Braille Monitor                                                                           December 1986


Growing up with Independence: The Blind Child's Use of the White Cane

by Fred Schroeder

(The following address was delivered at the Fall Convention of the National Federation of the Blind of California in Sacramento, California, on November 1, 1980.)

My topic today pertains to blind children growing up with independence through the use of the white cane. As is often the case, this discussion stems from two divergent philosophies. On the one hand, the National Federation of the Blind believes that blind children are simply normal children who happen to be blind. The other is the view of the established special education system which believes that blind children are faced with a myriad of problems which, by their nature and severity, require professional intervention.

Perhaps the motivation behind each philosophy comes from a particular vested interest on the part of each respective group. The National Federation of the Blind has a vested interest in furthering its goals of security, equality, and opportunity, which are integrally tied to the basic assumption of the normality of the blind. The established special education system has a vested interest in maintaining the concept of the blind as having a wide range of specialized needs since this concept is integrally tied to the very existence of the profession.

Let us begin with a discussion of infancy. Sighted infants are typically encouraged to explore their environment. Parents, siblings, and relatives are continually providing stimulation which helps the infant become an active participant in his or her world. I believe that blind children deserve the same opportunity to develop experientially. When a blind child begins to walk, he or she should be provided with a lightweight flexible cane to be used in the exploration of his or her own environment--to seek out familiar toys and places of interest. The cane has long been recognized as a symbol of independence for the blind. Its use focuses the parents' attention on the development of the child's independence while alleviating many of the parents' concerns for the child's safety.

"I am not, of course, advocating instructing a neonate in the formal "two-point touch" technique with an arc scribed precisely one inch to either side of the body and rising no more than one and a half inches at its highest point. What I am advocating is the notion that a blind child provided with the necessary tools will seek out new experiences and begin to explore the world. This will do more to develop space and body concepts than any other activity.

"As the child grows lie or she will naturally move to outdoor play. At this point, the cane should be an old and trusted companion. The orientation and mobility profession argues that a child using a cane at this age will develop a variety of bad habits which will interfere with the eventual development of good cane skills. They say that the child should first be instructed in "precane skills." But what are these precane skills? I suggest that trailing walls and "protective arm" techniques have very little to do with eventual effective use of the cane. If one is sincerely interested in providing experiences which will eventually result in good cane technique, then one should provide the very young blind child with a cane. When a six-year-old first grader begins learning to read and write, it is with an extensive background in "pre-reading" and "prewriting" skills. This background is directly related to the final task. A two-year-old is not typically able to read, but is encouraged to sit on his or her mother's lap and follow along while a story is being read. Similarly, this same two-year-old is not yet able to write, but is, of course, encouraged to play with crayons. No one worries about the child's developing bad habits while the child experiments with a variety of ways of grasping crayons. Rather educators understand that the child's early play is helping to develop the fine motor control necessary for eventual writing. Why then does the orientation and mobility profession object to young blind children's using canes in an informal manner so as to develop the fine motor control necessary for effective cane travel?

The orientation and mobility profession goes on to argue that the development of compensatory skills is seriously impeded by a young child's using a cane. Their claim is that if a child becomes "dependent" on the use of the cane, the child will not learn to use his or her hearing effectively. Alternatively they suggest the aforementioned precane techniques. One of these is the "upper-hand and forearm" technique which positions the hand and arm in front of the child in order to protect the head and face. While offering some limited protection the technique causes a definite muffling of the child's hearing. On the other hand, the tap of the cane provides an excellent sound source which I believe enhances the child's ability to interpret sounds in the environment.

I recently spoke with an orientation and mobility specialist who has an additional year of training in the use of electronic travel aids. She advised that instead of a cane, a pathsounder should be used with young children. The pathsounder is a device which beeps when there is an object directly in front of the user. She explained that a young blind child using this device would be able to walk freely and without fear. Further, the child's ability to interpret environmental sounds would be developed through the feedback provided by this device.

It does not appear that the path sounder can offer the blind child any information which is not readily accessible to the child through the use of a cane. The cane enables a blind child to walk freely and without fear. In addition, the cane can be used to provide the child with feedback concerning the location of an opening or an obstacle. The information gathered through the use of a cane will certainly enable the child to learn to interpret sounds in the environment. The difference is that the cane is a natural extension of the arm and hand and, therefore, requires little in the way of sophisticated interpretation. If the cane touches a solid object it takes very little abstract reasoning to understand that there is something ahead. But what is there in a beep which would imply to a child that there is something blocking his or her path? The only plausible reason why the profession would advocate the use of a pathsounder in place of a cane is that the path- sounder requires training and, therefore, the intervention of a professional. As a result, parents are made to feel as though their children's special needs are so complex that they are inadequate to participate in their child's development.

