Future Reflections          Cane Travel and Independence

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Public Places: Going through Buffet Lines,
Carrying Trays, and Using Elevators and Escalators

by Maria Morais, Paul Lorensen, Roland Allen, Edward C. Bell, Arlene Hill, and Eric Woods


Reprinted from the NFB publication Techniques Used by Blind Cane Travel Instructors--A Practical Approach: Learning, Teaching, Believing.

Moving through a serving line is just one scenario that a blind student can and should master through proper instruction and experience. The management of the various utensils and a tray, as well as the cane, is an important example of independence in public spaces.Editorís Note: To the uninformed, the ordinary activities listed in this title may seem terribly difficult and complicated if not impossible for the blind student to learn to master. The following article demonstrates the fallacy of those fears. There is nothing mysterious or necessarily complicated about traveling in public places, but it does take good instruction, common sense, high expectations, patience, and practice. Although the publication from which this piece is reprinted was not written about mobility for children, the fact that it was written by blind mobility instructors makes an important point that parents need to know: Blind kids can aspire to go beyond personal independence in cane travel to become mobility instructors for other blind people.

Cafeterias, fast food establishments, subway stations, hotels, or other public places provide the student with unique opportunities for exploring his environment and discovering methods to obtain and maintain his orientation. In such settings, the student will be likely to encounter crowds, loud or distorted sounds, and obstacles such as chairs, tables, and crowd control barriers in his path. He may be required to ride an escalator, carry a tray of food, or locate an elevator. At first, a student may think it impossible to travel independently in such environments or believe he can do so only with considerable sighted assistance.

Regardless of his level of travel skills, a student should know how to function effectively when going through a buffet line or eating at a fast food restaurant. These are normal, everyday experiences for most people, and the blind student should have the skills to participate in these activities along with his sighted peers without having to rely on them.

Going through a buffet or cafeteria line is just like traveling in any unfamiliar area. There are certain items a student expects to find, and certain procedures he cannot know unless he asks someone or finds another way of exploring the environment. The techniques the student uses and the instructional methods the teacher employs are common in many situations. Fast food restaurants, soft drink fountains, salad and condiment bars, even self-service areas in post offices are all places which a student must first explore and with which he must familiarize himself; the goal is for the student to use the facility without assistance.

A student may often feel awkward the first time he goes through a buffet line. If the instructor is familiar with the buffet arrangement, she can discuss the setup with the student before they go. Knowing the location of items such as trays, utensils, and napkins and understanding now food and drinks are served often alleviates some of the studentís apprehension. He may also be concerned about how he can tell when the line is moving and which methods he can employ to carry a tray while using his cane.

The instructor should usually precede the student the first time he goes through a buffet line. She can describe and demonstrate techniques she uses for locating items such as trays and napkins and show him how most knives, forks, and spoons can be distinguished based on the shapes of their handles or by their weight. She can explain how one can touch the side of a serving bowl to estimate its size, then follow around the side of the bowl to locate the serving utensil without touching its contents.

If there is another customer ahead of her in the buffet line, she may want to strike up a casual conversation, or ask about hot foods on the menu. Later, she can point out to the student that talking to another person in line is one way of telling when the line is moving. If there is no one next to her, she can demonstrate to the student how a cane can be used to explore gently a few steps ahead until contact is made with the next person in line. Because the cane is light and the movement is gentle, most people hardly notice the cane has come into contact with their shoes. After the instructor has demonstrated this technique, she usually has the student move ahead so he can try it.

Unless the menu is known in advance, neither the student nor instructor may know what is being served. This information can be obtained either from persons working in the buffet line or from other patrons being served. At a self-service buffet, sometimes it is possible to determine the type of food based upon smell, temperature, and consistency. By using the serving utensil, one can identify chicken from spaghetti. It is perfectly acceptable to use this method provided he understands such explorations are appropriate as long as he does not physically touch any food. However, a student may feel reluctant to probe a hot dish with a serving utensil and may prefer to ask a sighted person about the contents. Regardless of how he may determine food items on the menu, the student should be expected to serve himself. He should also be reminded to take note of where his favorite foods are located, so that he won't have to ask the next time if he wishes more.

