Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1


7. Thoughts and Experiences on Cane Travel

How Long Does It Take to Learn Cane Travel?

In order to answer this question, you must consider three major variable factors: 1. your background; 2. your aptitude; and 3. the amount of time available.

I will give some numbers from my experience, but not until I expand on these factors.

Background: Are you familiar with the area where you will be traveling? Do you know where some of the streets and buildings are? Are you used to the roar of the city, the hush of the suburbs, the quiet of the country? Do you know that streets have names and numbers, and that buildings have numbers, but sometimes have names? Do you start off fearful of traffic, or just unfamiliar with it? Are you familiar with traffic and the way it moves so that you know what to expect of it?

Aptitude: Are you used to finding your own way, or have people always taken you places and told you when to stop and go? Let me mention the two extremes of aptitude.

The youth was newly blind and in his late teens. He came from a rural setting where he had often gone on cross-country treks when he was sighted. There was a touch of youthful rebellion in him. It seemed as though his needs would be met by handing him a cane, reading him Rule One, and getting out of his way. He did go through several lessons, but he never needed to repeat them for practice. He was a natural traveler.

The lady was newly blind and middle-aged. She was from an urban setting, but was not used to getting places alone. She was very comfortable with her friends in her living room. During lessons she made the narrowest possible interpretation of instructions and then paused to ask, "Is this right?" I could not bring her to the recognition of her own responsibility to judge each situation. We parted company disappointed with each other.

There are people who would associate some of these characteristics with being sighted or blind, but I have met people in both groups with odd mixtures of these characteristics.

The amount of time available: Time should be measured in two ways: the number of hours per day and week, and the number of months to be filled with this schedule. When I began as a student in a residential orientation center, I was spending fifteen to twenty hours a week in guided practice. It worked well for me. I have known people who made good progress with four to five hours of guided practice in a week. It seems to me that anything under three hours in a week would be getting rather thin. These hours I am talking about are hours spent on specific skill practice. They cannot be the only time spent using the cane. After all, you are learning these skills to use them in everyday life, so every time you go out, take your cane and use what you have been learning. As with any skill, the more you use it, the faster you will improve.

The next time you send a letter, grab your cane and walk down to the corner mailbox. Find excuses to take short trips here and there. There must be some places you want to go, so walk there with your cane. Take the cane every time you go out. It is this kind of constant purposeful practice that locks in the lessons and speeds the learning process. If the only time you use your cane is during the three hours a week you have lessons, and every other time you go somewhere it is on the arm of your guide, you are not going to learn how to travel alone.

One thing that helped me a great deal was being with other blind people who took short trips together. We walked within the buildings, the grounds, and out for snacks. There is nothing like peer pressure, seeing that they can do it and having them expect you to join them. Aren't you just as smart as they are? And if you are still a beginner, you don't have to be in front.

I spent an intensive six weeks on travel and reached a satisfactory level of skill. Most people I know who worked steadily for several hours a week, plus out-of-class "just walking around" became good travelers or made as much progress as they were going to make for a good foundation in travel in two to three months. That is from starting as a beginner.

Can a Blind Person Teach Cane Travel?

By the time I tried teaching other people, I was a good traveler. Wherever I lived, I had to learn the area, but there was little difference in difficulty from one place to the next. I crossed narrow and wide streets with straight or angled crossings. There were traffic islands and multiple-phase traffic lights with more or less traffic. I had to think about some intersections more than others, but I went where I wanted to go.

When I planned lessons for beginning students, I had to consider the difficulties of the lesson for each day, and gradually increase the level of challenge. That was my first surprise as a teacher. I scouted the area of each lesson to identify landmarks, challenges, and hazards. Having given route instructions at the beginning of the walk, I then preceded or followed the student. There were always certain places where I wanted to be nearby to evaluate how the student met the challenge of the day. The difficulty for any teacher is knowing when to let the student work out the problem alone, and when to step in with further instruction. What we did was very basic. At first you walk up and down the block, then around the block. You cross narrow, quiet streets, and then busier streets with traffic lights. You work on short routes the student wants to accomplish, then longer trips. Some lessons are just for practice, but later they are more and more to meet the student's needs. You work indoors, outdoors, and take buses. After a while, you don't have to repeat lessons for practice. Just be sure that the instructions are understood, and send them on their way. My teacher ended the course by working us through a 3-1/2 mile hike around a section of the city. It gave us students a true sense of accomplishment to be able to manage that trip and what it had to offer. This seems like the time for the teacher to say, "You don't need me any more. Congratulations, and goodbye."

