happens to the regular cane.

HOW SHOULD MY CHILD HOLD AND MOVE THE CANE?

The answer to this question very much depends upon whether we are talking about very young children anywhere from birth to age four, or six, or even older; or whether we are talking about the child that has the maturity, cognitive development, and/or motor skills to begin instruction in the standard O&M or adult-level techniques. To address this question we turn once again to Doris Willoughby and Sharon Monthei for older children and adults, and to address the very young child we again refer to Joe Cutter:

Reprinted from Module 1 of Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who are Blind or Visually Impaired: Preschool through High School, by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Monthei, 1998 National Federation of the Blind.

Now referred to as the “open palm technique,” the traditional grip has evolved in order to facilitate long periods of mobility and cane use without tiring. It also produces a wider arc as the index finger does not obstruct the cane’s motion. Here, the hand holds the cane with the palm open underneath. Shifting between the open and closed positions allows the cane to move from side to side more easily.The Touch Technique:
See Also (Other Modules):
Introducing the Cane
Posture, Gait, and Arc (Level Surface)
Obstacles (Noting Them and Proceeding)
Sleepshades (Occluder)
In a Crowd (Including Stairway Techniques)
At School—Indoors

This basic technique is sometimes called arcing the cane, or the foot cane technique. It is used in most situations. It is achieved by holding the cane in the dominant hand with the index finger pointing down the shaft, and the thumb and other fingers curled around the cane--a position analogous to shaking hands with the cane. The cane is swung from side to side and should cover the ground approximately the width of the traveler’s shoulder. When the right foot is forward, the cane should touch on the left side, and when the left foot is forward, the cane should touch on the right side--one tap per step. The hand should be centered in front of the body with the primary action in the wrist. (Keeping the forearm against the waist or hip helps to center the hand and prevent fatigue.) The elbow may be bent comfortably.

Here, the open palm technique is in use, but the position is closed. The reason the cane should touch on the opposite side from the forward foot is to maintain a two-step warning for objects and steps encountered. A traveler who is out of step is clearing only one step ahead and may miss some objects altogether until they are encountered with the body.

The arc of the cane should be even on either side. If a traveler tends to drift either left or right, observe that the traveler is probably arcing farther in that direction than on the other side. Also, if the hand does not remain centered, a variation in the arc may occur, and the traveler will have more difficulty developing good distance perception with the cane. Distance perception can also be thrown off by changing the length of cane.

In crowded areas the cane can be moved into a more upright position, causing some variation in grip and slowing of walking speed. Normally, a cane traveler should be able to walk as fast as a sighted person in similar physical condition.

HOW SHOULD THE VERY YOUNG CHILD HOLD AND MOVE THE CANE?

First Movement Experiences with the Cane

by Joe Cutter

Reprinted with permission from Joseph Cutter, Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children: A Promotion Model. A Volume in Critical Concerns in Blindness (IAP--Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2007), 172-174.

Melissa Fernandez and son, Jacob Trevino, TX, displaying the method of the “teaching cane.” Melissa holds the cane out in front to show Jacob how she is using it. Using the Teaching Cane: The first introduction to the cane may be with the use of the parent’s teaching cane. First, while holding the child in one arm and the cane in the other, the child can explore touch interactions with the cane, eventually moving it with the parent and then initiating movements. When the child is able to walk, the child can hold onto the shaft of the parent’s teaching cane. While holding onto the shaft of the parent’s teaching cane, the child will be in front of the parent. In this way the parent can guide the movement of the cane by standing behind the child. The child will also initiate movements with the teaching cane. Together the parent and child will explore possibilities with the teaching cane.

Hold Cane for Cane Walking: The cane is held in travel grip position that is developmentally appropriate for the child. The child may hold the cane like a shepherd’s staff or a golf putter, which means with the thumb on top or pointed down, respectively. The child may want to hold the cane halfway down the shaft for better balance and control or at the very end of the grip, feeling the end of the cane in the palm of the hand. Often the very young blind child wants to hold the cane with two hands. Interestingly, this brings the cane to midline (stomach) area. This bottom-up, two-handed approach created by the child offers an alternate approach to beginning cane travel that I often suggest to children who are holding the cane to one side and are not “covering” fully to protect the front of their body.

