‘Heartened’ by Louisiana’s Future Cane Travel Teachers

When rapid transit came to California in the early 1970s, I remember learning to use the underground trains along with everyone else…sighted and blind. Because I was trained to travel in such a way that said, “You know how to keep yourself safe, so go figure it out.” That simple concept of instilling in me, a student at the time, that my instructor believed in my abilities was liberating. I didn’t need somebody to orient me to the ticket machine, where the gates were, how to find the platform, or how to know when we’d reached my stop. That’s what orientation and mobility is all about.

Last week, I spoke with students at the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech, and I was heartened to see the quality of folks going into the O&M field. I stressed that the structured discovery method is not just an alternative way of teaching cane travel. Rather, it’s the most empowering and effective methodology that we know of for teaching a blind person to go where and when they want.

i was trained in a “conventional” orientation and mobility program in the late ‘70s, but it was one of the better ones that existed. My first job teaching cane travel was with the Nebraska Center for the Blind, who intentionally recruited and trained blind people to teach travel…while I, a blind person, was in the midst of suing the only organization who certified O&M professionals at the time.

Back then, the cane travel technique that I used didn’t have a name, but today we’d call it “structured discovery cane travel.” For example, when you orient a new student to where classrooms are at a training center, you might show them the braille room, the technology classroom, and then the kitchen. As a cane travel instructor, you immediately give them routes that involve going places that they haven’t been mechanically taught. In other words, you will ask them to travel a route that involves going to the technology room first, then the kitchen, and finally the braille room.

The idea is that you expect a student to be oriented and to be able to find whatever it is he or she wants…even if it’s a specific route that individual hasn’t previously been taught. You do that from the beginning, have them practice with you for a little while, then give them opportunities to practice independently. All the while, the individual is relying on his or her own technique for safety.

More than the techniques that they’re using, the level of commitment from the students with whom I spoke last week is very encouraging.

These folks are empowering blind people as opposed to teaching a set of mechanical skills. Route training, taught by those who subscribe to the more traditional school of thought, is far less stressful for the teacher and student. At the end of the day, that approach yields less dramatic results.

When you teach only technical skills, you don’t build into an individual the same sense of control or freedom that you get through structured discovery. The mechanics of structured discovery are not particularly different from the mechanical skills taught under the traditional cane travel approach—moving the cane back and forth to find a clear path, using the sound of traffic to judge a safe crossing, etc.—but the results are dramatically different. The independent routes that you give a brand new student begin building up the sense that they can be in charge of their own safety and orientation. Students see that they don’t need somebody to give them a detailed, prescribed route, but—by applying strategies—they can go out where and when they please.

The students whom I met in Louisiana last week have a passion for teaching cane travel in a way that is liberating. They clearly understand what independent travel can be like for a blind person. Most of all, they’re anxious to go teach that to people.

So much of rehabilitation—and frankly of special education—is rooted in expectations. Your instruction, subconscious or not, will lead toward those expectations. When you expect your students to be in charge of their own safety, empowered to explore, and eager to go new places, you instill a mindset in your students that says “go wherever, whenever and however you want.”

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Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.

Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.

Born in Lima, Peru, Dr. Schroeder attended public school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but received no special education instruction in Braille or any alternative techniques. After earning his bachelor's degree, he was the first blind person ever to be admitted to a university program in orientation and mobility. He went on teach cane travel, direct special education, and the U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration. In addition to many other roles, he is now the Executive Director of the National Rehabilitation Association.
Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.

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