Future Reflections Summer 2000, Vol. 19 No. 2


Independence and Mobility


Excerpts from
Modular Instruction For Independent Travel For Students Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired:
Preschool Through
High School

by Doris M. Willoughby and
Sharon L. Monthei


From the Editor: I wish I could send every parent, teacher, and O&M instructor of a blind child in this country a free copy of this marvelous book. But I can’t. I’ve been told that at $20 (plus $3 shipping and handling), this 398-page book, complete with photographs and diagrams, is already a steal. What I can do, however, is reprint sections from the book so readers can see for themselves what an extraordinarily useful resource it is.

Professionals who have read the book have been impressed by the practical organization of the book into modules, and by its “positive spirit and attitude toward independent travel” (Ralph E. Bartley, Ph.D., Superintendent, Kentucky School for the Blind).

The book can be ordered from the NFB Materials Center, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, (410) 659-9314.

We begin the series of excerpts with a section called “Who Should Teach” from chapter B, “General Principles And Overall Planning:”

Who Should Teach?


Everyone in the child’s environment is his/her teacher. A child learns daily living skills from parents and siblings; social conventions from neighbors and relatives; academic and other skills from various schoolteachers; games and activities from young friends. Orientation and mobility is part of this large picture.

If a child does not develop increasing independence—including the use of a cane at an early age—he or she will expect continual assistance from others in getting around. If parents and school staff see that the child does begin cane usage early, then he or she will develop increasing independence appropriate for each chronological age.

Modular Instruction assumes that at least one person in the child’s life (probably a teacher or parent) has made serious study of how the cane is used, and takes the lead in guiding others to facilitate learning. There are many ways to gain this knowledge; the National Federation of the Blind will be pleased to help you find a source.

When this book uses the term “teacher” or “instructor,” it means whatever adult is working with the student in the activity.



The foundation of all learning occurs in infancy and very early childhood. The general development of infants and toddlers is beyond the scope of this book. However, many Modules contain suggestions which apply to toddlers and even infants.

Children walk with their parents to the neighbor’s house; to cross the street; to go from the car to the drugstore. They go with the family to the grocery store; the doctor’s office; the mall; the zoo. The Modules in this book give specific ideas for making each excursion an age-appropriate learning experience.

When an educator takes the lead in instruction, parents nevertheless continue to guide skill development outside of classes. Parents also monitor the instruction itself to assure that it is appropriate. And some parents, facing a lack of educators with appropriate knowledge, take the lead for instruction themselves.

Other family members—aunts and uncles, grandparents, siblings, and other relatives—share the responsibility. Often someone other than the parents (even a fairly young child) happens to have the best opportunity to teach a particular thing.

In a residential school, the houseparent is much like a part-time parent. Development of skill in travel is a part of this responsibility.


Specialized Teachers

Specialized teachers of blind students typically take the lead in cane travel instruction. The lead instructor should outline a curriculum to develop skills in an organized manner. He/she should ensure that the child learns what is currently needed (as by emphasizing street-crossing immediately for a city child.) At the same time, he/she should make sure no major age-appropriate skill is completely omitted. (For example, a rural high school student should visit a larger town and work with traffic lights.)

The specialized instructor must not exist in an “ivory tower” in solitary splendor. Continual consultation with parents and with other teachers is essential. Specific practical suggestions, with demonstrations as needed, enable other adults to guide the child in integrated, consistent progress.

At times, the specialized instructor may play additional roles by default. If the parents, despite much consultation, never take the child along to a store, the instructor should spend extra time with this. If the sixth grade teacher has promised to show the blind student the way to the rest room, but somehow this is not happening, the travel teacher may need to assist.

Similarly, there are many places around the school where the class may not go as a group, but which sighted students will understand through sight. The flagpole and the kitchen are two good examples. Sighted students see the flags flying and occasionally watch the custodian run them up and down. They see the kitchen when they walk by in the lunch line. But the blind 6-year-old may not know what a flag and its pulleys are actually like (he cannot reach the flag in the classroom either). He hears the clatter of the kitchen, but may not really understand what is there. When the travel teacher’s lesson focuses on a single interesting location, it provides great interest and variety (vital for the young child) as well as filling in gaps in concepts.

Gaps in knowledge can occur at home also. The travel teacher may conduct many lessons near the home of a preschooler who is just learning to get around in a large yard and the nearby neighborhood. The teacher may help an older student walk between home and school, between home and the bus stop, between home and a nearby convenience store, etc.


