The Braille Monitor                                                                                               April 1997

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Teaching Cane Travel Blind?

by Arlene Hill

From the Editor: Some months ago Arlene Hill wrote the following article about teaching cane travel as a blind instructor. Here it is:

When I was invited to write this article, I wondered what I could possibly say. I was asked to write about any special problems blind people have teaching orientation and mobility. In my view this notion is one of the greatest misunderstandings in the blindness field. The differences, philosophical and practical, seem to arise from the different techniques employed by sighted and blind instructors.

I grew up in Iowa. I attended both the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton and Knoxville High School, the local public high school in my hometown. I never had a cane in my hand while I was growing up. I believed that canes were for blind people less capable than I. My attitudes were no better than those of most sighted people. The common belief is that blind people are really not very capable when it comes to independent mobility. Though well-trained blind people overcome this myth, it persists among most sighted people because they have not undergone extensive sleep-shade training.

After graduating from high school, I became a student at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in Des Moines, where I was introduced to the long white cane--long enough to reach my chin. I was taught how to use this cane by a sighted instructor who had undergone extensive sleep-shade training. It was immediately obvious to me that this cane was not just a symbol of blindness but a tool that could be used to achieve true freedom. I have been a user of the long white cane for more than thirty years; and, as time has passed, the length of my cane has increased until it is now as tall as I am. Some may find this fact curious; however, as one increases in both skill and confidence, one's walking pace naturally increases. Thus one needs more stopping distance in which to react to potential obstacles, and the increased length affords that distance.

My education after attending the Iowa Commission for the Blind was in the field of special education, with emphasis on teaching the mentally disabled. I taught blind, mentally handicapped individuals in a state hospital school for some years. I then taught for three years at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland in Baltimore and nine at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, Louisiana, where I am currently employed.

As I see it, the major differences between blind and sighted instructors are philosophical. Different techniques follow naturally from the different philosophies. It seems to me that the variation in techniques causes some of the so-called problems we blind instructors face.

Let's begin with what we call ourselves: orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists versus cane-travel instructors. As a blind person I teach other blind people how to use the cane properly. The technique is straightforward and simple and is one of the easiest tasks for most students to learn. However, what follows mastery of this technique is what seems to make the difference between those taught by blind and those taught by sighted instructors because this later instruction enables the student to develop self-confidence and the problem-solving skills necessary to achieve true independence. O and M specialists, on the other hand, seem to spend much time with pre-cane techniques, sighted-guide training, and protective methods. For example, like me, most blind instructors I know use route travel in teaching our students. We send them on assigned routes which have been carefully planned to teach students how to deal with various types of travel problems, using problem-solving skills.

As a blind traveler and a blind instructor, I believe there are two keys to being a good independent cane traveler. They are the same things that make good drivers: self-confidence and problem-solving skills. Building self- confidence is as important in learning to drive as it is for blind persons learning to travel independently. As children grow, they cannot wait to drive, but when they sit behind the wheel for the first time, they find it pretty frightening. The same is true for a blind traveler: the first time he or she goes out on the street with a cane is very frightening, because this, too, is unfamiliar territory, requiring the use of undeveloped skills. The sound of traffic and the thought of potential harm may be overwhelming to many blind travelers, just as being behind the wheel of a fast-moving vehicle is to many young drivers. In both cases they return from their first trip and all is well--or at least it was not quite as bad as they thought it would be. Each future trip becomes less frightening. As time passes, the drivers, as well as the blind travelers, build confidence until they truly believe in themselves.

Most people, blind and sighted alike, tend to do and become what others expect them to. If their instructor has high expectations for them and they have high expectations for themselves, they learn that they can travel everywhere, mostly unassisted.

A good blind traveler believes in his or her ability to negotiate obstacles and expects to take on travel challenges throughout each day. Most sighted persons, unless extensively trained under sleep shades, do not believe that a blind person can successfully traverse the many unfamiliar hazards they might come across daily. Yet since a blind instructor is used to facing these challenges, he or she will expect and encourage students to do likewise.

The next key is problem-solving skills, important for both drivers and blind cane travelers. Can the person learn to use the entire environment to remain oriented or, when confused, to reorient? We teach drivers always to keep watching, their eyes constantly moving. The good driver looks continuously for landmarks, signs, traffic patterns, and traffic cues. As a travel teacher I also teach blind persons to use everything around them for the same purpose: the sun and breeze as directional tools, traffic cues, traffic patterns, sense of smell, familiar and unfamiliar sounds, and landmarks found with the cane. All of these skills--listening, feeling sun, locating objects with a cane, and quickly assessing the situation--must be taught. Who knows these skills better than a person who depends on them daily for normal, safe, and efficient travel? This is not to say that every independent blind person can teach cane travel. It is, however, true that a capable teacher who has become a good independent cane traveler through daily practice can impart this skill and knowledge to another blind person naturally and easily.

