Future Reflections       Convention Issue 2014      WORKSHOPS

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Breaking With Tradition: Structured Discovery Cane Travel for Blind Children

by Denise Mackenstadt

Denise MackenstadtFrom the Editor: Denise Mackenstadt is an NOMC certified orientation and mobility instructor in the state of Washington. She has been a member of the National Federation of the Blind since 1970 and attended her first national convention in 1974. This article is based on a presentation she gave at the NOPBC conference during the 2014 NFB national convention.

I wanted to be a teacher and a mobility instructor since I was sixteen years old. Mobility interns from Cal State Los Angeles used to come and work with the blind students at my high school. My goal was to attend Cal State Los Angeles to become a student in the orientation and mobility program.

As was typical of the time, blind students did not see a cane until they were sixteen or seventeen years old. The idea that a younger child could receive mobility instruction was unheard of. The traditionalists thought that younger children were too immature to understand the proper use of a cane.

Life interrupted my plans, and I spent the next many years as a wife, mother, and community volunteer. I was active with our state's parents' division, a chapter of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). Through the NOPBC and the National Federation of the Blind, the first child-appropriate canes were made available. Parents began to demand that their young children be given the opportunity to travel independently with a long white cane. This was considered a radical and unreasonable notion by traditionalists in the O&M field. Our own NFB members, parents, and enlightened agencies for the blind taught children without professional blessing. Federationists knew that early training was essential. They believed it was crucial to instill blind children with the confidence and skills to travel independently. Each year, more and more blind children came to convention with their canes.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Fred Schroeder went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to direct programs for blind students in the Albuquerque Public Schools. He showed that the NFB philosophy of teaching mobility to young blind students in the public school setting had practical applications. He showed that blind children can travel independently and can participate fully with their peers of the same age. He was using the teaching methods of Structured Discovery Cane Travel (SDCT) before these techniques had a name.

With traditional O&M instruction, students memorize specific routes by rote learning. They do not learn how to find a location where they have never been before, and they may gain little understanding of the layout of a city or town. In Structured Discovery, on the other hand, students learn by asking questions and exploring their environment. Instructors encourage them to recognize and use nonvisual clues such as sounds, smells, echoes, and the texture of the pavement. The skills acquired through Structured Discovery can be put to good use in any environment or situation. These techniques grew out of the NFB philosophy, and they serve as its driving purpose.

Canes in hand, Julia Gebert and Abby Duffy walk down a hallway.As blind children began to enter the public schools in increasing numbers, the university programs training mobility teachers recognized that they had to make changes. In order to remain viable, the O&M field needed to train instructors to teach blind children. However, university training did not consider how children develop and learn. In regular education, the idea of student-led discovery learning was basic for all students. Only in the teaching of independent travel was there no recognition that this was a desirable teaching method.

When federal and state statutes in special education were enacted, it was mandated that disabled students, including blind students, receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), including a full menu of educational options. Part of this programming for blind students was mobility training. However, this need was not seen as primary. The belief that blind children could become competent travelers at the same level as their sighted peers was not promoted. Federationists and parents of blind children continued to work toward a better understanding of the importance of child-centered mobility instruction. In adult services for blind persons, expectations remained low and focused on the amount of vision the student possessed.

When the NFB training centers in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Colorado were founded in the late 1980s, their instructors quickly realized that working with blind children was part of their mission. They developed summer programs to expose blind children to the NFB philosophy and a belief in their competence as blind people. As a positive result of these programs, parents witnessed how their children benefited from discovery learning in the area of mobility. Parents began to demand that public school systems make orientation and mobility a part of their blind child's education. O&M traditionalists still resisted the use of longer canes and discovery learning.

Louisiana Tech University developed the first program for O&M instructors based on the use of Structured Discovery techniques. However, few graduates of the Louisiana Tech program went into work with blind children.

Work with children using our NFB philosophy and SDCT techniques is still in its infancy. Those of us who work with young public school students have seen the benefits of using SDCT with blind children. Children become more confident about who they are. They learn basic concepts at an early age, when concept development is most critical. Travel skills can be honed as children progress through the stages of development.

Travel skills are a tremendous asset in a child's socialization. A blind child who moves about independently can interact with peers in ways that are developmentally appropriate. When teachers and other adults see these children travel independently in the school environment, they develop a belief in their inherent normality.

I received my professional training through a distance learning program at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. It was a traditional program. However, my real training in the area of teaching orientation and mobility came from my involvement in the NFB. I learned from Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, Dr. Marc Maurer, Dr. Fred Schroeder, Dr. Eddie Bell, Joe Cutter, and all of the blind adults who are my brothers and sisters in the movement. My love of teaching children has been life-long. I am most satisfied when I bring to blind children the belief in their inherent competence. Each step they take toward confidence in their own independent movement is a joyful achievement.