Classroom Teachers and
Activity Leaders

Many different teachers carry out activities which relate to these Modules. Day care providers, as well as school and preschool classroom teachers, are included. Leaders of Scout troops, religious groups, and other activities will also find this book relevant.

Routinely, preschool and elementary school groups tour the dentist’s office, the zoo, the grocery store, the City Hall, etc. Leaders will find these Modules helpful in making each excursion an age-appropriate learning experience.

When the specialized teacher introduces a skill, other must encourage and remind the child to keep it up. They must see that opportunities exist to put the skill into practice.


The Instructor Who is Blind

The Module, “The Blind Travel Instructor,” provides suggestions on alternative techniques. The parent or teacher who is blind or visually impaired will find this Module helpful. If the instructor has some other disability, these suggestions can provide a starting point for ideas. The National Federation of the Blind will be pleased to provide specific suggestions and the names of instructors who have disabilities.

The Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students includes two examples of successful blind teachers.


Editor’s Note: Two of the first questions parents ask when discussing the use of the white cane is, “How long should it be?” and “Which kind is best?” Sharon L. Monthei addresses these questions in “Module 1: DESCRIPTION OF BASIC TECHNIQUES (Including Stairway Techniques).” Here is what she says:



The Length of the Cane:

There is some debate about the appropriate length of the cane. Blind people have found through experience that the length of the cane is an individual matter, depending upon the length of stride, walking speed, and reflexes of the student. To consider the length of the cane, hold it vertically in front of the individual: ordinarily it should reach somewhere between the armpit and the nose. Shoulder height is a good length for a first cane. A cane reaching only to the sternum (breastbone) is not long enough for the average student to assume a normal walking speed with safety. The cane must be long enough to allow a student two steps to stop.

Generally speaking, a traveler will want a longer cane as speed is developed, and this should be left up to the student who is an experienced traveler. The desire for a longer cane should be viewed as a positive sign.

One way to check whether a cane is the right length is to observe where the foot steps in relationship to the cane touch which would cover it (i.e., the place where the cane last touched on that side). If the foot touches approximately the same place the cane did, the cane is the right length. If the foot touches in front of where the cane touched, the cane is too short. If the foot touches significantly behind where the cane touched, the cane is too long. (Or, occasionally, the stride may be found to be much too short.)

The cane also must reach two steps ahead on stairs. Although shoulder height is a good length for an adult’s first cane, this tends to be too short for a young child. For children, generally the cane should reach as high as the nose when held vertically.

Since children grow, it is necessary to change cane lengths periodically. Some National Federation of the Blind state affiliates have cane banks for kids, so that canes in children’s sizes are available on loan and can be traded in when necessary. Since it would not be unusual for a child to change canes ten or more times from early childhood through adolescence, this is a considerable saving.


Which Cane to Use:

The best cane currently on the market is called the “NFB straight cane.” It is hollow fiberglass with a rubber and metal tip and plastic cylindrical handle. This cane is the most sensitive because it is light and flexible, is made in one piece, and has a metal tip which provides information both through touch and sound. It is also weighs only a few ounces so that small hands do not become tired using it. Because of its construction, it can be used with either hand or switched from hand to hand when convenient. It is available in children’s sizes (with handle and shank properly proportioned for small hands) from the National Federation of the Blind at the National Center for the Blind.

Cody Greises of Montana uses an NFB fiberglass cane of about shoulder height.
Cody Greiser of Montana uses an NFB fiberglass cane of about shoulder height.


In my opinion, the next best cane on the market is sometimes called a Rainshine™ cane after the company which manufactures it, and also sometimes called the Iowa cane. It is solid fiberglass and is otherwise much like the NFB straight cane. It is not quite as sensitive or as light as the NFB straightcane. Some people prefer this cane because it is virtually indestructible.

Many other straight canes are rigid, have nylon tips which do not slide easily, and provide little information about substances touched. They wear in such a way as to make the cane either left—or right—handed. (This problem is partly due to the “golf grip” handle often used.)

Collapsible canes have one main disadvantage—they do collapse. They are not very sturdy because they are held together either by nylon cord or by telescoping joints. The movement of the cane shakes the pieces apart. Because they are not one solid piece, they do not telegraph information as accurately. Many blind people buy them so that they can collapse them when they don’t want people to know they are blind. Use of a collapsible cane encourages avoidance of facing the real issues of blindness.

If a collapsible cane is used at all, the best use is as an extra to be kept in reserve. For example, it might be kept in the desk at work in case something happens to the regular cane.



