Future Reflections                                                   Special Issue: Low Vision and Blindness 2005

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Editor’s Note: The following essay is an excerpt from a booklet published by the National Federation of the Blind called, Techniques Used by Blind Cane Travel Instructors: A Practical Approach: Learning, Teaching, Believing. The book is a collaboration among six individuals: Maria Morais, Paul Lorensen, Roland Allen, Edward C. Bell, Arlene Hill, and Eric Woods; all of whom are blind and are (or have been) employed as mobility specialists in a variety of settings. Since several articles in this issue (“Stepping Out,” “When the Light’s not Right”) refer to the use of sleepshades in cane travel situations, it seemed appropriate to provide readers with a little more information and explanation. It should be noted that although the word “student” in the essay below refers to adult “students” in rehabilitation programs, the authors also have considerable experience in working with partially sighted children ages nine and up in summer programs.

The use of sleepshades in rehabilitation training is not a novel approach, nor is it a technique employed only by blind mobility instructors. Sleepshades, however, are a vital tool in teaching blind persons to develop competent travel skills fully, and they are essential in helping a student trust and interpret information obtained with his cane. In almost every case, the acquisition of these skills is enhanced, and the student becomes a safer traveler.

By definition, a person with partial vision does not see everything in his environment. Most persons with unreliable sight report instances in which their vision actually has been detrimental. For example, many partially sighted persons admit to falling down stairs even in familiar surroundings. Sleepshades allow a person to develop competent skills and confidence in using alternatives to vision. After training, the person may still be able to see things such as exits, chairs, crosswalks and the like, but he will rely on his cane to inform him of such data. Sleepshades may be the single most beneficial tool in assuring that a student is incorporating safe and reliable alternatives to supplement his insufficient vision.

There are at least two reasons most students are hesitant to use sleepshades. Typically, a student openly acknowledges a feeling of fear when putting on sleepshades for the first time. Of course, fear for personal safety is of paramount concern, but this fear begins to diminish as soon as the student experiences predictable success. This often begins to occur after just the first few hours of instruction. As the student gains confidence in his ability to maneuver in a variety of environments without injury or mishap, the level of his anxiety about wearing sleepshades will begin to dissipate.

Another aspect of this same explanation is perhaps less obvious but extremely important to address. It concerns the student’s apprehension about his own blindness. Overcoming this fear is a process which requires considerable time and effort. It will take more than the mere acquisition of skills for a fundamental transformation in the individual’s thoughts and beliefs. In short, the student must learn to accept his own blindness as something respectable, not something shameful or debilitating.

The second reason a student may hesitate to use sleepshades is that of convenience. A student who has partial vision may tend to rely on his inadequate sight as his most dominant sense. Naturally, it is understandable such a student finds the use of sleepshades awkward and even annoying. However, after he has experience using sleepshades for a time, a student normally comes to understand his residual vision is not a necessity for independent living. When a student learns he can indeed function without the use of his sight, real confidence in his abilities to use alternative techniques, including those used for cane travel, begin to develop.

Partially sighted persons often acquire techniques for using remaining sight which are not effective. For example, a student who has some peripheral vision may walk with his head turned at an odd angle, while a student with limited acuity may bend his head to stare at the ground. Despite the ineffective nature of these travel techniques, the student may tend to cling to them because they are familiar. He must understand it is common to feel awkward until he begins to break old habits and acquire new skills.

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