Posted by & filed under Cane Travel.

Domonique Lawless, NOMC, NCLB is a graduate of the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. These remarks are excerpted from a presentation she recently made to the Tennessee Association of Guide Dog Users.

I am often asked the question: “Which is better, a cane or a guide dog?” My answer is: I am a two-car household.

Some of you who know me will know that I grew up on the east coast, and know that I have a deep-seeded love for Dunkin Donuts. I’m also a frequent flyer, so I try to always connect through the Atlanta airport. On one trip home, all I could think was: “Dunkin Donuts, gotta get to Dunkin Donuts, I’ve got some time for Dunkin Donuts.”

So, after zig-zagging through the maze of people and bags, I get my donut. True happiness! I look at my phone, and we’ve got 10 minutes until the flight leaves! At this point, I’m in Terminal A and I need to be in Terminal B!

Now, for those who don’t know, in Atlanta, that means crossing the entire airport via the always-crowded Plane Train.

There’s no feeling as remarkable as the ability to zoom in and out of the crowd, to squeeze between a wall and a person talking on their cell phone, and to walk around—without tripping over—suitcases.

It was an even better feeling to know that, while I had my dog that time, I could have done the same thing with my cane. I can choose whether I want to drive the Mercedes or the Lexus, if you will, and any blind person has the choice to be a two-car household as well.

So, for those of you who are guide dog users (or who are considering applying for a guide dog), here are some ideas to keep in mind to ensure that you take advantage of that choice you have to be a two-car household.

Some places just aren’t for dogs.

As a guide dog user, I know that I legally can take my guide dog everywhere. Some places just aren’t conducive, though…like a bar, out dancing, a concert, or Mardi Gras. (I’ve been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans twice, and I can safely say that is not a place you want to take a guide dog! I take my guide dog to work, run errands, church, and—before I graduated—my classes in Northern Louisiana.

I use my guide dog and my cane pretty interchangeably. I recognize that each has its purpose. I love using my dog. He’s a wonderful companion in my life. This is my third guide dog, and we’ve been working together for a little over a year now. We work seamlessly and with a beautiful agility that I would recommend to most people. I think having a guide dog is a wonderful experience, but I recognize he just can’t go everywhere with me. If I can’t give 100 percent of my attention to making sure that he’s safe, then that might be something to which he probably shouldn’t go.

Also, guide dogs are living, breathing things. They can’t be on 24/7; they need to have a day off just like you and I do. Sometimes, too, they get in bad moods where work just isn’t for them. I recognize that there may be a time and a place to use my dog, but that isn’t everywhere at all times.

So, when I don’t take my dog—say to the NFB National Convention—he gets to have a vacation with my parents, and I get to have a little time apart to have a different experience.

You have to pay attention to the personality of your dog to know the kinds of things that he likes to do. Mine likes to go, go, and go; sometimes, I have to step back, be the adult, and say, “Okay, you need to stop for a moment and have a break!”

The attitudes about canes at guide dog schools have changed.

Another thing to pay attention to is the changing expectations of guide dog schools. When I got my first guide dog, I was pretty much expected to put my cane in a drawer and forget about it until my dog retired. While training with my second and third dogs, I saw the attitudes change. Guide Dogs for the Blind has an orientation and mobility instructor on staff who helps students during class if they need more O&M practice with orientation skills. Leader Dogs has a great, advanced orientation and mobility program. It’s a compressed schedule where you just go for two weeks, and you focus on nothing but orientation and mobility for 8 hours a day. From there, you become at least a proficient cane traveler and that will make you a better dog user. More and more guide dog trainers are becoming orientation and mobility instructors, so that they can understand both perspectives of using a cane and guide dog.

I am an orientation and mobility instructor, and most people think O&M is just about learning to use a cane. When you learn to use a cane, you learn to pay attention to things like sun cues, echo location, picking up different textures, and listening to your traffic. Those are all incredibly vital skills that can be used with a cane or a guide dog. Once you learn those skills, you’ll find that you’ll be a better guide dog user.

I have done extensive traveling with my cane, most notably at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and I’ve learned how to get home if I’m dropped off somewhere in the city…even if I’ve never been there before. The cane or dog are what help me get where I’m going; my other travel skills tell me what direction to go.

Have a backup plan.

Many guide dog trainers are saying that it’s not just OK to carry a cane; they expect you to carry one as a backup travel tool. There’s, of course, the obvious possibility that your dog could become sick or injured. There’s also the likely chance, too, that you may have to point something out to your dog to refocus their attention or have them learn from a situation. You can’t always get as much texture with your feet to figure out where you are, so—when you need that information—you can use your cane.