Editor’s Note: The 93 modules in the book are grouped into 11 categories. The first 13 modules are under the category BASIC TECHNIQUES. Some of the other categories are:

At Home - Indoors,
At Home - Outdoors,
At-school - In-doors,
At-school - Out-doors,
Community - Outdoors  (Increasing Skills),
Public Buildings - General,
and Outdoor Locations.

The next excerpt is from the first half of “Module 5: OBSTACLES: Noting Them and Proceeding.”



Module 5

Noting Them and Proceeding


Objective: The student will detect an obstacle in his/her path, proceed around it, and continue in the desired direction.


Age of Student: Preschool and up

Primary Skill Emphasis:

Obstacles in path

Correcting a path

Flexibility and confidence

Moving straight ahead

Orientation overall

General travel

Posture, grip, gait, and arc


Additional Skill Emphasis:

Compass directions

Right and left

Overhanging objects

Detecting step-downs or drop-offs



Corners, turns, and angles

See Also (Other Modules):

Introducing the Cane

Doors Closed or Open

Unfinished Basement, “Crawl Space,” or


Sidewalk Flawed or Obstructed

Street Crossing with Obstruction

Alternate Route Within a Building

Back Yard (Overall)

In a Crowd

Walking Independently While Following


Description of Basic Techniques


“Aha!” not “Oops!”:

Jenny, age 6, was learning to find her way in the school hallways. Whenever her cane touched a box or other object, her teacher said “Oops.” Jenny walked slowly.

Ian carried his cane in a gingerly manner. It seemed as though he were carrying a tray of dishes instead of a cane—trying not to bump it into anything.

Jenny and Ian were victims of a common error often made by educators and family members: unconsciously viewing the cane’s touch as a “collision” (not really desirable) rather than a “discovery” (desirable). This rubs off on the student, who unconsciously learns to proceed slowly and gingerly, and fails to take real advantage of the potential of the cane.

This Module emphasizes attitudes and techniques which help ensure the use of the cane as a tool. Cane usage is an alternative technique with its own characteristics—not just a weak attempt to imitate the methods used by the sighted. The goal is not to proceed with as little sound as possible, touching as few things as possible. Rather, the goal is to proceed quickly and efficiently. Some sound is expected and desirable, as the cane tip touches objects and the surface underfoot. Proceeding confidently—as opposed to a timid, even cringing approach—is part of the overall attitude that it is respectable to be blind.

When Jenny and Ian became Mrs. Vrbek’s students, she quickly helped them change patterns of attitudes and techniques. With Jenny, she began by saying “Aha!” in a pleased voice each time she observed Jenny’s cane finding an obstacle. Jenny soon picked this up and began saying “aha” also, instead of the “oops” she had acquired from her previous teacher. Soon she was bouncing down the hall at twice her previous speed, from time to time murmuring “aha” as she went around something.

Mrs. Vrbek asked Ian (age 9) to put on sleep shades, and she went with him to the playground. She faced him toward a chain-link fence and asked him to walk forward quickly. After a few steps, the cane tip encountered the fence and Ian stopped short. Mrs. Vrbek could “see the wheels going around in his head” as he internalized the idea he should have grasped long ago: “Now I really understand what the cane can do! It can find things before I get to them, when I can’t see them, or when I can’t see them well enough to tell what they are.”

David Small shows his son, Benjamin, how he can use the cane to find obstacles.   This impromptu lesson takes place in the Materials Center of the National Center for the Blind, headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind.
David Small shows his son, Benjamin, how he can use the cane to find obstacles. This impromptu lesson takes place in the Materials Center of the National Center for the Blind, headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind



“Now he realized,” Mrs. Vrbek said afterward, “that the cane is supposed to touch things, to give him information.”

This Module, as well as many others, emphasizes the attitudes and techniques which make the cane an effective tool. There are two major aspects: (1) recognizing the presence of an obstacle, and (2) proceeding in the desired direction.




Example 1: Basic Instruction

(Elementary grades and above)

Children age 6 and over, many who are younger, ordinarily grasp the general idea of going around an obstruction during the first lesson. It then becomes a matter of practice and refining techniques. Particularly, the student needs to build skill in (1) arcing the cane consistently and reacting quickly, so that the object is immediately detected, and (2) maintaining orientation in order to continue in the desired direction.

A child in the earliest grades, or a student with special problems, may need emphasis on concept building as described for preschool (below), though in an age-appropriate manner.

The Modules, “Sidewalk Flawed or Obstructed” and “Street Crossing With Obstruction,” have suggestions for various ages.

If educators and family members over-anticipate obstacles for the student, the child will learn to depend on verbal cues and/or physical guidance, rather than developing independence. The Module, “Walking Independently While Following Someone,” Describes a student following me through a parking lot. He was amazed to encounter utility poles, traffic islands, and concrete barriers, because he had always been guided around them.