There are many variations for holding the cane and there are many reasons for it. Sometimes the reason is easy to understand and sometimes it is a mystery. What is important to remember is that the child is doing it for a reason and it is best to respect the child’s decision, as long as it is safe for the child.

Proper handling of the cane includes holding the cane in an upright position when not in use so as to limit the possibility that someone might trip over an outstretched cane.Walking with Someone: Initially, the baby, toddler, or child will hold onto the parent with one hand and the cane with the other. Introduction of the cane should not mean “loss” of the parent or adult’s hand but rather an addition to what is familiar to the child--the adult’s hand. This consideration is of particular importance to the developmentally delayed blind child who may have experienced walking with the parent for a much longer period of time than the typical blind child.

Gradually, with the stability that comes with balance and confidence in movement, the child then moves away from the parent contact and ventures out more independently. When cane travel is delayed in blind children, they become accustomed to holding on to the parent’s hand, usually for a longer period of time than is age/stage appropriate.

As children gain experience with the cane, they will hold the cane directly out in front of the body. At this time children will begin to explore sliding and tapping the cane. Children may be holding onto the parent’s teaching cane, their own cane, or both, in making such experimenting movements with the cane. With the cane in hand, the child will be alongside the parents first and then, over time, move in front of the parent.

Standing Position: When children are standing still, teach them to hold the cane upright. Children need to understand and learn that the cane can get in someone else’s way when unnecessarily put out in front when standing alone or standing and talking to someone. It is best placed in a vertical, upright position. While standing still and holding the cane, the child may inadvertently, unexpectedly or purposefully slide the cane out in front or exhibit some other “play” behavior and can surprise passers by and this may cause the person to trip over the cane. We want to limit the perception of the cane as a dangerous tool. This begins with teaching the child proper handling of the cane.

Cane Down on the Ground: The cane is a travel tool that must be oriented down to contact and survey the ground. Blind babies enjoy banging the cane and lifting the cane high in the air to explore as they get connected to the cane and to the object world. This is understandable. The blind child will gradually lower the cane to the ground. At first the child does not understand that a simple movement in the wrist can elevate the cane so high. Have the child observe your wrist and hand movement with your teaching cane. Playing games with the child to locate objects above and on the ground can give experience with the “wrist feeling” of orienting the cane down. The top-down approach of simply saying, “keep the cane on the ground” will not register with the young traveler as quickly as older children or when adults are beginning to learn how to use the cane.

Remember, for the child “out of the experience comes the concept.” The concept is not already in the child’s head at such a young age. Sometimes we can add a bit of weight to the cane to assist the child who is having difficulty understanding or perceiving the wrist movement. This is usually the baby or the child who is functioning on the level under three years of age. The goal is to orient the cane down to the ground while not compromising hand functioning. The child must be able to easily move the cane.

Side to Side and Slide it Wide: In this technique, also known as “constant contact,” the cane is in contact with the ground or floor. This creates a more thorough coverage of the terrain ahead of the child so that uneven surfaces and drop-offs are less likely to surprise the young traveler. The blind child likes the rhyming of this phrase “side-to-side and slide it wide” and this facilitates sustaining the task of sliding the cane.

Make up games to provide practice with this skill. For example, place milk cartons or plastic bowling pins at random on the floor and let the child knock them all down. If the child is working with physical or occupational therapists, they will have many creative suggestions on how to play with the cane in their respective therapies. The very young blind child will not be able to learn in-step rhythm with the cane until an older age. Therefore, the sliding technique is an important skill that will be used prior to learning the more efficient and advanced cane skills.

WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO ENCOURAGE GOOD CANE HABITS?
WHAT SHOULD THEY AVOID DOING?