I don’t think trainers would advertise walking around with a harness in one hand and a cane in the other 24/7, but every once in awhile, there’s nothing wrong with using the two in tandem for a specific purpose.

Keep your cane skills from deteriorating.

If you don’t use your cane regularly, you can forget some of those fundamental skills of travel. You don’t want it to become scary to use a cane in those situations where using your dog just isn’t appropriate. Personally, I’d recommend taking your cane out with you on a regular basis, even when your dog would be a perfect substitute, just like you’d exercise the engine in your spare car (if you’re fortunate enough to have a spare car!).

Conclusion

The key to remember is that you always have a choice to use your cane or your dog. Yes, it’s perfectly legal to take your dog just about everywhere in the U.S. but sometimes it might just not be practical. It’s my hope to encourage every guide dog user to learn, use, and brush up on his or her cane skills to stay as independent and self-sufficient as possible. To those who teach cane travel, I know some teachers feel like their job is just to get students’ skills “good enough” to use a guide dog. The reality is that when you are a superb cane traveler, you’ll be an even better dog user because those fundamentals of travel still apply.

Oh, by the way, we made the plane, just barely before the doors closed, and—most importantly—I made it with a donut.

Posted by & filed under Teaching Strategies.

T-Base Communications—a Canadian producer of accessible materials and member of the Braille Authority of North America—asked me to write a piece about why braille is important to me. Here’s just an excerpt, and you can read the full post on their blog:

I grew up as a poor, uneducated and hopeless child with little literacy and destined for failure. And, oh yeah, I was totally sighted…20/20, good, perfect, and normal vision. But I grew up in a neighborhood and culture where literacy was little understood and greatly unappreciated. At age 17, I was left totally and completely blind after a horrific accident.

More importantly, I was left broken, illiterate and with little hope for any sort of future whatsoever.

Read more »

Posted by & filed under Teaching Strategies, Technology.

One of our current students, Treva Olivero, is working as a paraprofessional alongside a teacher of blind students in a public school. We recently discussed her position and experiences in the hopes that you may be better equipped to work with paras in your school.

Corbb O’Connor: What is the role of a para?

Treva Olivero: For blind students, paras will often make sure that the child gets access to information that is displayed visually. Often, the teacher will write problems on the board, so if they don’t say it verbally, the blind student will need to get that information. Many schools use paras for math and science classes, since they have charts, graphs, and diagrams.

For younger students, the para can encourage and help the child to interact with the classroom and his or her classmates. The key is that once the child begins to take charge, the para needs to step back. If the right para is in place, the child can be more independent. The para can say, “I want you to do this and do this on your own.” Unfortunately, that’s not always a reality; some paras will do things for blind students and not let them be independent. So, that can be a frustration with child specific paras.

CO: I’m intrigued. You’ve mentioned how one job that a para does is to help get a student access to information that the classroom teacher is displaying visually. So, how do you work as a para as a blind person? Read more »

Posted by & filed under Reading.

Last week, I was privileged to attend the 2014 INSIGHT Conference in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada as a guest. This annual conference brings together teachers, parents, and service providers who work (or live) with students who are blind or have low vision to discuss strategies to improve educational opportunities. While there, I was surprised to learn that Canadian law does not have one of the key exceptions that we rely upon every day.

Books lined on a shelfIn the United states, as you may know, we are able to produce books for students and adults with print disabilities in braille, large print, or other specialized formats without the prior, written authorization of the publisher. In Canada, the process is much the same…as long as the books are produced in braille. For students who rely upon large print, it is a violation of copyright law to reproduce books in any format other than braille without the publisher’s permission.

Many teachers told me that, just as we’ve experienced when asking publishers for the electronic versions of printed books, some publishers are responsive and happily provide these rights. Too often, they said, requests go unanswered.

This reminded me about the Marrakesh Treaty, agreed to almost one year ago, by members of the World Intellectual Property Organization. Read more »

Posted by & filed under Teaching Strategies.

Teachers,

The Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University invites you to participate in a study to evaluate the services and to understand the educational experiences of blind and/or visually impaired youth in grades K through 12.

Your feedback will improve future policies and practices that prepare teachers in the future. Participation in this study allows us to gain a much richer and robust understanding of factors that impact service options and academic performance of blind and/or visually impaired youth.

You must meet the following criteria to participate in this study.

  • Currently be a certified Teacher of Visual Impairment TVI/TBS;
  • Have a case load of one or more students with low vision or blindness as his or her primary diagnosed disability on his/her Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Participation in this study is voluntary and you may quit the survey at any time. We appreciate your participation in this research.