Sleep shades are essential. If the student sees objects visually, however fuzzily—or thinks she can—she will not learn what the cane can do.

Remember: When the student’s cane encounters an object, the comment is “Aha!” [found it] or perhaps “Hmmm” [let’s think], and NOT “Oops!” [a mistake!]


Example 2: Basic Instruction


In the Module, “Introducing the Cane,” one Example has detailed suggestions for initial instruction with the very young child.

A child of preschool/kindergarten age will need physical guidance as well as verbal explanation with appropriate vocabulary. If you say, “This cane can detect obstacles,” she will probably not understand. But she will understand if you say, “This can find things so you don’t get bumped,” and if you move her through plenty of physical demonstration.

Understanding that the cane can tell the difference between a clear path and an obstacle is perhaps the most basic concept in actual mobility. Without this understanding, the child will not really move “independently.” She may move, with verbal assurance and/or physical assistance—and she may be learning. But until she actually realizes what the cane can tell her, she is not really using the cane to get information.

For a very young child, gaining this understanding is a developmental process—it comes gradually, and continually increases.

Following is a representative list of specific experiences which aid in developing understanding and skill:

Often use  a very large “obstacle.” Face the child toward it at fairly close range, and direct her to “Find the ____.” [wall, fence, sofa, etc.] When she finds it, sometimes let her examine it tactually (and sit on it, in the case of a sofa). Occasionally, humorously scrunch yourself and the child up against the wall or fence while saying, “Whew! We can’t go on ahead here, can we? This wall is REALLY in the way.”

Seek out situations where there is an obstacle in just the right place for the child’s current level of understanding. Set up situations if they do not occur naturally. Place a chair in the hallway; scatter boxes across the middle of the room; leave a large toy on the sidewalk. (Note: Always consider possible inconvenience to others. For example, if objects are placed in a common hallway, they should be removed immediately after the student has practiced. Also, as necessary, talk with other staff about the reason for the obstacles.)

When the child knows she is headed toward a desired location, there is an eminently “teachable moment.” She is particularly ready to perceive that the obstacle is “in the way,” and that she must go around it and resume her desired path—or she will not reach her destination. Examples include a desk between her and the toy shelf, a coffee table in front of the couch, large box in the hallway. Sometimes, give her a running commentary for added emphasis: “So, now we’re walking toward the toy shelf…Hmmm, here’s that desk. You found it with your cane…and you’re going around it…Good! Now you’ve gone around the desk, and you’re walking on toward the toy shelf…Yes! Your cane found the wooden shelves, and now let’s see what toys we have today…”

Some of the time, a young child needs to be physically guided through the patterns of (1) encountering an obstacle, and (2) going around it and proceeding in the desired path.
   I often place a hand on her shoulder, gently helping her along. Guiding the child from behind is distinct from the usual human-guide posture where the guide is a half-step ahead. The purpose is entirely different; guidance from behind is much more analogous to the traditional help to a beginning swimmer. The helper gently assists while the learner proceeds on her own power. Assistance can easily be gently faded in and out as the situation demands.
   If this kind of thing is never done, the child may not move quickly enough or consistently enough to understand. However, if this is done too much, she never has the experience of correcting her own path and making decisions herself. Thoughtful judgment provides help an appropriate percentage of the time.

Verbal directions often are not sufficient with a young child. Saying, “Go to your right,” for example, is not enough if the child still cannot tell left from right. Give her a physical nudge in the correct direction, while explaining verbally.

Sometimes stand beyond the obstacle, so that the child is guided onward by walking toward your voice. This provides help without physical assistance, and it also develops the concept of a fixed destination. A similar idea is to have some other sound at the destination.

Except for the initial lesson and other planned exceptions, do not anticipate for the child what her cane will tell her in a few moments anyway. Urge parents to follow this policy also. If you always tell her everything, she will never learn to trust her cane (and neither will the adults in her life).

The Module, “Doors Closed or Open,” gives detailed suggestions for developing concepts.

The Module, “Street Crossing With Obstruction,” gives examples of natural and contrived obstacles.

Remember: Say “aha”—not “whoops”—when the child finds something with her cane. An in-between comment (as, the “hmmm” above when the desk was in the way between the child and the toy shelf) can be helpful also. A worried “whoops” should be reserved for times when the child actually bumps into something painfully, or knocks something over (presumably because the cane was not used skillfully).


