Parents are a child’s first teachers
Children who are blind can learn to walk around their neighborhoods or other areas, use public transportation and, in many cases, plan how to get where they want to go. Parents can provide experiences and daily-life training that will give their children a head start in the science and art of orientation and mobility. Inserting some of these ideas into walks with your child can augment the travel methods that your child’s orientation and mobility teacher will teach.
Orientation and mobility includes the techniques for a person who is blind to know where he/she is in the environment and determine how to move about and get somewhere else – and perhaps back to the starting point.
The White Cane
It’s important for parents to seek white-cane mobility training for their children as young as three and continuing through school. But if this training is hard to find, there are state-contracted professionals and summer camps that can help. If this training is done in a place away from where the child lives, it is important to get the child outside and into the home area at a young age to help him/her feel comfortable navigating and to reduce the travel anxiety some children experience.
Basically, a white cane serves as an extended arm that allows the traveler to make contact with objects without bumping into them. The white cane is the traveler’s protector. Step out with your left foot and the cane is checking out your right side so that, when you step out with your right foot, your body is protected on the right side. Cane training is a complicated process but, basically, a traveler can use a cane to find the top and bottom step of a staircase, check along a building to find a door, detect potential hazards to the front and the sides and detect changes in ground or sidewalk elevation. The fact that canes roll instead of tap these days provides much better protection from sudden changes in elevation, such those that occur sometimes on sidewalks, and help to prevent tripping or falling.
Early Lessons Build Self-Confidence
Start by helping your child walk straight. For some children who have little or no vision, sensing where they are situated in space can present a tough learning curve. Is your daughter facing straight across a street or is she positioned at an angle? Being positioned somewhere other than directly across the street from the up curb means the child starts on a trajectory that will not get her directly across the street.
Start on your street. Practice walking up and down it, past neighboring houses and stores, noticing landmarks such as rises or dips in the walk, the sounds of buildings on the side, motors such as generators or air conditioning units. Explain how houses along the street are numbered. Discuss that generally even numbers are on one side and odd numbers on the other. Perhaps you will pass businesses along the way, where the child can hear that the buildings are close to the sidewalk. Have the child listen to traffic. How loud or quiet is it? In what direction does the traffic travel?
If your child has some vision, point out visual features of buildings or signs: a bright color, a certain slant to the roof, the McDonald’s golden arches, the Coca-Cola sign.
Importance of Cardinal (north-south-east-west) Directions
It is important to teach children cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. This will help the child map a route or invent a route by understanding how one place relates to another.
Take a piece of paper and write “north” on the top, “south” on the bottom, “east” on the right, “west” on the left. Write the Braille words if the child reads Braille. Create visual or tactile lines for streets that run north and south and those that run east and west. Have the child use the paper with north at the top, like a compass. Have the child turn in a square. Imagine he’s facing north; where is east. It’s a turn to the right. If he’s facing west, where is north? That’s a turn to the right. Use a checkerboard or some other board with lines to explain a streetscape, perhaps using checkers to plot locations of familiar buildings.
Transfer this to the outdoors. Let’s say your house is at the northwest corner of Smith Street, which runs north and south, and Jones Street, which runs east and west. What are the names of the streets west of Smith Street? What are the streets south of Jones?
Make a list of names of streets to the north of your house, to the east, to the west and the south. With these street names in order, the traveler who’s gaining experience can find a street five blocks to the east or three blocks south.
Next, design a street intersection that looks like a cross. Draw the line for Jones and Smith streets, and have them intersect, as they do at your theoretical house. Explain the northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest corners. How would the child get from the northeast corner to the northwest? What about going from the southwest to the northeast? Which streets would the child have to cross?
Counting blocks is a great technique for designing a route. Let’s say Smith divides the east part of town from the west part, and that Jones divides the north from the south. It’s the town’s meridian. If your house is at 615 E. Jones Street, it’s likely it will be six blocks east of Smith. As you walk east, the odd-numbered houses probably will be on the left. If you’re walking west, odd numbers will be on the left as well. Right where that cross sits, at Smith and Jones, is the point where the numbering in all four directions starts. Numbers get larger the farther you travel from the main intersection.
Have the child go from 615 E. Jones to 112 N. Smith. How many blocks would that be? What streets will he cross?
Bus travel uses cardinal directions in a similar way. In the city where I live, there’s a major bus line that mostly travels east and west. If you want to travel west, you board the bus on the north side of the street. If you want to go east, you board on the south side. Bus stops for eastbound and westbound travelers usually are near each other. If the bus announces “Smith and Seventh,” the bus will stop along Smith very near Seventh, if not at the corner.
Children probably will be nervous traveling on the bus at first. So explain that buses start at one point and eventually work their way back to that same point. So, if you miss your stop, you can always travel the route and end up back where you started.
Crossing streets straight can present big problems. New cane users often veer to the right or left. The more the person practices walking straight, the more her brain will remember what that feels like. It’s a bit like playing the piano. In the first few lessons, the pianist plays slowly and probably will make mistakes. After four or five years, the pianist will be able to play a piece of music comfortably and with few mistakes. So it is with traveling straight.
To help facilitate straight crossings, have the child line up his foot with a wheelchair ramp or some other marker on the side of the street. Have him listen to traffic. Can he tell if he’s facing directly across from the curb on the opposite side of the intersection? A parent might want to stand at the opposite curb and call to the child the first few times.
Take time to learn and apply skills
It’s good not to overwhelm the child all at once with extensive explanations of her environment. Have her learn one way to the store, then figure out another way. Take time to show her unusual land features such as winding streets or crossings where the opposite curb might be a bit to the left or right of the down curb. In these cases, help the child to stand at a bit of an angle to reach the other side successfully.
Encourage the child with the idea that getting lost isn’t the end of the world. When accompanying the child to a new place, encourage him to ask someone, for example, if this is the drugstore. When the child is old enough to have a cell phone or a talking GPS, these tools build confidence because a good GPS program for blind users names the streets as the walker or rider crosses them.
This article describes only a few techniques. Orientation and mobility instructors can teach the child how to navigate complex intersections or to find specific places that are difficult to locate. If parents start this process early and work in conjunction with the mobility instructor, the child is likely to see the white cane and daily travel as part of life, not a homework assignment that instills nervousness or fear.