Access the survey now.

Sincerely,
Edward Bell, Ph.D., Principal Investigator
Casey Robertson, Research Associate

If you need assistance with the survey, please contact:

Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness
Louisiana Tech University
PO Box 3158, Woodard Hall 210
Ruston, LA 71272
(318) 257-4554
instituteonblindness@latech.edu

Posted by & filed under Technology.

Across the country, February is Black History Month, and—for the students in Louisiana Tech University’s hybrid course on braille and assistive technology, it’s also the month of their in-person practicum.

“We walked in, and we all said, ‘I feel like I know you, but this is the first time that I get to be with you in person,’” said Kim Cool, MA, who is working on her certificate in teaching blind students. “It was great just being able to interact with people in class and make connections.”

On Saturday, the students observed and helped with Saturday Club, a monthly event for blind and low-vision youth in the northern Louisiana area. This two-hour gathering is designed to be fun and educational for parents and students to practice their braille, cane travel, and self-advocacy skills.

“I hope the online students will observe the high expectations for independence that we have for our students,” said Sheena Manuel, MA, NCLB, who coordinates the events. “I hope they can see how we have differentiated instruction for students on all levels.”

After reading braille stories about famous African Americans, making a lunch in honor of George Washington Carver, and creating tactile Olympic rings, the students wrote letters to the President and First Lady in braille.

“Teachers around the country should host these activities to faciliatate and promote family orientated activities for blind/visually impaired students,” Manuel said. “These activities help everyone in the family understand and experience how blindness can be reduced to a nuisance if training and positive attitudes are present. It also opens doors for our kids and expose them to positive blind role models and different ways to complete everyday tasks.”

Hands-on assistive technology workshops

After learning about assistive technology and discussing frequently-used JAWS commands throughout the quarter, this weekend was the first time that some students had ever put their hands on a braille note taker or used a screen reader.

“I was a little unsure—not intimidated or scared—about the technology,” said Martin Pardue who lives in Ruston. “It’s like sitting down with a violin for the first time; you don’t know what you’re doing until someone points you in right direction. You can’t just figure that out on your own very quickly or easily.”

Pardue, who is teaching blind and low-vision students in Ouachita Parish with a provision license this spring, said the in-person training helped him to get more comfortable with assistive technologies.

“It helps to know that even when you can’t see the screen, you still know what you’re typing,” he said. “Or to know that a braille note-taker is just like a computer with different buttons.”

Posted by & filed under Teaching Strategies.

One month ago, we reported that the accessibility of field tests associated with the Common Core State Standards was in question. Today, we received the following press release from the National Federation of the Blind:

New Milford, New Jersey (February 24, 2014): The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) today applauded a settlement agreement reached among itself, its affiliate organizations the NFB of New Jersey and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), the parents of a blind high school student in New Milford (named in the suit as S.H.) and PARCC, Inc., a nonprofit corporation that was established in 2013 by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium currently made up of eighteen states, including New Jersey and the District of Columbia. The settlement resolves a suit filed in late January by the NFB, its affiliates, and the parents of the student because assessment tests created by PARCC, Inc. that will be field tested at S.H.’s high school and other locations this spring were not accessible to students who are blind. Under the terms of the settlement, PARCC will make its practice tests accessible to blind students by the time the tests are deployed in Spring 2014, and will consult with the NFB to ensure that all subsequent practice tests and assessments will be available at the time of deployment in accessible formats used by blind test takers, including Braille files for embossing in hard-copy Braille or via electronic access methods such as refreshable Braille displays and text-to-speech screen reader software.

Read the entire press release »

Posted by & filed under Technology.

The word “accessibility” is one that’s tossed around frequently in higher education, yet few people understand how to implement the concept.

Dr. Bell addresses a group of Louisiana Tech faculty

At last week’s Faculty Technology Showcase, Dr. Edward Bell—who directs the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech—explained the most common methods and technologies employed at the university level by students who are blind or visually impaired. He also covered what non-visual access looks like, how it works, and the challenges associated with adapting educational materials for instructors.

“The biggest obstacle we face are PDFs,” Dr. Bell said. “They can be made accessible, but you can’t assume that it will be usable until you have a blind person test it.”

Too often, the inaccessible PDFs exist as Word documents, and professors just post the PDFs out of habit. Even for those who are well-versed in the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the outreach event helped put people at ease.

“The big takeaway is simple,” Dr. Bell said. “Don’t be scared. Be nice, be respectful, and ask your students what they need. Most of all, know that we at the Institute are here as a resource to help you ensure everyone can use your materials, take your exams, and learn.”