When the blind child reaches elementary school, the use of the cane would naturally extend to the playground. At this time, the child will take part in exciting new activities such as jumping rope, climbing on monkey bars and swinging on swings. This is also the time when a child needs to find a good place to keep his or her cane. When the child is finished playing he or she should be able to recover his or her cane independently. This is no different from the responsibilities normally assumed by other children of the same age. Sighted children are expected to be responsible for their belongings. In other words, a blind child should be responsible for his or her possessions as are his or her sighted peers.

As the blind child reaches junior high school, he or she should be able to take for granted the ability to travel independently. Unfortunately, this is about the age at which most orientation and mobility specialists believe cane travel instruction should begin. The child is generally provided with some basic instruction which is not designed to develop his travel skills overall, but rather to solve the immediate problem of getting from and to class. Rarely does the child ever evolve beyond the stage of traveling memorized routes. The age old stereotype of the blind person's being on a memorized path is one from which the orientation and mobility profession has been unable to rid itself.

The orientation and mobility profession does not fully believe in a blind person's ability to travel safely with a white cane. Otherwise, why would the profession insist upon using new electronic travel aids as an adjunct to the cane or in some cases as a substitute for the cane. An orientation and mobility specialist from the Midwest typically instructs her junior high and high school students in the use of the laser cane. During a lengthy discussion she was unable to explain what practical advantage the laser cane had over an ordinary cane. Her only concrete reason for encouraging the use of the laser cane was that it could be used as an "icebreaker" in social situations. In other words, for the sake of social contact, the blind child should be willing to make a spectacle of him or herself. It is clear that she does not believe in the ability of blind children to initiate the process of making friends. Her comment implied that the blind child must use flashy electronic gadgets in order to be interesting or attractive. In addition, I question the effectiveness of the laser cane, particularly in the Midwest since it will not operate in temperatures below 30 degrees. It is further limited by being inoperative during rain or snow. The manufacturer explains that in these situations the cane can be turned off and used as an effective long cane. One has to wonder if the cane can be effective with the electronics shut off, why were the cane's beeps and vibrations needed in the first place?

We have come full circle, returning once again to my original point. When I speak of growing up with independence I mean just that--true independence. When the orientation and mobility profession speaks of independence the term ordinarily carries with it the unspoken qualification, "as independent as a blind person can reasonably be expected to be."

The orientation and mobility profession's custodial attitudes are shown all too clearly in an article entitled, "The Electronic Car Controversy" which appeared in the Summer 1980 edition of News and Views, the publication of the American Association of Workers for the Blind. The article reads in part as follows:


The Northeastern Region Interest Group IX has become concerned with electronic cars as a potential barrier to independent travel for visually impaired people. With the exception of the noise produced by the friction of the tires against the pavement while the car is moving, electric cars are completely silent....

Although the problem of inaudible cars may well affect a number of populations (older pedestrians, the hearing impaired, and children) the Northeastern Chapter Interest Group IX feels that a number of issues that impact specifically on visually impaired travelers must be addressed on a national level.

Implications for both street crossing procedure and safety as well as parking lot and gas station negotiations are many. Considerations also exist in terms of training procedures for traffic alignment and environmental analysis.... One company has gone so far as to include a notation in their owner's manual and on a label in the car alerting drivers to safety factors for vision and hearing-impaired pedestrians.

Beyond this, manufacturers have offered to provide the public with "sensors" which could be worn on a lapel and operate as a "go-no go" device, emitting some sort of signal when an electric vehicle comes within range of the sensor. Our objections to this are: first, a very small percentage of the general population could effectively use such a high technology device and secondly, the burden of responsibility for safety in traffic should rest on the driver and not on the visually impaired traveler....

It is interesting to note that the orientation and mobility profession does not consider it to be within the blind traveler's capabilities to protect him or herself from the threat of electronic cars. They argue that an electronic sensor which beeps when an electronic car is near, is too complicated a device to be of practical benefit for the blind. What a revealing comment, clearly highlighting the profession's attitude that the blind are both defenseless and witless. Instead, they would ask the blind to trust their safety to the driver, secure in the knowledge that on the dashboard of the electronic car is a statement cautioning the driver to be mindful of the presence of blind pedestrians.

It will take a long time to change society's views of blindness and for that matter the views of the orientation and mobility profession. It is clear that a change, however slow, must come. Those of us who have grown up as blind children understand the negative impact which these attitudes have had on our lives. We have experienced the heartache of being left behind and the degradation of being taken along by brothers and sisters who were forced to be unwilling caretakers. The tragedy is not that of blindness, but rather the ease with which, in the past, we and society have sold ourselves short. Blindness did not isolate us, but rather our inability to travel as others. To participate in society was to be at society's mercy--to accept gratefully the opportunity to be brought along, if not included. No professional pride or theoretical dogma should be allowed to isolate and degrade blind children in the future. No one has the right to rob another of his or her self-respect by imposing arbitrary limitations. We must claim for the blind children of today and those of tomorrow the right to grow up with dignity and experience life to the fullest.