It is not difficult to carry a tray loaded with food and drinks while using a cane, but a student may require practice. The instructor should first demonstrate an appropriate technique for the student, for example, carrying the tray with the less dominant hand, wrapping thumb and forefinger around the beverage to prevent spilling, while grasping the edge of the tray with the other fingers. The tray is held against the body to provide stability and may be supported from underneath with the forearm. The instructor should provide a detailed explanation of what she is doing and have the student place his hand over hers so he can observe the technique. She should emphasize the importance of using a wide arc to compensate for the width of the tray, but not extending the cane so far it gets in the way of other patrons. The student can then be instructed to utilize the same methods for carrying his tray. When an open table is located, the instructor can show how she props the cane vertically against her body, thus freeing her dominant hand to check the surface before setting down the tray. By observing the blind instructor and by practicing these techniques, the student soon discovers the act of carrying a tray while using his cane is not difficult at all.

Although the number of elevators marked with Braille is increasing, a student should know techniques to use if he cannot read Braille or if Braille is not available. The instructor can first discuss characteristics which may indicate the location of an elevator: a recess or alcove, a change in floor surface, an ashtray mounted on the wall, or a group of people who are standing in the hall, apparently waiting. Of course, she should also mention the most obvious indicators: the sounds of elevator bells or elevator doors opening and closing. The instructor can then take the student to a building which has an elevator and have him apply these techniques to locate it. She can point out the distinctive sound a cane makes when it taps against an elevator door. She should also show him how to locate the up and down buttons by lightly sliding his hand just above waist level a few inches on either side of the elevator door. If, for some reason, the student does not immediately grasp the concept of this technique, either the instructor guides his hand or instructs him to place his hand over hers. The student can then repeat the procedure on his own.

Once on the elevator, the instructor can ask the student to take them to a particular floor. If the elevator is marked in Braille and the student can read it, he simply explores the layout of the control panel and selects the desired floor. If the student cannot yet read Braille or if no Braille markers are present, the instructor can ask him to think about the alternative techniques he might use. If a sighted person is in the elevator, the student can ask for assistance in having the control panel explained to him, or he can simply have the sighted person show him the correct button. He can investigate the layout of the panel on his own and make an educated guess, especially if he knows how many floors are contained within the building. He can go up a few floors, then get off the elevator to read room numbers or ask a person in a nearby office. He may discover sounds, smells, even temperature changes on different floors which can be used as landmarks. The important point is that the student devises his own techniques for obtaining information.

In most situations, escalators can be easily identified by the sound of their motors, and by the metal plates on either end. The student should be shown the distinctive sound his cane makes when it strikes one of these plates and how he can determine the direction of the escalator by lightly placing his hand on the rail. Once he knows an escalator is moving away from him, he still must decide if it is going up or down. The instructor can demonstrate to the student how he can accomplish this by placing the tip of his cane on the first step and observing whether the cane rises or falls relative to where the student is standing.

Next, the instructor can explain to the student how to place his hand on the rail, just ahead of his body and instruct him to step onto the escalator. If he appears nervous or uncertain, the instructor may stand beside, in front, or in back of him, ready to assist him in making a smooth and safe transition on and off of the escalator. She should continue to describe how he can tell when to step off by feeling how the handrail flattens out and by keeping the tip of his cane placed a step or two ahead of him.

Again, the techniques used by a blind orientation and mobility instructor described in this section differ little from those used by a sighted one. In some instances, the blind instructor may use more physical contact since she may need to determine how the student is holding his tray or where his hand is positioned on the escalator rail by touching him. However, in the public situations mentioned in the above text, the genuine differences between a sighted and a blind instructor involve role modeling.

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