Future Reflections Cane Travel and Independence
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by Joseph Cutter
Editor’s Note: This material below is reprinted with permission from chapter 1, pages 5-14, of the book by Joe Cutter, Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children: A Promotion Model, copyright 2007, Information Age Publishing, <www.ifoagepub.com>. Two other segments of the book are also reprinted elsewhere in this issue. In this first segment, Joe describes his innovative approach--the Promotion Model--to working with young blind children from birth through preschool age. When we introduced our readers to his book in our Fall 2007 issue, I said in my review that, “This is more than a book about cane techniques and teaching strategies (although there is enough of that to satisfy the most detail-oriented parent or instructors), it is a guide that lays out a whole new way to think about and approach the facilitating of normal--yes, normal--movement and independence in young blind children.” When you read the personal stories by parents in this issue, you will find Joe Cutter’s name popping up more than once. His practical approach (the Promotion Model), his respect for blind children and their capacities (the bottom up concept, which he also describes below), and his passion for high expectations has been inspiring parents since he started conducting workshops at NFB conventions in the early nineties. Here is Joe:
The word promote has many meanings: to advance, further, improve, dignify, elevate, support, encourage, and advocate. It is an action verb, which calls on us to act in the best interests for the future of blind children. The Promotion Model is an alternative approach to conventional O&M. The building blocks of the Promotion Model are the principles, developmental perspectives, strategies, and practices and techniques that fuel and facilitate independent movement and travel; independent movement and travel in blind children is the essence and goal of the Promotion Model.
The goal of the Promotion Model means freedom, hope, and full participation in society for the blind child. The Promotion Model means freedom for the blind child and freedom for the parent. New possibilities for a positive, asset-oriented perspective and developmental approach are created by the Promotion Model. In this model, the parent is the child’s first teacher of O&M, and the parent’s role must be respected and nurtured by professional service providers.
For blind children, as for all children, the freedom to move, to be self-amused, and experience the joy of movement is fundamental to being human. When exploring and traveling in the world, children have the need and drive to choose where and when to go and to initiate, sustain, monitor; and terminate their own movement. Independent movement and travel means making decisions, problem solving, and developing good judgment. For blind children this means moving and traveling in the world with the cane at a very early age.
For parents, independent movement and travel means freedom because children will be learning to take age/stage appropriate responsibility for their own actions. The Promotion Model gives hope to parents, knowing that their child will grow to full capacity and be a full participant in life. Because the parent is the child’s first teacher, it has been said, “the mother’s lap is the first classroom.” For this “classroom,” the parent requires developmental guidance from the professional service provider. Useful, reliable, and positive partnerships are needed for parents with O&M professionals and other professional service providers who truly understand the blind child’s requirements for independent movement and travel.
One requirement is that parents and the O&M professional both place a high value on early movement and travel. In the Promotion Model, the sighted/human guide technique, where the child holds on to someone else’s arm, takes a back seat to the blind child’s movement. Instead, we encourage children to take age/stage appropriate responsibility for their independent movement and travel by developing self-monitored movement with the cane, which will take a front seat on the road to independence.
For the O&M professional, independent movement and travel means offering a developmental menu that respects the alternative skills of blindness. Regarding the partially sighted blind child, professional service providers must use caution not to push vision to the point of inefficiency. This can happen when partially sighted (legally blind) children are not taught the skills of blindness and yet are expected to compete with their sighted peers with only 10% or less of typical vision.
Touch and hearing will be the blind child’s most important senses in learning nonvisual skills. Such skills will be the blind child’s passport to freedom. Cane travel is a very important life skill for the blind child. The Promotion Model acknowledges that the use of the cane is part of the readiness for travel. Readiness serves the goal of independence. In the Promotion Model there is no room for a readiness curriculum that is forever getting the child ready to use the cane with unnecessary tasks that may serve the “curriculum checklist” but not the goal of age/stage appropriate independence in movement and travel. Therefore, the Promotion Model values the early start to cane travel in blind children.
One of the best ways to treat parents with respect and promote independent movement and travel in blind children is to offer “informed choice” as a professional service provider. This means respecting blindness, the skills of blindness, and the parent as the child’s first teacher for O&M. To do this, professional service providers must be knowledgeable about the spectrum of conventional and alternative O&M practices. When O&M professionals do not understand or are not “up on” the benefits of a very early start to cane travel, then they are usually “down on it.”
O&M professionals must be knowledgeable about the effect the characteristics of the cane have on its use by the child. For example, the length of the cane has a direct effect on the success of the child to navigate safely and effectively. The longer cane approach and the lighter cane approach to travel offer advantages to the traveler over only the shorter and heavier cane approach (discussed in chapter 4). By understanding how the characteristics of the cane can have an effect on the blind child’s travel, professional service providers can offer such possibilities for many more positive experiences in movement and travel.
When professional service providers are not knowledgeable about the conventional and nonconventional approaches to independent movement and travel for children, parents are not benefiting from informed choice. Instead, we are taking a risk with the decisions parents will need and want to make for their child and for the blind child’s future in independent movement and travel.
The Promotion Model acknowledges that there is a “sighted bias” to conventional approaches to O&M. For example, formalized O&M developed after World War II and was created by sighted individuals for blind persons who once had vision. Obviously, none of the veterans who lost their vision during the war were born blind. Therefore, the protocols and content of the curriculum did not have the congenitally blind child in mind. The protocols for teaching O&M practices called for “visual monitoring” of the blind person. This meant that the O&M professional must have vision to observe the blind student in the lesson. We know today that blind people can be and are O&M professionals as well.
