Future Reflections                                                                                                      Fall 2001

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The Need for
Fact or Fancy?

Joe Cutter, M.A.

Joe Cutter gives a cane lesson to a parent and toddler at the National Federation of the Blind Convention.
Joe Cutter, left, gives a cane lesson to a parent and toddler team at a National Federation of the Blind Convention.

Editor’s Note: Joe Cutter is an orientation and mobility specialist with a unique approach to independent movement and travel for children. Mr. Cutter approaches O&M from a child-centered, or pediatric, perspective promoting independent movement and travel at an early age. An advocate for parental involvement, he encourages parents to believe in themselves as their child’s first teacher.

Mr. Cutter has presented many professional workshops around the country and in Canada. He developed the Early Childhood Orientation and Mobility Program for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and was involved in the development of statewide early intervention programming in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. His credentials include over 25 years of experience as an O&M instructor, certification as a teacher of the blind and visually impaired, and a M.A. in Teaching the Developmentally Handicapped. Here are his thoughts on the topic of pre-canes:

          Professionals who each have the same creativity, dedication, energy, and interest of their blind students at heart can come to different conclusions about what tool to give their students for travel. The alternatives, however, are not like choosing a Cadillac versus a Volkswagen, but rather choosing a car versus a wheelbarrow.

“Pre-canes,” the term used by some schools for Alternative Mobility Devices (AMDs), implies that the structure and function of the device fits into some continuum of progression for using travel tools, and that once the child has mastered this device, the cane would be the “next step.”

After more than two decades of experience as an O&M instructor (also as a certified Teacher of the Blind and Visually impaired with a M.A. in Teaching the Developmentally Handicapped), I believe that this notion of a “pre-cane” is more fancy than fact. We know far less about children in general than we realize. Blind children are particularly vulnerable to assessments that do not develop from observations of children, but rather are imposed upon them by an adult-centered model. My personal experience does not support the notion that some tool must be used prior to a cane or as an alternative to it, and I am aware of no research that validates or substantiates that claim.

I have personally used a variety of tools to experiment with the facilitation of movement in blind children, including the hula hoop, Connecticut Pre-Cane, and the T-shaped cane with roller tip. The components of movement needed to use many of these devices are actually more complex and may demand more sophisticated motor schemes and planning than does the simple design and function of the cane. Certainly, a blind child’s gait is negatively affected by an inappropriate travel tool.

Over the years I have also introduced the cane without an AMD to many children as early as 20 months of age. As they matured, these children engaged in higher levels of prehension and technical skill, and in time learned appropriate “adult” techniques. My experience tells me that introducing a cane much later in a child’s life presents a barrier to independent movement and the grace and poise that is within them.

All too often the cane is the “tool of last resort.” Many professionals choose other tools and skills to address the assumed readiness skills. I did this for a while, and I know the price blind kids pay for a late start with the primary tool that will be their buddy through adulthood. How the child learns is really the central question; how we teach is secondary. We follow their lead.

If we follow the child’s lead, the simple design of the cane will afford opportunities for movement that, in my experience, AMDs do not. Characteristics such as light-weight, ease of movement and use, and auditory feedback (resonance) are built into the cane more than any other travel tool. Auditory feedback from the cane is used by blind cane users of all ages.

An essential question is: “Does the cane facilitate movement when the child is exploring the object world and safely moving about in it?” The best way to know is to follow the child’s lead. The child who takes to a travel tool “like a duck to water,” as many blind children take to the cane, is telling the adult what is best. When a child’s travel tool promotes the sense of security and autonomy in free movement, then much more brain-power is available for orientation and enjoying the feeling of the movement itself.

All too often when we give the child an AMD, we send a message to the parent: “Your child is not ready for the cane.” Are our assumptions so solid and based upon fact that we should be sending this message? The cane, however, presents a positive, can-do approach. This approach is lacking in our remediation activities, forever targeted at the perceived “limitations” of blind children.

Some professionals advocate the use of AMDs because they feel that the child who hasn’t mastered appropriate “adult” techniques will be unsafe while moving and exploring with the cane. Of course the young child (two years of age and up) who is being introduced to the cane will be under adult supervision when moving about the world – what child that age isn’t? All children are supervised in their early movement. The type and amount of supervision will vary with child, family, or school care-taking practices, and the environment. Sighted toddlers often do not initially scan visually or link cognitive and motor plans efficiently, so they will fall and bump into objects. Blind children will do this too with the cane. That’s why both sighted and blind children need developmental guidance and exposure to the process of developing appropriate usage of skills and tools. By giving the AMD to a child, are we sending a message that it is safer and more reliable and that therefore less supervision would be needed? That’s not the kind of message I would choose to send to parents and school teachers.

In my years of teaching O&M, my thinking has changed about the “readiness” of blind children to travel with a cane. What changed over time was not the blind child, but my perception of the child’s abilities and readiness. It is this area of “what we think we know” that shifts over time. Twenty-five years ago, if I had followed and observed my students more carefully, many more blind children would have had the opportunity to develop independent travel concepts and skills much earlier in life. I now know that the cane, more than any other tool, facilitates the movement of the walking blind child.

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