by Barbara Meadors
(Note: Barbara Meadors is the Second Vice President of the Parent's of Blind Children Division of the NFB, and the President of the Louisiana Parents Division of the NFB. It is also clear from the article below that she is articulate and determined and knows how to get things done.)
Two years ago I knew nothing about blindness. Now, thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, I'm learning and coming up with ideas of my own. When my son Mathew was three, he was operated on for a brain tumor and as a result of the surgery became suddenly and totally blind. All of a sudden I was in dire need of information about blindness. When Mathew was home from the hospital he walked around with his arms out, running into things, falling down, and becoming frustrated. I told his daddy he needed a cane and so he cut him one from the tulip tree in the back yard. It worked beautifully! He looked distinguished with his cane and that was an improvement over shuffling for steps, walking with arms out, and falling down. We didn't know the first thing about cane travel, but trial and error works when nothing else does. Mathew got some teaching and a lot of encouragement from us but he did all the work. He eventually realized that, if used right, the cane worked well. If used incorrectly, he ended up in the rose bed or worse places.
In the fall, when he was still three years old, he started preschool at the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired. It didn't occur to us that cane travel would not be one of his classes. As if that wasn't bad enough, he was not allowed to bring his cane to school. My husband, James, and I proceeded to rectify this. It was most important that James come to school and talk to the mobility committee because unless the father is supportive, the school tends to think of the mother as a "professional mama" and ignore her.
After James threatened to take them to court, they agreed to to do a survey of schools for the blind. The survey was favorable to the point that schools for the blind that didn't have young children traveling with canes still believed they should be allowed. Now Mathew travels with his cane wherever he goes. And he's not alone. When Louisiana had a parents seminar in 1984, Fred Schroeder from Albuquerque, New Mexico told us of public schools where all the visually impaired children traveled with a cane.
My concern is that more parents aren't getting canes for their blind children. Believing in independence is not enough! Anything important enough to impress on children should be done while they are still young. You wouldn't wait until grade school to teach them about God, respect, table manners, or cleanliness. You don't wait until they are teenagers to teach them independent cane travel. Independence starts with toilet training and the terrible twos. The absolute worst time to give a cane to a child is when they are a self-conscious teenager. If you wait for the educators to suggest cane travel your child will be fifteen years old and will have missed that learning experience that comes so easily to the young child. The organized blind have been telling us for years that independent travel begins early, and by early I mean preschool.
If what I have said makes sense, then I encourage you to begin independent travel between the ages of three and five. I have some tips for those of you interested.
1. To determine how long the cane should be, measure your child from the nose to the floor.
2. Order the cane from the NFB, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230 (301) 659-9314. The canes cost $10.00 each and payment should be made with the order. Sizes are: 24", 26", 28", 30", 32", 34", 36", 39", 42", and 45". Adult sizes begin at 49", 51", 53", etc. I like to get two canes--they do break sometimes.
3. Give them a cane and, using the wrist, move the cane from left to right; tapping the cane in front of them as they walk. Always keep the cane tip low and moving from side to side. Any blind adult proficient in cane travel would be glad to show you how.
4. Set up the rules such as: no waving, slicing, hitting, etc. Then set the punishment and let it be swift.
5. Travel with them on stairs, streets, escalators, elevators, stores, roads, and anywhere they would normally travel. Every trip is a learning adventure and a courage builder.
6. Place a hook by the door so they can hang their cane on it and then they will always know where it is when they leave. Impress on them that they are responsible for their cane.
In closing, I realize this idea is revolutionary to teachers of orientation and mobility, but revolution is what brings necessary change. Sighted guide is outdated! And remember, practice is what makes them perfect. Thirty minutes a week of reading does not a reader make. The same is true for cane travel. Thirty minutes a week is not enough. Their cane should be with them as their guide wherever they go.
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