Editor’s Note: Independent travel is not just about how to carry and use a cane. It’s about orientation—knowing where you are and what is around you as you move about in your environment. It stands to reason that independence will be severely limited if knowledge about the environment is sparse. The following excerpt is an example of how the modules in this book combine the elements of cane techniques, orientation skills, and environmental exploration.

It is also an example of an approach that is especially effective with very young children. As Doris Willoughby points out in chapter B “General Principles and Overall Planning,” “an entire session that is centered on ‘the flagpole,’ ‘trees,’ or ‘the public-address system’ ...is precisely what provides interest and focus for a young child.”

Here is “Module 23: PORCH OR DECK.”

Module 23

Porch or Deck


Objective: The student will name the outside features of typical houses, examine them where possible, and discuss how they relate to inside structure.


Age of Student: Preschool through primary grades

Primary Skill Emphasis:

General travel


Examining things tactually

Detecting step-downs or drop-offs

Additional Skill Emphasis

Structure of buildings

Finding a seat

Doors and doorways

Sound direction and meaning

Air currents and echoes

Interpreting odors

Barefoot walking

Hills and inclines

See Also (Other Modules):

Back Yard Boundaries

Back Yard (Overall)

Inside and Outside the House

Home—contents of room

What is a “Room?”

Unfinished Basement, “Crawl Space,” or


Utilities and Trash

Teacher Preparation: Look carefully at each port or deck. What features are particularly interesting? Is there a place where the student could climb on and off without using the steps? Is it possible and safe to go underneath, at least for a short way?



Example 1: Details of One Porch or Deck

“The Johnsons said we could go onto their deck today. Look with your cane for the second sidewalk to the left. Turn there and walk toward the house. When you find some steps, walk up onto the deck and look at it.”

Note that the steps have no railings at the side; sweep the cane from side to side enough to avoid stepping off sideways.

Note the sound of the cane tapping the wooden floor. It sounds different than on an indoor wooden floor.

Find the door leading inside. If possible, walk in briefly and note what room opens onto the deck.

Walk around the perimeter of the deck, noting its size. Is there a railing?

Examine planters or other features. Sit on each chair or bench. A triangular corner seat may be a new experience.

Look for places where it is easy to get off and on without using the steps. (Reach over the edge with the cane to verify height.) Practice getting off and on at various places—climb, jump, or simply step. (Some blind children believe this is never possible.)

Go underneath to experience how it feels. Is it cool? Does it smell musty? Tap the underside of the wooden floor (probably with the hand, not with the cane). Are things stored underneath?


Example 2: Compare Others

In a similar manner, examine and compare various kinds of porches and decks.

Explore a deck that is high above ground level, with many steps leading up. Note the guardrail. Understand that stepping off would cause injury. Stand upright underneath.

Walk around on a large porch that has a roof over it. Can you easily step on and off at many different places?

Explore an enclosed porch which has screening or windows. Why is it called a porch, even though it has walls and a roof?

Examine an entrance which has no porch or deck. Are there steps, a welcome mat, or other typical features?



Editor’s Note: Considerable space in the book is devoted to the older student. Some of the modules, such as the one below—Module 40: School Bus—cover situations which are  appropriate for all ages. Others, such as “Module 90: Public Buses” and “Module 93: Urban Rapid Transit: Subways and Elevated Trains (Monthei)” are specific to older youth only. Some of the factors which the authors urge be emphasized for the older student (see page 9, chapter B) include:

Independence in daily living skills (finding a seat independently).

Praise and approval given without “gushing.”

Variety (more than one route for practice).

Please note how the sample factors listed above can be applied to Module 40 (below) when considering the older student:


Module 40

School Bus


Objective: [For a student who regularly rides a bus] The student will walk to and from the correct bus independently. He/she will board, select a seat, and leave the bus with no more assistance than is customary for other students. (He/she may ask directions as needed.)

[For a student who does not usually ride a bus] The student will examine the general structure and arrangement of a school bus. He/she will board a bus, take a seat, and leave the bus with minimal assistance.


Age of Student: all ages

Primary Skill Emphasis:

Doors and doorways

Finding a seat


In a crowd or a line

Stowing cane

Additional Skill Emphasis:

Street Crossing

Daily living skills

Detecting step-downs or drop-offs

Sound direction and meaning

See Also (Other Modules):

Public Buses

In a crowd

Doors and doorways

Walking in a line of people

Meeting a car

Urban Rapid transit

Teacher Preparation: It may or may not be possible for you, the teacher, to assist the student on her very first trip. Talk with parents and bus personnel. (Note: Consult the school principal before giving directions to bus drivers. The principal may wish to participate in the discussion.) Discuss cane usage and placement. Mention that blindness should not affect where a child should sit on the bus.

