Future Reflections                                                                                                 Special Issue 2004

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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

Doris Willoughby holds a copy of her book.
Doris Willoughby holds a copy of her book.
As the excerpts below indicate, the 398-page book Modular Instruction For Independent Travel For Students Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired: Preschool Through High School is a practical, positive, and very readable resource for anyone, family member or teacher, who interacts regularly with a blind child. It’s also a bargain at $20 plus shipping and handling. Published and distributed by the National Federation of the Blind, it can be ordered by mail, by phone, or online from the NFB Materials Center, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, (410) 659-9314; www.nfb.org

Editor’s Note: 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, others 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.

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 straight cane. 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: 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.

Module 23

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 Attic
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?

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—Indoors, At School—Outdoors, Community—Outdoors (Increasing Skills), Public Buildings—General, and Outdoor Locations.

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