Parents can take, or avoid, a number of different actions that will promote good cane habits and independent mobility. Of course, like anything else that has been reduced to a bulleted list, the actual implementation of these simple tips into a busy and often chaotic lifestyle is another challenge altogether. Not to mention that children have their own personalities and agendas, and those often clash with what we parents know is best for them. That’s when personal stories from other parents who have been there, done that (such as those in this issue) can provide the inspiration and encouragement we need. We hope you will read them, too. Finally, we preface our list of do’s and don’ts, with a short lesson from Willoughby and Monthei called, “Aha!” not “Oops!”

“Aha!” not “Oops!”

David Small shows his son, Benjamin, how to use the cane to detect obstacles. David finds it helpful to use a positive approach, emphasizing the cane as a helpful tool, while declaring such moments with “aha!” and not “oops.”Reprinted from Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who are Blind or Visually Impaired: Preschool through High School, by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Monthei, National Federation of the Blind.

Jenny, age six, was learning to find her way in the school hallways. Whenever her cane touched a box or other object, her teacher said “Oops.” Jenny walked slowly.

Ian carried his cane in a gingerly manner. It seemed as though he were carrying a tray of dishes instead of a cane--trying not to bump it into anything.

Jenny and Ian were victims of a common error often made by educators and family members: unconsciously viewing the cane’s touch as a “collision” (not really desirable) rather than a “discovery” (desirable). This rubs off on the student, who unconsciously learns to proceed slowly and gingerly, and fails to take real advantage of the potential of the cane.

This Module emphasizes attitudes and techniques which help ensure the use of the cane as a tool. Cane usage is an alternative technique with its own characteristics--not just a weak attempt to imitate the methods used by the sighted. The goal is not to proceed with as little sound as possible, touching as few things as possible. Rather, the goal is to proceed quickly and efficiently. Some sound is expected and desirable, as the cane tip touches objects and the surface underfoot. Proceeding confidently--as opposed to a timid, even cringing approach--is part of the overall attitude that it is respectable to be blind.

When Jenny and Ian became Mrs. Vrbek’s students, she quickly helped them change patterns of attitudes and techniques. With Jenny, she began by saying “Aha!” in a pleased voice each time she observed Jenny’s cane finding an obstacle. Jenny soon picked this up and began saying “aha” also, instead of the “oops” she had acquired from her previous teacher. Soon she was bouncing down the hall at twice her previous speed, from time to time murmuring “aha” as she went around something.

Mrs. Vrbek asked Ian (age nine) to put on sleepshades, and she went with him to the playground. She faced him toward a chain-link fence and asked him to walk forward quickly. After a few steps, the cane tip encountered the fence and Ian stopped short. Mrs. Vrbek could “see the wheels going around in his head” as he internalized the idea he should have grasped long ago: “Now I really understand what the cane can do! It can find things before I get to them, when I can’t see them, or when I can’t see them well enough to tell what they are.”

“Now he realized,” Mrs. Vrbek said afterward, “that the cane is supposed to touch things, to give him information.”

Do’s and Don’ts--Tips for Parents
From the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children

What can parents do, or avoid doing, to encourage their child’s independent travel with a long white cane? Here are some suggestions that should help.

Escalators are always a favorite mode of travel for children of all ages and can be mastered with the use of a cane to determine when to step off.1) DO learn the basic techniques so you can encourage and praise your child for his efforts. Constant nagging about technique can be harmful, but generous praise and encouragement can help.

2) DO insist that your child take her cane everywhere and that she use it. Going to the store? Take the cane. Going to swim lessons? Take the cane. Out to eat? Take the cane. Taking the cane should become as natural and as comfortable as putting on glasses, carrying a purse or wallet, or putting on a coat in winter.

3) DO NOT anticipate for your son what the cane will tell him in just a few moments anyway. If you are constantly telling your child to watch out for the steps, or the telephone pole, or whatever, then he will never learn to trust the cane (and neither will you). Sometimes, of course, a gentle reminder, “What is your cane telling you?” or, “How should you be holding the cane?” is in order. Of course it is only common courtesy to advise your child of an overhanging branch or other obstacle that the cane or other senses will not detect. Use your judgment, but remember a minor bump or bruise once in while because of neglecting to pay attention to the cane or to use it properly is a real-life lesson that is far more effective than constant nagging.