As soon as possible, conduct lessons as below, as needed. Review each year or whenever changes occur. Arrange to spend extra time practicing as needed—probably by having the student leave class a few minutes early for a lesson while the buses are waiting.


Student Background: A young or immature child who has not previously ridden a bus needs explanation and reassurance. Be sure she understands:

* Where the bus will load/unload near her home, and how she will get to and from her home.

* Where she will sit (Will she have an assigned seat, or may she choose?)

* The bus driver will help any student who has a problem or is lost.

* Where the bus will unload/load near the school, and how she will get to and from the building.


An experienced student preparing for a new route will need to know:

* The name or number of the bus or route.

* Her own address, with directions if it is hard to find.

* What to do if she waits a long time and the bus does not arrive.




Example 1: Preparing To Ride

Practice getting onto the bus. Walk alongside, with the arc of the cane extended enough to look for the bus doorway. Also listen for the driver’s voice, and hear the motor idling, to aid in orientation.

Greet the driver and verify that this is the correct bus.

Walk up the steps with the cane, noting that the first step is high.

Using the cane, walk down the aisle and take a suitable seat.

Place the cane appropriately. It may be laid on the floor (pointing toward the front and back of the bus, and not extending into the aisle). It may be placed between the seat and the wall. Or, the student may hold the cane semi-vertically against the body with the tip on the floor.

Walk to the back of the bus and sit in the extreme rear seat. Examine the emergency door. Walk through the bus and practice sitting in various seats—on each side of the aisle, in window seats vs. aisle seat, etc. Examine the windows; are student permitted to open and close them? Are there emergency exits in the side of the bus?

Review rules for bus behavior.

(Optional): Sit in the driver’s seat and examine some of his/her controls.

Get off the bus. The cane finds the steps, noting the long step to reach the ground. Good cane usage prevents tripping over the curb or unexpected obstacles.

Example 2: To and From the bus, At School

Practice the route to and from the schoolhouse door. If there is a choice of doors, practice with each one.

When leaving the school, consider how to find the right bus. Does it always stop in the same place? Or is it in a lineup, and do sighted students look for the bus number?

Suppose that the blind student rides on Bus #8, which will be in a line of several buses near the gym. When she find the doorway of a bus that may be the right one, she should ask whether it is #8. If it is not, she might seek directions as to where #8 is, or simply keep going and ask at each bus. In time she will probably learn various helpful facts about the lineup—e.g., if she finds #15, then #8 is probably the next one forward.

It is often helpful to ask directions from other passengers who are waiting. They may easily spot a given bus in a lineup. However, assistance can easily be overdone; other students should give information as needed, without undue physical assistance.

Especially with a younger student, the driver may call her name as she approaches. However, even a young child should start to learn a more mature approach which does not depend on any one person.

Sometimes the student might arrive at the lineup area before her bus arrives. Alert your student to this possibility. If other people are there, they will explain. If no one is there at all, she should simply wait.


Example 3: To and From the bus, At home

In a similar manner (if needed), practice the route to and from the bus at the home end. A very young child may need instruction even if the bus is right outside the door.

If an older student has always had the school bus come right to her home, consider changing to a stop on the regular route. This provides valuable independence and experience.


Example 4: If the Student Does Not Usually Ride the Bus

A student who comes to school by other means should, nevertheless, become familiar with buses. Arrange for her to practice boarding a bus and sitting in various seats.

This is excellent readiness for learning to use public transportation. Also, review techniques before the class goes on a field trip in a school bus.


Related Practice: Ride a public bus (even if the student is at the “readiness” level on this task).


Editor’s Note: It can sometimes be hard for parents, teachers, and others to literally “let go” of the blind child or youth and allow him/her to maneuver independently with his/her cane. This is made more difficult because it is uncommon for young children, or even older youth, for that matter, to go places in public by themselves. This raises questions about when or how often a child should bring or use the cane when they are in the company of others. The following, and final, excerpt from Willoughby’s and Monthei’s Modular Instruction for Independent Travel addresses these questions and concerns in “Module 4: Human Guide.”



Module 4

Human Guide


Objective: The student will walk with a human guide in selected circumstances, using appropriate techniques.