As a conventionally trained, sighted O&M professional service provider, I have come to understand how my vision has affected my interactions with blind children. My sighted orientation to the world does not employ all the same skills as a blind person’s orientation to the world. There are nonvisual skills that I do not use.
What often results from not employing or not knowing about the skills of blindness is that children will be vulnerable to adults placing low expectations on them, often using misconceptions about blindness to guide their practices. Consequently, the child will experience delays in the acquisition of life skills for independent movement and travel.
Adults have a choice of what to believe about blindness and what information to use to guide their interactions with blind children. We can offer developmentally appropriate skills. Whether the child is developing as a typical child or with developmental delays, we can facilitate independence in O&M or interfere with the learning of such necessary skills. Blind children with multiple disabilities are even more vulnerable to being misunderstood. The misconceptions about blind children that guide their educational plan are often the result of lowered expectations for what they can achieve.
Through the organized blind I have learned more thoroughly about the skills of blindness and a blindness perspective that, in functional O&M terms, is at times, different than my sighted perspective. As I have become more educated to an alternate orientation to skill development, I have learned to be more aware of my sighted bias. Over the years, this has made me a more effective instructor, the results of which are demonstrated by the increased success of my students.
In addition to the partnership between the parent and the O&M professional we can add a positive, skilled blind role model for the blind child. One description of a skilled blind role model is a mentor. For example, in the first years of the blind child’s development, such a blind adult will have a significant, positive, and hopeful influence on expectations of the child’s parents. As the child matures, the mentor’s guidance will contribute to positive self-esteem and a “can do” attitude. Parents and professional service providers will find a rich resource for skilled blind mentors among the organized blind who value independent movement and travel in blind children. In the Resources section such organizations are listed.
The Building Blocks of the Promotion Model
Below are the building blocks of the Promotion Model. First, the philosophy, which is its essence and spirit. Second, the principles, which are the foundational truths that support the model. Third, the developmental perspectives, which are the fundamental beliefs to fuel and guide the model. Fourth, the strategies, which put the philosophy, principles, and developmental perspectives into a plan for action. And fifth, the practices and techniques, which facilitate and put the strategies into action in the everyday learning and development of life skills for the independent movement and travel of blind children.
Philosophically, we must acknowledge that child development is built on gain and not loss. The adult-centered approach of conventional O&M gives significant consideration to the loss of vision that adults experience later in life. When looking at child development, however, the Promotion Model recognizes that loss of vision does not factor significantly in the developmental gains that children make every day. Children born blind or who lose vision in the first years of life do not experience the type of loss associated with adults who lose vision. These children have not acquired years of developing visual skills nor do they possess a visual orientation to the world that has a long-standing integration into their personality.
For blind children, success is not measured by how much vision they have, but rather is built on how many skills are developed for independent movement and travel. With one skill built upon another, the goal of development is mastery over the environment to move and travel safely, confidently, and independently.
In the Promotion Model, the child leads the way, and if we are willing to learn from the child, many possibilities emerge. As an O&M professional service provider, I have connected with parents of blind children, incorporated them into my service delivery plan, and learned much from their experiences with their blind children. I have partnered with the organized blind that have provided me with positive, skilled blind role models for independent movement and travel. The building blocks of the Promotion Model have been developed from years of such learning from blind children, their parents, and skilled blind adults (the organized blind). Together, they form the fabric of the “nature and nurture” of independent movement and travel. Together, they present a formidable, alternative program of O&M to promote the independent movement and travel of blind children.
The child is not born with concepts of the world. The baby is born with sensory systems, like “fingers of the brain,” that gather information. With sensory and motor experiences the child matures over time and gives purposeful thought to what is experienced. One way to describe this process is bottom-up, which means that out of the experience comes the concept. If the experiences we give blind children are developmentally sound they will experience independent movement and travel age/stage appropriately. Blind children will develop the concept or self-perception of themselves as travelers.
Historically, conventional O&M was developed as an adult-centered approach. Its protocols were developed from an adult point of view for adult learners. For instance, the adult was given the concept of a new skill and the skill demonstrated for him/her. Then the newly blinded adult would perform the skill. This can be described as a top-down approach, which means that out of the concept comes the experience. This is a very different approach than bottom-up, which is the perspective of the Promotion Model.
Bottom-up is driven by the sensory and motor experiences of the child, and top-down driven by the cognitive concepts directing the movements of the adult. For example, when blind children under three years of age are learning to use the cane, they will need to be amused, explore, and have fun with their cane. Their movements will be more exaggerated and less refined. On the other hand, these are not the behaviors or the goal of the adult learning cane travel for the first time; adults will be ready to perform at a different cognitive level of understanding.
When promoting independent movement and travel in blind children we need to approach skill acquisition from the bottom-up, making sure our intervention and practice is suited to the developmental ability of the child. Imposing a top-down approach at a developmentally inappropriate level will meet with frustration and disappointment for both the child and the teacher. As a result, the conventional O&M instructor often assesses that the child is not ready for O&M instruction or ready for using a cane. In the latter case a pre-cane device is often used. Within the Promotion Model, however, the blind child is ready for instruction, just not from the top-down but rather from the bottom-up.
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