4) DO NOT teach your child to count steps. The proper use of the long white cane will allow your child to know when she has reached the top or the bottom of the steps or when she has arrived at a particular store, house, etc. Excessive use of counting steps can be a bad habit that interferes with the ability to concentrate on the sounds, smells, and landmarks that are much more valuable clues.

5) DO NOT allow yourself or your child to be embarrassed about using the cane in public places, or anyplace at all. It is respectable to be blind, and the long white cane is a symbol of the independence and normality of the blind. If you and your child will learn to feel and act that way, then more and more the public will take their cues from you and begin to treat the blind with respect and courtesy instead of pity and excessive helpfulness.

6) DO help your child to learn how to properly store the cane when it is not in use. In automobiles the cane can be placed in first or pulled in afterward. Even in the smallest compact car, with practice the cane can be easily placed between or along the seat and the door or side of the vehicle. When this isn’t possible, then your child can rest the cane over the shoulder at an angle. In a restaurant, the classroom, a theater, or other public places, the cane can be slid under a table, desk, or chair as long as it does not stick out into an aisle where someone could trip on it. It can also be leaned in a corner or against a wall with ease. If none of these are possible, you child can simply bring it in close to his side and rest it against his shoulder. It can be kept easily and comfortably there with little inconvenience.

Dave Gill knows that he can let his daughter, Elora Garcia, run ahead because he knows that she can use her cane to travel safely.7) DO expect your child to take on ordinary age-appropriate tasks while using her cane. For example, she should learn to find and open doors for herself and others; help you carry in the groceries; walk (or run) ahead of you as you walk down the street; determine when to cross the street instead of waiting for you to give the go-ahead; buy milk and bread from the local convenience store while you wait in the car; take a bus or a taxi with friends or by herself to go shopping at the mall or to a school event; and any number of other tasks performed by her sighted peers. Learning to carry a cane in one hand and carry or perform other tasks with the other hand (or both), is a valuable life-long skill.

8) DO encourage the use of sleepshade (blindfold) training for your partially sighted child. Learning to travel under blindfold has a number of advantages. First of all, it is faster and easier to learn the techniques and to trust them if you are not trying to rely on residual vision. Secondly, it builds confidence to know you can travel efficiently and safely without any vision at all. Finally, once your youngster has mastered nonvisual techniques, he can use his vision combined with his new techniques to travel confidently, safely, and efficiently under conditions that he may have been afraid to travel when he only had his limited vision to rely on. Caution: A small amount of training under blindfold with an instructor that is not comfortable doing it, or is outright antagonistic to the idea, can increase not decrease fears and insecurities about travel. In this instance, consider summer training programs that will provide consistent training over a block of time with instructors that have experience and positive attitudes.

9) DO NOT allow your child’s training to get “bogged down” because he cannot (or will not) execute a particular skill perfectly. One mother, who had consented to precane technique instruction for her seven-year-old on the understanding that it would be brief and cane instruction would begin soon, became concerned when week after week passed and no progress was made. She called the teacher, who insisted she couldn’t move on until the child demonstrated his knowledge of a particular skill and concept. The mother sat her son down to talk to him about it, and discovered that he was so bored with the whole thing that he was deliberately doing things wrong to “spice up” his classes. Needless to say, the mother got that straightened out fast, and he had a cane within a week.

10) DO use sighted guide (human guide) techniques sparingly and with careful consideration. Yes, it might be faster--for now--but how will it affect your child’s progress over time? It is also faster for you to tie her shoes, pick up her toys, make her bed, dress her, and do her dishes, but at some point you must stop and carve time out of the day to let her learn to do these tasks for herself. The same is true for cane use. If your child is to develop skill and confidence in traveling in all kinds of situations she needs practice and she can’t get this by hanging on to an arm. When your child does use a human guide, insist that your child carry her cane and use it in the usual manner or with modified grip. This puts your child “in-control” even when using a human guide.

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