Age of Student: All ages

Primary Skill Emphasis:

Walking in company with others

Human guide

Posture, grip, gait, and arc

General travel

Attitudes toward blindness

Additional Skill Emphasis:

In a crowd or a line


Flexibility and confidence


See Also (Other Modules):

Carrying Things

In a Crowd

Walking Independently While Following


Walking in a Line of People

The Airport



Remarks: It is important to discuss the subject of human guides during the first few lessons and to review it periodically. One of the greatest barriers to independence is the incorrect belief (on the part of the blind person as well as his friends and family) that the cane is only useful when the person is walking “alone.” This is false for two main reasons: (1) most of us are rarely completely “alone,” but we act independently in many ways while in the company of others; and (2) if the cane is to be used only when the person is “alone,” it will be unfamiliar and unavailable even at those times.

This text uses the term “human guide,” rather than “sighted guide,” because the guide may be a competent blind person.




Example 1: Introduction

Some students may be unfamiliar with efficient techniques of walking with a human guide. Review or teach briefly as necessary:

The blind person takes the elbow of the guide. (A small child will probably take the hand of an adult.) The blind person is attuned to the body movements of the guide, while walking about a half step back in relation to the guide.

With most students, this posture can be reviewed or introduced while the student continues to use his cane. If the student is very young or has difficulty grasping concepts, it may be best to practice for a few minutes without the cane before demonstrating the combination.

A sighted person as a guide.
A sighted person as a guide


Example 2: Discussion of PurposeIt is important to discuss why the cane is used in combination with a human guide. There are two aspects to this discussion.

Why use the cane if the guide is available? and

Why use a guide at all if the cane is so helpful?

Depending on the maturity of the student, discuss the points below, with concrete examples. Intersperse discussion with actual practice.

A preschool-aged child may simply be told, “Sometimes you will walk with your cane by yourself. Sometimes you will walk with someone so you can stay together. But you still will use your cane. Then the other person won’t have to bother telling you about things in your way. You can take care of yourself, but still stay together.”

A more mature student needs explanation on his own level, with the opportunity to discuss fully.

Following is a discussion guide in outline form:


A. Why use a human guide at times even though the student has cane skills?

* It is easy to stay together in a crowd.

* If the other person is showing you where to go, sometimes direct guidance is more efficient than spoken direction.

* In a noisy location, it may be very hard to hear spoken directions.

* For social reasons, two people may prefer to walk together.

* Especially for a younger student, it is sometimes necessary to walk with someone else because of age and safety reasons.

* There may be situations where the student’s cane skills are not yet adequate, or where there are particular advantages to the use of a human guide.


A blind person as a guide.
A blind person as a guide


 B. If the human guide is there, why use the cane at all?

* A young child may rarely be more than a few steps from an adult—especially in public—because of age and safety reasons. If the cane is only used when no adults are near, the child will gain hardly any experience.

* The youngster who does not use his cane when walking with others will fail in a transition that other youngsters make naturally: walking alone more and more as he gets older. Instead of gradually going farther alone in the mall, in public buildings, in stores, and on the street, he simply stays with others. No one may give much thought to this, but independence simply does not increase.

* If the human guide is entirely depended upon, the blind person is at a loss when the guide becomes unavailable. For example, the blind person may want to go into the rest room, shop in a different aisle or store, etc. Also, the guide could be unreliable or become ill.

* The more the human guide is depended upon, the less experience the student will gain, and the less effectively he will use the cane when he does choose to do so.

* Accompanying an independent blind traveler requires little or no effort on the part of the guide. It should be essentially no different than accompanying any other person of comparable age and general ability. However, accompanying a dependent blind person is an effort and a responsibility. If the guide is forgetful, the dependent blind person will trip, fall downstairs, bump into doorways, etc. However willing the guide may seem, this is a burden.

* Guiding a dependent person is also time consuming. The person guided cannot anticipate changes in terrain—steps up or down, slopes up or down, even dirt, etc. The guide often must pause to avoid jolting him. But if, instead, the person guided is using his cane, he can anticipate such changes for himself. Both persons can move along smoothly.

* The attitudes of the guide and the guided are shaped by the behavior of the person guided. It is the difference between accompanying any person (as in showing a stranger the way, enjoying the company of a friend, etc.) vs. assisting a helpless individual who cannot take responsibility for his own movement.


Example 3: Practice in Various Settings

Walk with the student, with yourself as the human guide, and with the student using his cane.

Walk in a flat, unobstructed area. Note the width of the arc—the student may need practice to protect his steps adequately when beside someone else. If this is done skillfully, ordinarily the cane will not trip the guide. However, it may take some practice to avoid becoming tangled.

Approach a curb or other step-down. Again, depending on the student’s maturity, you may choose to give a warning at first. Also, at first it is helpful to hesitate slightly before stepping off. An experienced traveler, however, should be able to detect the curb with the cane before the guide steps off, and follow along smoothly without hesitation.