Children have an innate curiosity about the world around them. They are most excited when they learn through exploration. Experiential learning is the best teaching method for all children, sighted or blind. Teachers must take advantage of every teachable moment that presents itself.

Blind children have the same curiosity and the same need to explore that sighted children possess. When given the opportunity, they meet the same developmental benchmarks in movement as their sighted peers. The only difference lies in the ways blind children become aware of and familiar with their world. At times the world needs to be brought to them, or we need to bring them to the outer world.

As mobility instructors, we give blind children the essential skills to be a part of this magnificent world around us. With training in nonvisual techniques, blind children can interact with their world without fear.

Structured Discovery Cane Travel provides a rich environment in which children can blossom and be in control of their own movement. With the confidence and opportunity to move independently, blind children can enjoy the most important aspect of childhood, the pleasure of developing friendships. They can participate with their peers in the things all kids like to do--running, playing, swinging, and climbing. They can move confidently in a friend's yard and home. Without good mobility skills, blind children are left behind, missing out on the fun and the learning that goes along with it.

As mobility instructors, how can we promote the important activities children participate in? The first step is to observe what peers of the same age are doing. With this knowledge we can picture what the blind child should be achieving and help him or her move toward those goals.

Most learning happens outside the classroom. Classroom education prepares students by giving them tools to use in the world around them. As mobility teachers we have the privilege of helping our students gain the skills to benefit from this learning. My early lessons extend what the student is learning in class, using experiential activities. For example, I might plan a lesson where a student goes to the bakery to buy a cookie. He needs to learn what kinds of cookies are in the display case by asking the clerk. He must learn how to ask questions that will give him the information he needs. Then he needs to use a math concept to determine whether he has the right amount of money and to be sure he gets back the right amount of change. He learns how to fold and store money and how to identify coins. This is a classroom-based lesson as well as a typical activity for sighted students.

Our goal as O&M specialists with school age students is to provide opportunities for problem solving, critical thinking, and exploration. The main difference between working with adults and working with children is that children lack the life experience of adults. These skills are learned at developmentally appropriate levels. We may use the same teaching strategies each year; however, these strategies evolve with the maturity of the student. The basic skills our school age students need are the same as those we teach to adults. Only the approach is different, depending on the age of the student and the experiences she has had as she matures.

When I entered the O&M field, I expected to work with typically developing blind students. I looked forward to teaching the typical skills such as school mobility, street crossing, and neighborhood navigation, skills that would lead to a typical adult life. I discovered, however, that at least two-thirds of my students in the public schools have disabilities in addition to blindness. These disabilities can be across the spectrum of severity. Some of these students may succeed in academic areas but struggle with basic mobility concepts.

Over the years I have found that my real passion is working with blind students who face additional challenges which, frankly, we are not trained to deal with. These students redefine what independence is for a blind person. They have taught me that I need to throw away my preconceived notions about what can be achieved by blind students. In many ways these students teach me more than I teach them. This population is the least served with mobility instruction of any other student population.

For a conference on working with blind students with additional disabilities, I was asked to provide evidence based and data driven information to a group of professional educators in blindness. I found this challenging, since very little research reaches across the spectrum of the needs these students present. Some work has been done in the areas of autism and cortical visual impairment, but not in the specific area of orientation and mobility. The conventional wisdom claims that children in this population would not benefit from intensive blindness skill training because blindness is not their overriding disability. I found that teachers of the blind generally did not refer these students for O&M training. When an O&M specialist did assessments on these students, they did not recommend service. The reality is that most travel instructors are not trained for or comfortable with working with the multiply disabled blind student. Unfortunately, this holds true of many of our own SDCT instructors.

The first concept travel instructors must understand is that the expectations and belief systems we use in working with typically developing blind students are relevant to visually impaired students with additional disabilities. The difference is that a five-year-old student with cognitive disabilities may be learning at a two-year-old level. For some students, independence means the ability to move without an adult pushing, pulling, or prodding him. It may mean allowing the student to determine when and where he moves. Every blind person has the right to move without fear and with confidence.

SDCT allows the instructor to work with a student in the learning style that serves her best. It empowers the student, even when the student has additional significant disabilities. Most of the time these students are in situations that have been determined by adults. The notion of self-efficacy is not part of the mindset of many mobility instructors. Mobility specialists are trained in an adult system and not from a child's perspective. Their training demands a rigid sequence of instruction. Skills need to be honed to a certain standard. These standards have changed very little since the Veterans Administration days of early training of adults. In addition, there is a presumption that route training is the only way to go. However, blind students with additional disabilities have difficulty remembering and implementing complex sets of directions. SDCT allows the student to determine what clues best suit him/her on the self-defined route to a destination.

I hope I have given you food for thought about working with school age students and those with significant additional disabilities. Over the past forty-four years, it has been the most gratifying aspect of my work with blind persons. It is a privilege to speak about my work to like-minded colleagues. Thank you.

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