Future Reflections Fall 1991

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by Catherine Horn Randall and Sharon Duffy

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in The Month's News, the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois newsletter. Ms. Duffy is currently employed at BLIND, Inc. of Minnesota, an orientation center for the blind.

The questions new students ask most often is "How long will it take for me to become an efficient traveler?" Each student has individual needs, but on average a student needs three travel lessons a week lasting for approximately two hours a session for three months. I have had the occasional student who only needed five or six lessons. These students knew their compass directions well and were very confident in themselves from the beginning. These people just needed basic cane techniques. In one case a student had maybe five or six lessons and learned how to use a cane, how to travel in the downtown area, and how to use the trains. She had a lot of motivation to travel.

I teach my students to really follow verbal directions. This is very important. I don't use Braille maps much. I have shown a Braille map of the Loop to two students; but chances are good that you will never have a Braille map to follow. We talk about directions until a student really understands how to follow them. If a student can repeat the route, that's a good sign; if he can then go travel it, that's even better.

Many beginning students have to learn to deal with a lot of fear about traveling. Some people hide it better than others, but I think everybody has some real fear because you could conceivably be hit or killed. The greatest fear, however, for most students-and the hardest one to deal with-is their fear of making fools of themselves. High achievers who are used to doing most things well find it hard to understand that most people goof up during travel lessons from time to time.

I don't teach what are called pre-cane techniques. For example, I do not teach students to trail walls; I actively discourage this because it looks awful. It is anti-social behavior in this world. If a student is searching for a specific door, for example, I teach the student to count doors using the cane. I have instructed students to put one hand in a pocket to avoid trailing with that hand.

I think that some of the people who advocate using pre-cane techniques are the same people who would advocate putting your cane away inside buildings. I encourage my students to carry and use their canes whenever they are inside a building. When you are in your own house that's another matter, but if you are walking around inside a building there isn't any reason you can't continue to use your cane. It is the most efficient way to do things. So why learn pre-cane techniques? It's foolish for a person who intends to use a cane to be bothered with them.

The first thing I do during my first lesson with a new student is to give him or her an appropriate cane and teach him how to use the basic touch technique, and how to use the cane walking up and down stairs. What I want to do is teach my students to have confidence through learning practical travel skills.

I also discourage the use of hand rails while walking up and down stairs. I had a very athletic male student who argued with me vehemently about this until one day he was traveling the el system with a briefcase in one hand and his cane in the other, and he saw my point exactly. There are so many situations when it is not convenient to grab a hand-rail. Learning to negotiate stairs safely and comfortably without using hand-rails is another way of building confidence.

The more a person uses his or her cane as a tool to judge the depth of steps, the better that person will negotiate stairs. A good cane traveler can tell when his cane drops even a half inch. That half-inch isn't much but it is enough to possibly trip you.

I advocate that beginning students use a cane that is between 10 and 12 inches shorter than they are. Another way of saying this is to purchase a cane that reaches from the floor to somewhere between your armpit and your nose. This should be a comfortable length for you. As a student walks faster, he or she may want a longer cane. I advocate the use of a longer cane more so than do many travel teachers for several reasons. If you walk very fast at all and you are using a cane that is too short, you will overstep your cane. In other words, you will step beyond where your cane has touched. You will find that you step off curbs without meaning to and you will run into things periodically. If you do either of these things, your cane is too short or your cane technique is inadequate. If you have long legs and a long stride you will definitely want a cane that comes about to your nose.

I want to touch briefly upon the subject of collapsible canes. People have asked me if it wouldn't be easier to use collapsible canes for people who get in and out of cars a lot. I answer that no collapsible cane is as good a tool as a long fiberglass cane. They aren't as sensitive, they do tend to shake apart, and it doesn't take much to bend one of the pieces of a collapsible cane. Also, the cords that hold them together tend to break. In the case of telescopic canes, they tend to telescope unexpectedly, leaving the user suddenly unprotected in mid-stride. The nylon tips on collapsible canes do not slide easily. Once they are worn even a little bit they start catching in cracks, whereas a metal tip will slide over cracks. Nylon cane tips can be terrible to try to replace. We have had people come into The Guild and try to figure out how to take the cane apart in order to replace the tip, and they have given up and bought a new cane. I recommend the NFB II cane, which is a hollow fiberglass cane. There is one simple trick to replacing the metal tip of this cane that I would like to pass along to you. Put the new tip under hot water to soften the rubber portion of the cane tip. The new tip then slides into place easily covering the screw on the bottom of the cane. To sum up my feelings about teaching cane travel, I design all travel lessons to teach my students confidence in the best and fastest ways I know how.

I am always thinking toward the time my students will be traveling on their own. This is why I teach compass directions and why I insist they learn how to ask for, and follow, verbal directions. A blind person who has learned to ask for specific directions and then can follow them can travel anywhere, including places he has never been before. Sometimes good travelers get lost, but they eventually figure out how to get to their destinations.

We teach Philosophy of Blindness classes at The Guild. I think it is very difficult to teach a person who really doesn't believe it is okay to be blind and have him get out on the street and do a good job traveling. Attitude has as much to do with the success of a cane travel student as any other single factor.

The confidence people gain as their travel skills improve seems to radiate out into many other aspects of their lives. They begin doing other things that they hadn't considered doing, such as cooking or living independently. As students get to know other blind people who live successful lives, they want to try as well, and they do succeed.

Learning skills of blindness and learning confidence do go hand-in-hand. If you have to pick between the two, confidence is by far the better thing to have. I know blind people who had no training in skills of blindness, but had confidence in themselves. These people got to know other blind people who travel and live fulfilled lives and decided, by example, "why not me, too," and went out and got back into life. On the other hand, I also know blind people who had travel training from "expert peripatologists" but did not develop any self-confidence from that training. These people stay home and never use the skills they were taught because they were never encouraged to believe in themselves.

In addition to confidence and skills of blindness we need to know how to cope with public attitudes about blindness. We need to understand how to handle and educate the well-meaning person on the corner who grabs us, because this is a common problem. I wish I could do more to help my students cope with a negative family environment, for such an environment is very detrimental to the kind of training I am able to give. A student has to have some motivation and some belief in himself or skills training is not of any particular value.

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