Approach an obstacle, such as a table. Walk past it in such a way that the student needs to alter his path slightly and “squeeze” past. Depending on the student’s ability, you may or may not choose to announce the obstacle at first to give practice. Soon, the guide should be able to proceed without announcing obstacles, and the cane should detect them. (Caution: Since the two persons are side by side, if the guide hurries past an obstruction at very close range, it will be hard for the other person to avoid it in time. A mature blind traveler should be able to react quickly, let go of the guide’s arm momentarily, and proceed behind the guide in a tight place. But ordinarily, if the guide remains aware that there are two people together and allows enough room, both people can go around the obstacle together.)

Practice on a flight of stairs. Unless the steps are very wide, it is usually best to let go and proceed single file while actually on the steps. Practice going up and down. Approach from some distance away, each time.

Help the student practice in the above ways with at least one family member. Discuss the reasons for using a cane with a guide.


Example 4: A Blind Person as a Guide:

As part of the student’s experiences in becoming acquainted with blind adults as role models, have the student walk with a blind guide. Emphasize that a guide need not be sighted, but must be a responsible and mobile individual.

If possible, also give the student himself experiences in guiding someone who is younger or less able. It is not essential that the person being guided have less sight than the guide. The younger person may be totally blind, partially sighted, or fully sighted.

Often a guide who is blind assists someone who needs help only in knowing where to go, but needs no help with the act of walking. For example, the older blind student might show a new student around. The person guided might be a fully sighted student, or a blind student (totally blind or partially sighted) who uses a cane well. In such an instance, the blind guide will act as leader. He will use his cane to protect his own steps, but will not expect to keep the other person from tripping or bumping objects.

Sometimes, however, a blind guide will assist a person who cannot walk safely without actual help. The other person might be a very young child, a mentally handicapped person, or a blind person who has not learned cane skills. In such a case, the blind guide must arc more widely to protect the steps of both himself and the other person. He must detect stairs and obstacles in front of either person, and help as necessary. Ask a competent blind adult to demonstrate this. A student should not be expected actually to assist another person in this way unless he is quite mature and able; however, a younger student should learn that it is possible.

(Note: Most of this text assumes that the teacher is sighted. If the teacher is blind, this part of the lesson will occur naturally. However, it is wise to call attention to it at times.)

If the school has several blind or visually impaired students, particularly avoid an insidious pattern: Partially sighted students continually acting as guides for totally blind students. Responsibility should be on the basis of skill, not sight. Also note that a partially sighted person who relies on sight alone is likely to be a poor guide, exposing the other person to hazard; the guide should use a cane if his sight is not really adequate.

Whenever possible, insist that each student travel individually rather than being assisted.

If it should happen that all the relatively mature students happen to have partial sight, and all those who need assistance happen to be totally blind, arrange for a totally blind adult to come in occasionally and demonstrate ability to lead.


Example 5: Continued Discussion

Analyze situations where it would be efficient to use (1) the cane without another person physically guiding; (2) the cane with a person guiding; and (3) a human guide alone. Practice as many examples as possible.

Below are a few examples—by no means an exhaustive list.


Use of a cane alone, without holding onto another person:

Preschool or kindergarten:

* Walking in familiar areas at school, finding obstacles and steps independently

* Walking around within a narrow range while remaining near adults, in a safe and simple situation (at a picnic in a park; visiting a friend’s home; in a store that is not extremely crowded; etc.)


Elementary school student:

* Walking on the street in non-complicated areas where parents permit him to go

* All around school, including unfamiliar areas where the student might go on an errand

* Shopping (parents may be nearby but not immediately present)


High school student:

* All above

* Shopping at mall, when family or

   friends are elsewhere

* Walking on the street in complex  


* Errands in public buildings

* On public transportation


All ages:

* Walking toward a sound, or following a person by listening, but without holding onto anyone.


Using the cane while holding someone’s arm:

* Staying together while shopping

* Holding parent’s hand (young child)

* When touring a complex area, starting at a new school, going to a meeting at a hotel, etc.

* When complex verbal directions would be much more cumbersome than taking someone’s arm

* Unusual situations, such as walking to a picnic in a large, open park area


Use of human guide only (without cane)

* If a preschool child uses his cane only part of the time, and is not using it at a given time.

* During participation in sporting events, when walking a short distance from one area to another. (If walking a considerable distance, it would probably be more efficient to have the cane available and use it.)



Willoughby and Duffy, Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students, pp. 160, 180-181.