No One Has to Do Everything Perfectly

One of the things we all need to do is to find a doorway as we walk beside a wall. Many of us slide the cane along at the angle of the floor and wall until the cane hits the door frame. That method works, but I want to point out its weaknesses. Traffic patterns put us on the right side of the path; the wall is often on our right; and most of us are right-handed. All that means that we are not covering the body with the cane, thus leaving us open to a collision. I shift the cane to the hand opposite the wall to give myself at least some coverage, in case there is something or someone in the way. Of course, Rule One says I should continue tapping the cane from side to side to clear the space in front of me, but with my stride of two-and-a-half feet I will only touch the wall every five feet and miss a narrow door. Sometimes I swing the cane in the hand away from the wall and slide the near hand lightly along the wall. This last method may be the best compromise.

When I lose track of where I am when I am walking around, and I find someone of whom I can ask directions, my first question is, "What's the name of this street?" I may know enough to find my own way with that information. If I have not learned enough, I ask, "How do I get to ...?" If I have to ask another person later, I ask.

I am a poor judge of the distance ahead of my cane. I tend to tap ankles and trip people. If I want to be sure, I have to give myself far more space than I really need. It is even worse if the person ahead is using a cane, and I hear the tap which is five feet ahead of where they are.

When I am walking directly behind a guide as we pass through a narrow space, I often step on the heels of my guide. I know you are supposed to be able to tell which foot is forward by the swing of the shoulders, but I don't always coordinate well. I have to take very short steps to keep from stepping on them. It keeps me out of step, but it also keeps my feet off of theirs.

I often have the bad habit of letting my head nod forward. Didn't we all have a mother who said: "Keep your head up. Stand up straight!" The practical reason for keeping my head up is to avoid using it as a bumper. The cane is supposed to be the bumper. It is supposed to be in front all the time. Better the cane should get scars, not the body.

There are some days I always drift to the right and other days I drift to the left. If paying more attention to the line of traffic or to the shoreline doesn't help, I bring my cane hand back to the middle of my body and concentrate on keeping the swing of the cane even from side to side. "Back to basics" straightens me out.

The first trip to almost any place usually includes lots of exploration and false starts. Sometimes that continues for several trips until I learn the local geography. If you can learn faster than I can, more power to you.

There is one situation when I learned to look lost on purpose. It is a crowded theater lobby during intermission when I am trying to find the men's room. I take a few steps this way and that way, then pause and look around with a confused expression on my face. Pretty soon someone will offer help, at which point I suddenly regain all my travel skills.

What About Other Travel Aids, Dogs and Electronics?

I tend to be a practical person. The rule is: "If it works for you, use it." I was introduced first to the cane, and was fortunate in that I had a good teacher. I learned to travel independently, and it has served me very well.

There are blind people who travel well with a cane and those who travel poorly with a cane. There are blind people who travel well with a guide dog and those who travel poorly with a guide dog. I will tell you what I know about dogs.

Any reputable guide dog school insists on giving travel training along with the dog, and that is an advantage. Canes do not come with training attached. A dog can offer companionship. A dog has some memory of its own and may help in confusing or dangerous situations. Dogs also make mistakes, just like their masters. There is truth in all of these points. I like other people's dogs, but I do not want the responsibilities of feeding, grooming, curbing, and health care that go with owning a dog. If it is right for you, do it. I think it is more important that you get places conveniently and safely than how you get there. It is the human that makes the difference, not the cane or the dog.

Over the past several decades, I have heard of electronic travel aids that were attached to the cane, attached to the forehead, or held in the hand. Each one gave off its own sound or vibration. Each one had advantages: locating objects at a distance without touching them, locating obstacles above cane level, being less "obvious", not always an advantage. They have come, and they have gone, and the cane and the dog remain. I do not mean to say that there will never be an electronic travel device that lasts, but it seems to be over the horizon. The cane and the dog have been here for many years and are still here