Future Reflections        Winter 2012

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Introducing NFB Early Explorers

His cane helps this small boy explore the next step on a marble staircase.

by Meleah Jensen

From the Editor: Until the early 1980s, most professionals in the blindness field believed that cane travel could not be taught until a blind child reached the teen years. Deprived of the opportunity to move freely, to explore the environment, and to keep up with their sighted peers and siblings, blind children were forced into a role of dependence on others. The NFB is passionately committed to promoting cane travel for young blind and low-vision children. In this article, Meleah Jensen, an education program assistant in the Jernigan Institute, describes an exciting new program.

I had a cane put in my hand for the first time at the age of sixteen. I was at a student seminar sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana. I carried the cane with me and used it for the remainder of the weekend; however, when it was time to go home I gave it back. There was no way I was going to show up at school carrying a cane! Canes were for blind people, and at that time I did not consider myself to be blind.

It took another three years, many a frustrating moment, and six months as a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind before I realized the benefits of using a cane. Although I know it does no good to ask "what if?", I wonder how different my life might have been had I had a cane in my hand at sixteen months instead of sixteen years.

Unfortunately, I am not an anomaly. All too many Federationists can tell similar stories. Stories like mine inspired the NFB Jernigan Institute to launch the NFB Early Explorers Program early this winter. Early Explorers is designed to introduce the long white cane to young blind and low-vision children from birth to age seven. In addition, we want to equip parents of blind or low-vision children with the knowledge, tools, and confidence necessary to become their child's first travel teachers. Dr. Frederic Schroeder, a researcher and the first blind person to earn professional certification in cane travel, once said, "One of the most fundamental parts of a blind child's training is the development of independent travel skills. Without these skills, the blind child is placed in a position of being dependent on others for inclusion in daily activities." Simply put, having a cane allows a blind or low-vision child to explore and to have the same experiences as his or her sighted peers.

Parents who participate in the NFB Early Explorers Program will receive several resources to help them as they step into the role of their child's first travel teacher. These resources include the book Independent Movement and Travel in Blind Children: A Promotion Model by Joe Cutter. Long-time readers of Future Reflections are familiar with Joe Cutter and his work in the field of early cane travel. In his book he discusses the role parents play in encouraging their blind children to move freely and ultimately to travel with a cane. "It begins when the expectant mother introduces her baby to movement in utero," Cutter says. "Whenever the mother sits, stands, turns, or walks, the child inside her experiences movement. Once the baby is born, the mother and father become attached to their child through touch--through holding, carrying, and playing with their baby. The joyous world of movement has begun, and it is the parents who are the first, the primary, educators of their child."

Families who take part in the NFB Early Explorers Program will also receive a welcome packet containing an informational DVD, a child-sized white cane, and a copy of Cane Travel and Independence, a special issue of Future Reflections. The informational DVD is approximately twenty minutes in length and includes advice from professionals in the blindness field on how to know if your child is age appropriate, how to select the best cane, and so on. Parents will also hear from blind children of various ages who explain in their own words why they use a cane. Of course, such a video would be incomplete without comments from experienced parents of blind children. "Anna is a wonderful child, and she deserves the right to be a child," says Carlton Cook Walker of Pennsylvania, who serves as second vice president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). "She deserves the right to run down a sidewalk and skin her knee. She deserves the right to climb up a rock hill and scrape her belly (which she's done). . . . She deserves to be like every other kid in her school, and her cane ensures that she can."

If you sign up for the program, our support will not end once we have sent your welcome packet. Each quarter you will receive an issue of Travel Tales, an e-newsletter. Travel Tales will be filled with practical tips and information that you can use to help your blind child learn to navigate the environment using the long white cane. The first issue is already in the works. It will include tips for turning a trip to the grocery store into a teachable moment for your blind child, and suggestions for traveling successfully through snow using a cane. Families and educators will also have the opportunity to write in and ask questions about cane travel or blindness in general. Don't be shy. We want to answer your questions, no matter what they might be.

To register or to learn more about the NFB Early Explorers Program, please visit <www.nfb.org/earlyexplorers>, email earlyexplorers@nfb.org, or call (410) 659-9314, ext. 2418. Help us spread the word about the importance of early movement for young blind children by telling the parents and families you encounter about the NFB Early Explorers Program!

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