3 Key Elements of Structured Discovery Cane Travel

When I lost my vision at age fifteen, I soon began to learn how to use a cane. Like so many others, what I learned first was how to fold and put away my aluminum cane. After all, the instructor said, there were lots of times when I just wouldn’t need my cane.

Today, as a cane travel instructor, I know that I also learned “balanced arc” technique that day: how to tap my and left and right, looking for obstacles. I remember learning how to travel the routes I needed most. Unfortunately, what I didn’t learn were transferable skills, self confidence, or problem solving strategies.

When I went to college, I quickly found that while I had skills to get around in a familiar place, I didn’t have skills to get around in an unfamiliar area. Sure, I knew how to ask lots of questions, plot out my route, and begin executing that plan. But as soon as I strayed from the plotted path, I didn’t have skills in problem solving to get back on track, nor did I have the confidence to hold my head high and go to my destination without help.

Fortunately for me, and fortunately for the folks that I now teach at the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired, I learned about structured discovery.

Structured discovery is a set of foundational skills to teach folks how to get where they want, when they want, without inconveniencing themselves or others.

Teaching people how to use a cane, move it from left to right, and how to use audible cues (like echoes) isn’t that hard. The ability to independently think through what’s going on in your environment sets the structured discovery technique apart.

The three key elements to this technique are: Socratic questioning, non-visual monitoring, and the use of cardinal directions.

1. Socratic questioning

LIke most teachers, I don’t want to give my students the answers to questions. I want them to think and figure it out. So, if I notice a student consistently veering to the left while walking down a hallway, I might ask:

What do you keep finding on your left side?
Where are you in relation to where you started?
How can you stop from running into that wall?

Throughout a student’s training, I find myself asking fewer and fewer questions, even though the students rarely travel the same route twice. They learn how to problem solve on their own, and they find the systems and solutions that work for them.

2. Non-visual monitoring

One of the neatest things about structured discovery technique is that it is not based upon a sighted instructor. Even if the instructor has sight, he or she learns to teach while wearing sleep shades. This helps the student to see that it is not the instructor keeping them safe on the street; what keeps the student safe is his or her use of the principles of structured discovery.

The instructor uses non-visual monitoring by listening for the student’s cane tapping relative to where the instructor knows the path is located. Furthermore, he or she will often check a student’s alignment by asking questions like, “How do you know that you’re going to cross the street safe?” Furthermore, the instructor will often ask the student to explain in what cycle he or she thinks the traffic signal is at the moment.

More than the instructor using non-visual monitoring to keep pace with his or her student, the student is also using those same non-visual skills. He or she listens for audio feedback, texture changes, traffic sounds, etc.

3. Cardinal directions

Very often, newly-blind students will want to use words like left and right to know where things are located. The obvious problem comes when somebody gives directions; does “left” mean “my left” or “your left?” Fortunately, west is always west, regardless of whether you are working north or south!

My colleagues and I at other orientation centers may be among the few who use cardinal directions indoors, but we teach our students to choose their own “north” when they walk into a building, enabling them to create a mental map and re-trace their steps.

Structured discovery makes common sense

As a student many years ago learning structured discovery, I found the techniques made sense. I wasn’t going to be going to the same place all the time, and I wasn’t going to go somewhere with somebody every time. I wanted skills and confidence to travel without inconveniencing others. It worked for me, and I want folks—wherever they’re at in their lives—to feel that same sense of confidence, accomplishment, and adventure.

The skills that I learned at Louisiana Tech’s Institute on Blindness are those that are transferable. We don’t teach route route travel, for what we teach can be used anytime and anywhere.

My last cane travel lesson per sé was in 2003. I haven’t needed another formal O&M lesson since, because I have the confidence to ask questions, explore, and get lost every now and again!

The style of training that I learned during my first cane travel lesson at age 15 wasn’t wrong, it’s just different from what I found worked better for me. In my five years of teaching cane travel, I’ve come to see that everybody can use structured discovery in one form or another.

If Jennifer’s job sounds exciting to you, we invite you to consider a career in teaching blind students and adults how to travel confidently and independently. For more information, please contact the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University.
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Jennifer Kennedy, NOMCT

Jennifer Kennedy, an Ohio native, obtained her undergraduate degree in Communication Studies at Kent State University and went on to pursue her Master's degree after working with blind youth for several summers at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Upon graduating from Louisiana Tech University in 2008, she has taught cane travel at the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired where she works with blind adults 10 months per year. In 2011, she was promoted to serve as the Lead Orientation and Mobility Instructor and currently oversees a department of four certified instructors. In 2013, Kennedy was appointed to serve as a National Orientation and Mobility Certified Trainer (NOMCT), and she hopes to be able to provide support and internship opportunities within her agency for future NOMCs.She is married and enjoys traveling, attending theatre, bowling, and traveling.

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