Future Reflections May/June 1983, Vol. 2 No. 3

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An excerpt from A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children

by Doris Willoughby

(Editor's Note: A Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children is an excellent book. If I had to choose only one book as a help in raising a blind child, I would choose this one. It can be purchased for the price of $5.95 from NFB, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230. Checks should be made payable to the NFB.)

The Southview school system had just begun to offer cane travel to children in preschool and the early grades. Six-year-old Kelley was eager to learn to walk to the school bus alone. She was the only child in her class on her particular bus, and she disliked needing to be "taken" to it. She hoped to find the bus by herself right away --after all, she had always boarded it at the same place.

As she proceeded, however, Kelley found that she had much more to learn than she had realized. She often needed to ask questions such as,

"Is this a fire hydrant or a mailbox?"

"Am I turning left now?"

"Does the bus stop on the sidewalk?"

Kelley had, of course, walked past fire hydrants and mailboxes many times. She had walked forward, turned left, and turned right. She had climbed into and out of parked cars and buses. However, she had always been guided by someone else, without understanding exactly where she was, and without putting words with actions. Therefore she still had many concepts to learn before she could walk to the bus alone --concepts which could have been learned during the preschool years.

In contrast to Kelley's lack of understanding, help your young child to realize where he is and where he is going. Talk about the feel of grass, sidewalk, or gravel underfoot. Comment on the steepness of a hill. Notice the rush of air when you open an outside door, or when you walk past a large building into an open space. Pay attention to the smell of the bakery or the sound of the river. Even though your child is walking with you, he can learn to gain information for independent travel.

Let your preschooler examine the mailbox and the fire hydrant, and help him reach the top. Let him mail a letter. Talk about the names of objects, places, and motions. Repeat each experience over and over. As you walk with your child, sometimes say, "Now we are turning left," or ask, "Are we turning left or right?" Talk about the curb as you step up or down, and examine a parked car's position by the curb. (The child will need to use his hands to understand what the curb is like, where the car is, etc. He may get dirty, but he will learn.) Later, have your child tell you how to proceed along a familiar route. In walking to a neighbor's home, ask him which way to turn, how many blocks you must walk, etc.

Teach your child to follow directions, such as, "Go through the doorway on your left" or "Please pick up your chair and bring it here." Even a toddler can walk toward you as you call him. Since knowing right and left is very important for a blind person, it is worth teaching as early as possible. Wearing a ring or a toy watch can make this learning easier.

Teach your child to give directions also, especially for finding his home. By kindergarten he should be able to give his complete name, address, and telephone number. An older child should be able to explain how to reach his home (as well as other familiar locations) from various approaches, and to describe how to recognize it. Thus, the blind passenger is not passively dependent on the driver of a vehicle, but instead actively participates in reaching the location.

Look for ways in which your child can use sounds to find his way around. Instead of going to him, ask the child to walk toward your voice. When you say, "Please pick up this box," you might tap on the box to show him which one you mean. Play games in which you "hide" an object which makes a noise (without turning off the noise) and ask the child to find it. Talk about sounds outdoors, such as birds and airplanes. Notice that footsteps and other sounds create different echoes in an enclosed space than they do in the open. Play "Follow the Leader" as you move along while making a sound.

The sounds of traffic are particularly important. If your child pays attention to these sounds and begins to understand them early, it will be that much easier for him to learn cane travel later. When you are waiting to walk across a lightly traveled street, let your child tell you whether he hears any cars. When you prepare to walk across at a traffic light, have your child listen for traffic to stop and start. When he crosses alone with a cane later, he will need to listen for the cars going across in front of him to stop, and for the other cars to start up with his green light.

The independent traveler also needs to understand the rest of the scene which surrounds him. Help your youngster realize, for example, that the sidewalk is usually between the buildings and the street, and that parking meters are usually by the curb. Mention directions such as north and south, and gradually help your child to use and understand them. Sometimes ask him to point toward the traffic, and later to show you which way it is moving. These kinds of things all build an understanding of one's location and of the surroundings.

When a sighted child enters a new school, he will look with his eyes to see where things are. The blind child needs to walk around and touch things, and this cannot easily to done while class is in session. Take your child to the preschool or kindergarten room before school starts and let him explore. Arrange a convenient time for the teacher to meet him. Walk through typical routes such as from the playground to the coat room, while discussing such things as right and left turns. Help the child to examine things by touch, and to explore with his cane if he has one. As you walk along, you might say, "Feel the rough brick on this wall... Now, here's a sink; let's turn the water on and off once ... Here we go through a big door. Notice that your cane makes a different sound when it hits the door instead of the wall. Let's open and close the door. Look at this bar that opens it from the inside; it's a lot different from a doornob, isn't it? ... Now, this wall feels smooth; it's made of plaster and it's painted green ... We're walking through a doorway and into the coat room. We'll walk along this wall and look at all these hooks. You and the other children will hang your coats on these hooks ..."

Even though your child may still be assisted in moving around during the first days of school, this practice will provide much confidence and also for the older child entering a new though he is skilled with a cane), so that he will not have so much to learn on the first day of classes. If a resource or itinerant teacher will be working with your child, he may take care of this for you; and a special school usually will plan to orient each child individually also.

When your child is walking with someone, expect him to walk at normal speed. Expect him to move along on his own power rather than being pushed or pulled. When a tall adult walks with a small child, he will naturally take his hand. When the two individuals are similar in height, however, it is better for the blind person to take the arm of the sighted person. (A gentle grip just above the elbow is suggested.) In this manner the blind person can easily feel the other person stop, step up or down, etc., rather than feeling he is being pushed ahead into unknown territory. The youngster may need reminding to grasp the arm gently rather than squeezing, and to move alone rather than holding back.

Experience in walking at normal speed, in various situations, and with different people, is important in preventing the habit of walking very slowly or with an unnatural motion.

Discuss the future use of a cane as a big step to real independence; help your preschool child to look forward to using one. If at all possible, have him walk with a blind adult who is a good traveler. There is no better way to show that the cane really works. Many a youngster has protested that "a blind person couldn't go there alone," only to be taken there speedily by a good cane traveler. Nothing is more convincing.

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