Future Reflections        Winter 2014        IDEAS AND PERSPECTIVES

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The Horse Sense of Proper Training

by Matthew Maurer, Ph.D.

From the Editor: Dr. Matt Maurer teaches instructional technology at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. The brother of NFB President Marc Maurer, he has a longstanding commitment to improving opportunities for blind children and adults.

Dr. Matt MaurerRecently I helped out when the Lions of Northeast Indiana held an event for blind youth. It was a fishing and camping weekend that we call Fishin' for Life. We have all experienced, or at least heard about, events that make the volunteers feel good but do little or nothing to advance the blind youth involved. Fortunately, this event is different, as a number of NFB members take part. With their influence, everyone learns something valuable, including the Lions themselves.

This was the second year Fishin' for Life took place. It had been great fun last year, and we learned some things about how to make the event even more meaningful for the participants. As an added bonus, the Lions of District 25A were eager to learn more about blindness. Last year's event was so powerful that other local organizations wanted to get involved. A nearby riding club volunteered to bring out some horses and let the kids ride.

I don't know much about horses, so I stood back and watched as the riding portion of the event unfolded. We soon discovered that many of the kids had never been around horses before, much less ridden them. It was interesting to watch each child mount the horse with the help of the riding club members. Those of us with vision have watched cowboys mount horses hundreds of times in the movies. Even if we have never gotten onto a horse ourselves, we have some basic understanding of what it entailed. When I observed the blind children, I realized that they did not inherently grasp the process of swinging one leg over the saddle. How many times have I watched John Wayne do that? These kids had never had that seemingly universal experience.

It was quickly apparent that we needed to do a lot more teaching. Which way should the rider face when mounting the horse? Which foot goes in the stirrup first? How does one get the other leg over the horse's back? As all good teachers do, the instructors attempted to fill in these knowledge gaps.

After the riding event, one of the NFB members commented that the experience was less than it could have been. The horses were led around the ring, so the children did not have a chance to ride independently. My response was that the children got firsthand experience with the horses. They learned to mount and to put their feet in the stirrups, and they felt the horse's movement as they perched in the saddle.

The differing points of view got me thinking about the idea of intended outcome. If we wanted the children to gain some basic knowledge of horses, then they had a good experience. If we wanted them to ride independently, however, the experience needed improvement.

I also thought about the children's self-perceptions. Some of them may have been thinking, Hey, look at me! I'm a cowboy! For a moment, in the saddle, they may have imagined themselves in a western adventure. Yet if an observer watched the mounting and dismounting process and saw the person leading the horse, the image would be entirely different.

A Metaphor for Training

This horseback riding experience can serve as a strong metaphor for the training and education of the blind. Former NFB president Dr. Kenneth Jernigan said many times that, with proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to a mere nuisance. Proper training is critical to achieve the desired outcome. In addition, an expectation of achievement is essential. First we must believe that the child can ride a horse, and then we must develop the proper training to bring that belief to fruition.

It can be very helpful to apply this metaphor to schooling. Your child's teacher may say, "Math is difficult for blind children to learn. We can't expect your child to be on grade level." Or the teacher might tell you, "Braille is difficult and slow. Don't expect your child to read on grade level with the sighted kids." Naturally, if the teacher holds these beliefs, the child is likely to fall behind. The teacher must first believe that your child can be at grade level with his or her peers. Then, the teacher must develop the proper educational program to make that happen. Due to the visual teaching methods that are often used in the classroom, math may present difficulties for blind learners. Well-designed learning experiences can overcome these difficulties. Taught early and taught well, blind children can become excellent Braille readers.

If we are satisfied with leading the child around on the horse, then that is the outcome we will have. On the other hand, if we long to see the child ride independently, we can work toward that outcome and make it so. We must remember that our expectations have consequences. When we expect blind children to lag behind their peers, that is the predictable outcome--the outcome we have worked toward. Furthermore, we tend to celebrate any achievement that exceeds our meager expectations. We say, "Look at you, Tommy! You're a cowboy!" when actually someone is leading the horse around the paddock. Such praise creates a false self-image that can have serious consequences.

Life Skills and Travel

The metaphor also sheds light on adult training programs. The NFB-affiliated training programs expect the student to "ride independently." There are other training programs that are satisfied with "leading them around." The NFB-affiliated programs strive for full integration of the blind into society. It seems that some other programs seek merely to develop survival skills. While survival is essential, it is not sufficient for a full and rich life.

More specifically, take two areas, daily living and travel skills. Most adult training programs teach cooking in their daily living classes. Some programs focus on survival cooking, mainly the use of the microwave. The programs that incorporate NFB philosophy teach the full set of cooking skills. In fact, in order to graduate from such a program, students are required to apply their skills by preparing a meal for a small group and eventually for a large group. With this set of skills, the student can engage in the rich life experience of having people over for a meal. Can you imagine asking someone over for dinner and serving food from the microwave?

A big distinction that sets NFB-affiliated training programs apart from many other centers is the style of cane instruction. The traditional approach is called route travel. With this approach, the student learns to get from one particular point to another--from home to the supermarket, school, or church. The skills to do so are valuable, but once again, they are insufficient. If you can get to the supermarket, the doctor's office, and the mall, you have the necessary skills to live independently. That is no small undertaking. However, the ability to get to those essential places does not allow for the full, rich life we all wish for our children. Many rewarding elements of life exist beyond those locations. There are outdoor concerts, charitable events, plays, movies, and friends to visit who live in distant cities.

This is where the structured discovery method of travel instruction comes into play. NFB training centers use the structured discovery approach to cane travel. Structured discovery focuses not on getting to a set of specific places, but on how to reach any desired location safely and efficiently. Teaching structured discovery is a more difficult and time-consuming task than training students in route travel. All the skills of route travel are needed and more. The additional skills include an understanding of how a particular town or city is laid out, the ability to use a wide range of environmental cues, and strategies for researching address locations. The main difference between route travel and structured discovery is in the level of thinking that is required. Structured discovery develops problem solving skills that make cane travel an effective means of getting around in the world.

Our job as parents is to work ourselves out of a job. When our children are young, they need us and depend upon us. We hope that our adult children have moved beyond needing our help in this way. By holding high expectations for our children, we can accomplish that goal. It is also essential that we insist that those who provide services to our children hold similarly high expectations. We must expect teachers and rehabilitation counselors to do their best work to make those high expectations a reality. It is perfectly fine to lead a young child around the paddock on a horse, but as children grow they need to take up the reins and ride!


For further thoughts on these ideas, explore the following materials.

Castellano, Carol. (2010). Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade: Working Toward an Independent Future for Your Blind/VI Child. Information Age Publishing.

Maurer, Matthew. (2010, Summer). Equal Standards for Blind Children. Future Reflections, 29:3, <https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr29/3/fr290302.htm>

National Blindness Professional Certification Board. (n.d.) Structured Discovery Cane Travel. <http://www.nbpcb.org/pages/sdct.php>

Omvig, James H. (1999, November). Proper Training for the Blind: What Is It? The Fourth Ingredient. Braille Monitor, 42:9, <https//nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/bm/ bm99/bm991102.htm>

Training Centers for the Blind, <https//nfb.org/training-centers>

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