Seeing is Believing

Rainbow Bridge over Niagara Falls, from Doug Kerr on Flickr

When it comes to teaching cane travel, the methodology that we teach at the Institute on Blindness is very different from that taught by traditionally-trained instructors. Many instructors will tell you that they encourage their students to problem solve, explore their environments non-visually, or answer Socratic questions just as we do, yet they reserve these methods for their “more advanced students.”

We encourage our students, apprentices, and graduates to use these techniques from the first minute that they meet a student. Our goal is to immediately begin transferring the onus of safety, independence, and understanding to the student. We don’t immediately send a student on a complex, independent route when they just begin using a cane. But when they ask questions like, “Is my cane arc right?” or “Am I walking straight?”, we ask them, “Do you think your arc is in step?” or “Well, when you started were you closer to the left or right wall? And where are you now?”

It’s just as important for a beginning student to feel empowered and in control as it is for an experienced college graduate.

At AER International’s O&M conference held last week in New Orleans, one lady came up to me after a session to explain that what I was presenting wasn’t anything new, though she admitted that she’d like to use sleep shades more often. Then, she said, “But of course I would never expect students to use sleep shades for the first few weeks…you know, until they get used to stairs.”

Wow. In addition to a completely different curriculum, this kind of thinking goes to show the outdated, misinformed disbelief in the capability of blind people to live normal, active lives. To me, teaching a student to live a normal, active life begins by treating normal activities—like using stairs—as the routine, not-scary tasks that they are.

At the conference, a group of us from Louisiana Tech and Florida State University led a hands-on session where we taught 27 people how to use, teach, and understand structured discovery cane travel. We donned our sleep shades, left the comfort of the hotel, and explored the lively streets of New Orleans.

During our debrief session afterwards, those traditionally-trained teachers said that the structured discovery approach was far easier to understand than they’d initially believed. Furthermore, as we have known for years, they understood what an impact it can make for a student during his first street crossing when a teacher is using the same techniques to safely assess traffic. In structured discovery cane travel, it’s not the sighted instructors who keep their students safe;safety comes from the application of a reliable technique.

As I mentioned before the conference on this blog, the “old guard” who hoped we’d quietly leave the O&M profession has begun to accept us. The tide has shifted, and it’s shifted in a way that it’s not going to reverse itself. We’ve known that our techniques work, the research has continued to back us up, and—albeit slowly—the skeptics are trying our techniques and seeing that they work.

Photo credit: Doug Kerr, on Flickr

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Edward Bell, Ph.D., CRC, NOMC

Edward Bell, Ph.D., CRC, NOMC

Dr. Bell is the Director of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University.

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