It is very important that the blind instructor go on travel routes with any new student for the first several trips, then observe the student closely, especially at key trouble spots. Some would say that having to do so much walking is a problem for a blind instructor. A sighted instructor can hop in a car and observe the student from comfortable heat or air conditioning, while the blind instructor is out in all types of weather. However, since the blind instructor is right there, he or she can much more easily and quickly communicate with the student when necessary. Initially, constant communication is essential to remind the student to look for landmarks, listen to traffic, cross parking lots efficiently, and so forth. Therefore, what most sighted specialists would consider a problem, I consider an advantage. Many of these skills must be reinforced more than once, sometimes more than just orally. Often a hands-on method works best. The blind instructor is right there to give immediate help and advice.

The biggest problem blind instructors have, according to most sighted ones, is that we cannot see the environment in front of the student in order to protect him or her from tree limbs, construction, or other barriers. I do not agree. In my view this is a legitimate difference in professional philosophy. Sighted orientation and mobility specialists generally have a protective attitude toward their blind students, whereas blind instructors use a realistic approach in their teaching.

Sighted specialists seem to believe that blind people need protection and are not able to travel with genuine independence anyway. Blind instructors are independent cane travelers themselves, so they have no doubt that blind students can learn to travel as well or better than the instructor, if they can acquire the self-confidence. The reality is that occasionally a branch will be in the way, and the blind traveler may strike it. There is sometimes construction on a travel route. The student must learn how to identify these things and how to deal with them. It is an advantage to travel in real-life situations during training in order to learn to use problem-solving skills. If a blind student is protected from real-life experiences, of course, he or she will not travel much independently when the training ends. Because the protective sighted instructor does not teach the student to handle such things, the student naturally concludes that it is not possible for a blind person to cope with them. If, on the other hand, students face these things during training, they will learn that they can face and master any travel situation that comes their way.

At first blind students are frightened and need much encouragement. Seeing other blind people using canes to move about capably and efficiently can make a big difference to a frightened student. All of us, blind and sighted alike, look for role models in new situations. The blind instructor can be that role model to the new travel student.

Having said all this, I believe that the biggest problem facing a blind cane-travel instructor is the almost constant discrimination from his or her sighted peers. Blind cane-travel instructors are told they cannot do the job, in spite of the many successful independent cane travelers they have taught. In my experience, most blind people prefer being taught by a blind instructor, because they have confidence in the instructor's ability and because they know their instructor's skills are tried and true and are used daily by thousands of other blind people. Being constantly criticized and told that you are limited in what you can do because of blindness can become a real problem. However, the success of the many blind independent travelers taught by blind instructors provides the most convincing proof.

Compare these results with the travel skills of the more protected and sheltered blind people taught by sighted O&M specialists. I am not arguing that the profession of cane- travel instruction should be limited to blind persons. I am saying that we, as blind instructors, have valid methods that should be considered on their own merit. The alternative methods used by blind instructors are just as sound as the usual prescribed certified methods of cane- travel instruction advocated by sighted O&M specialists.

Finally, an ongoing problem for blind instructors is that they are not fully certifiable by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). Because our methods are different, blind instructors are barred from the high financial benefits paid by many of the state and private agencies to sighted O&M specialists. I look at some of the advertisements for O&M specialists, and the money looks wonderful. We blind instructors cannot obtain these jobs simply because we do not meet the requirements established by sighted O&M specialists, although we have helped hundreds reach true independence.

I realize that this article does not talk much about the problems blind instructors face on the job. This is because, after searching my mind and heart, I honestly do not believe that there are many problems that blind instructors have that they do not share with sighted instructors. I have been as honest as I know how to be, after twelve years of teaching in both a metropolitan city with buses and subways and a small town with cabs and walking. The most prevalent problem facing blind cane-travel instructors is caused by the dichotomy between the philosophy of blind, non-certifiable instructors and that of most sighted, certified instructors. If this discrepancy could be eliminated, there would be more candidates to fill vacancies in cane-travel instruction; therefore, more opportunities would be available for blind people to learn independent cane travel.