American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2015      TRAVEL

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Giving Independence to a Thirteen-year-old in Georgia

by Joanne Gabias

Reprinted courtesy of the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness, Louisiana Tech University

From the Editor: The Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University continues to train tomorrow's Braille, rehabilitation, and orientation and mobility teachers, and it is always looking for bright, interested persons to train in the blindness fields. For information, visit
<>. This article, which first appeared on the institute's weekly blog, shows the impact students have on the lives of blind children and adults across the country. Joanne Gabias is earning a degree in rehabilitation teaching with a concentration in orientation and mobility.

Even though I am sighted, sometimes I prefer walking with sleepshades on. I get bored just walking, so with a cane in my hand I have something to do while I'm traveling. Maybe that makes me weird. Anyway, thanks to a schedule change, I ended up doing a route for class while I was on vacation. As it turned out, that routine travel assignment had an impact on the life of a thirteen-year-old girl.

For our quarter break I went to visit my friend Paige and her parents in Guyton, Georgia. Their neighborhood is stereotypical suburbia--in the middle of nowhere, with multiple cul-de-sacs, a community pool, and homes that all have the same look and feel. We had been told that a new and quite strange sign had gone up in the neighborhood. It read, "BLIND PERSON AREA."

Not wanting to miss the chance for a good photo, Paige and I set out in search of the sign. She acted as an instructor, giving me very little information about the area and walking behind me. I played the role of student, using my cane and wearing sleepshades.

Thanks to the ubiquitous construction sites, the sidewalks were haphazard; they started and stopped abruptly. As we walked I heard somebody mowing the lawn. I thought nothing of it until I heard the mower turn off. Instinctively I tensed up. Oh great, I thought. They're turning off the mower, thinking this blind woman needs help going for a walk.

The next thing I knew, a woman's voice called, "Are you in training?"

A mobility instructor teaches a young blind teen to use an escalator.Now I'm used to hearing this question in Ruston, Louisiana. Our little town is home to the Louisiana Center for the Blind and the Institute on Blindness, which trains future teachers of blind students. But here? In suburban Georgia?

We told the woman what we were doing, but we didn't mention our quest to find the sign. "My daughter is blind," she said. "Can I go get her to meet you?"

And so begins the story of how we met thirteen-year-old Makayla, who has retinoblastoma and had just undergone some major reconstructive surgery. Her mom, Stephanie, told us that the family had just relocated to the area in November, and her daughter hadn't yet had an O&M instructor teach her about their neighborhood. Stephanie suggested that we go for a walk together. That is how I headed toward their community pool with a future geneticist (Makayla) and a future Braille teacher (Paige).

Before setting out, Paige and I looked up articles and information for Makayla's mother about how blind people can participate actively in science classes, read Braille, travel independently, and live the lives they want. Toting nearly a dozen printed articles, we stepped inside Stephanie's home while Makayla was getting ready. I had brought an extra pair of sleepshades to show Paige's dad how much fun it is to travel with a cane. Makayla came into the dining room with a folding Ambutech cane with a marshmallow tip. I looked over to the window, wondering how to explain that I wanted to teach her a new approach to travel that would give her more tactile feedback and more advance notice than her current cane could provide--and I spied a straight, fiberglass cane in the corner. As it turned out, Makayla's O&M instructor had gotten that cane for her at the end of the school year but didn't have time to teach her to use it. To our delight, Stephanie encouraged her daughter to give the new cane a chance.

After walking only a few houses down the street, I was excited; this girl was an excellent traveler, even with very little instruction! Though she hadn't traveled alone in her own neighborhood before, she knew which streets connected and how she could get to the clubhouse from her home.

At this point, I convinced Makayla to give the sleepshades a try. I showed her the important technique of shorelining, where the student taps her cane on the grass or shoulder and then on the street to maintain her position away from traffic. (It also helped us avoid the on-again, off-again sidewalks that had already proved to be quite the nuisance!)

As we approached the roundabout near the front of Makayla's neighborhood, we began to hear a fountain. Makayla instantly recognized the sound of flowing water as a telltale sign that we were nearing the pool which was located in the middle of the roundabout.

We could have walked around the roundabout, but I wanted to show Makayla that the structured discovery cane technique would enable her to cross safely straight through the circular road. After successfully crossing, Makayla found the fence around the pool. But this wasn't good enough for me. I wanted her to find the pool, not just a fence. So she tapped her cane along the fence until she reached the gate. Again, she thought this was close enough. No, no, I thought. She needs to know that she can get all the way to the water's edge.

We walked through the gate, around the chairs, and up to the edge of the pool, where Makayla swished the water around with her cane. She asked, "Can I take my sleepshades off to look around?" Happy to oblige, I agreed. Makayla was overcome with joy, and so were we.

The pool is clearly a place that Makayla and Stephanie have visited before, yet in the six months that her family had lived in the neighborhood, Makayla had never ventured out on her own. Her sister is always out playing or riding her bike around the neighborhood, but Makayla didn't know that she could travel on her own to the pool. There is nothing as rewarding as seeing a student's pure joy as she gains confidence in herself. With just a little training and encouragement, Makayla learned that her cane gave her the same freedom that her sighted siblings have had all these years.

We donned our shades, turned around, and headed for home. As I've been trained to do, we took a different route back to Makayla's house. Before she even encountered them, Makayla was telling me that we had to cross three streets, even though these streets didn't continue on the opposite side of the road that we'd traveled a few minutes before. She picked up the sidewalk after that third street and immediately said, "I think this one is my house."

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"Well," she said, tapping her cane and running her hand along the car in the driveway, "I think this is Mom's car. Yes, yes, it is!"

To be clear, I don't advocate feeling up cars all over the neighborhood to find your home . . . but hey, whatever works!

Makayla made her way to the front door, opened it, and found her mom on the other side. Stephanie had been watching us come back, but she didn't want to interrupt Makayla's travel lesson. I've always told parents that if you wouldn't do something for your sighted children, don't do it for your blind child, either. Makayla's mom already seemed to know this. She knew that Makayla needed to understand she could leave home and come back all on her own. This is what teaching orientation and mobility to children and adults is all about.

We gave Makayla a few pointers, but she did the rest. She already knew how to get around the neighborhood; she just needed to know that she could do it on her own. Oh, and of course, I got my picture with that new sign.

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