Future Reflections        Convention Report 2011

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The Cane Walk: Exploration and Discovery

The AltmansJeff Altman and his wife Deb

by Jeff Altman, MA, NOMCT, CVRCB

From the Editor: Sponsored by the NOPBC, the annual Cane Walk is one of the most popular convention highlights for blind children and their families. In this article Cane Walk organizer Jeff Altman explains how it began, how it works, and why it is important.

Since 2001 I have had the good fortune to be part of the Cane Walk, a remarkable event that is held each year at the national convention of the National Federation of the Blind. The Cane Walk grew out of the work of Joseph Cutter, one of the finest and most influential orientation and mobility instructors in this country. Early in his professional career, Joe recognized that blind children need the opportunity to learn by exploring the world around them, just as sighted children do. He understood that this exploration needs to come about through self-generated movement. Joe realized that blind children need to be encouraged to move through the environment on their own in order to develop the concepts and skills necessary for independence. They must have tools and training that will enable them to reach out and interact with the world.

Joe was among the first O&M instructors to promote the notion that blind children should begin learning to use the long white cane at an early age. He firmly believed that they should be given canes even before they can walk. Initially the idea was rejected by many orientation and mobility professionals, but it was warmly embraced by the members of the National Federation of the Blind. As blind people, most NFB members understood that early exposure to the cane could make an enormous difference in the lives of blind children. Connected by a common understanding and purpose, Joe Cutter and the NFB's parents division, the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), built a longstanding partnership. Because they encountered so much resistance from blindness professionals, Joe and the Federation looked for a way to give blind children and their families an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with the long white cane. The annual Cane Walk grew out of their collective brainstorming.

Jeff Altman demonstrates the use of the cane on stairsJeff Altman shows a child how to descend stairs using a cane

In the early years, the Cane Walk was a relatively small-scale event. Joe and a handful of volunteers worked with a few blind children and their families to introduce basic cane travel skills. They also tried to educate parents about their children's needs and rights. The value of this event was clear from the beginning. Through word of mouth, the Cane Walk grew year by year. At the 2011 convention two separate sessions were held to accommodate all of the families that wished to take part.

After the first few years, students from the orientation and mobility program at Louisiana Tech University became involved, along with cane travel instructors from across the country. Approximately fifty families participated in the 2011 Cane Walk. Some were attending for the first time, while many others return each year to partake of this opportunity. It is amazing to see the growth in the young people who return for this event from one year to the next. It is equally satisfying to witness the excitement of the families who participate for the first time.

Blind kids hanging out.Anna Catherine Walker (PA), Brandon Pickrel (MD), and Hank Miller (NJ) head off to hang out together.

The Cane Walk begins with an introductory discussion of blindness and blindness skills. Instructors talk about the importance of developing independent travel skills and a positive philosophy regarding blindness. They explain why it is important for blind people to learn cane travel and invite each child and family to take part in a travel lesson with an experienced instructor. Each session is approximately an hour and a half in length. Most participants have the opportunity to use the long white cane in a variety of situations and to learn some basic orientation skills. Parents find out that they can be directly involved in helping their children learn to travel independently.

Those of us who volunteer our time and skills to help with the Cane Walk have the satisfaction of knowing that the things we share have the potential to make a positive change in the lives of these young people and their families. A few years ago I worked with a young lady from a small island off the coast of Florida, where she was the only blind person. She had only received a few hours of cane travel instruction in her life, and she was overwhelmed to be in such a large hotel for the first time. We discovered many things that she had never experienced before, including riding on an escalator. Understandably, the thought was very frightening to her. We worked together for some time on basic cane skills and orientation techniques as we explored a portion of the hotel. Finally, I suggested that she try the escalator, and with much trepidation she agreed. With a great deal of encouragement from me and plenty of courage on her part, she successfully negotiated both the up and down escalators. However, she seemed more relieved than excited when the lesson was over. I wasn't sure it had been such a good idea to have her take on the escalator challenge.

Later that day, my wife and I were looking around the gift shop when the young lady's mother approached us. Her daughter walked on her own beside her. "We came up here on the escalator," the young lady said excitedly, "and I rode it on my own!"

Joe Cutter's idea that blind children should be introduced to the long white cane as early as possible is gaining acceptance, and it has become common practice in many places. Joe has not been able to attend the national convention in recent years, but his contribution of the Cane Walk remains a wonderful tradition. Famlies tell us that they look forward to it every year. If your child is blind or visually impaired, please consider attending our next national convention, and please accept our invitation to register for the Cane Walk. It can make a positive difference in your child's life.

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