Future Reflections March/April/May 1984, Vol. 3 No. 2

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The professionals refer to it as "O & M" (for orientation and mobility), we in the federation prefer to call it cane travel. Whatever you call it, the skill of learning to use a long white cane for independent travel is undoubtedly one of the most important, most "freeing", most confidence building skill your child can ever learn.

Because of the demands of school, many children will be participating in a summer O & M program. Even if your child will not be involved in any formal program, summer can still be a prime opportunity for a child to practice his skills and develop experience in independent travel. It can be, that is, if you encourage it and make opportunities for them to get that valuable experience.

Whether your child will be receiving formal training, or if you plan to encourage them on your own the best you can, there is some basic information about attitudes and techniques of independent travel for the blind that can make a big difference to you and your child.

There is a good reason attitude is mentioned first. The instructor MUST have a positive attitude and approach to blindness in general and to independent travel specifically. The blind student will develop confidence and belief in themselves with the encouragement of such a teacher. Conversely, the instructor with little confidence in the abilities of the blind and a narrow, limited view of independent travel for the blind will do much damage to the self esteem and confidence of the blind child just learning to move about freely and independently.

Perhaps an example can best demonstrate the point. A young blind woman from an eastern state moved to the midwest to take on her very first job. The state she had lived in had plenty of institutions serving the blind. Unfortunately, they all operated on the outmoded philosophy and belief that blind persons are --by virtue of their physical blindness alone --extremely limited. Their assumption was that what blind persons need most to learn was to know and accept their limitations. The blind people who developed good skills and appeared competitive were considered "exceptions".

The orientation and mobility training the young woman received reflected that attitude. She was three months into training before she was given a cane (the time was spent in pre cane techniques). She was not allowed off the facility without a pass, she learned to travel by a route system only, and she was told that if she ever moved she could call the local rehabilitation agency and have them teach her how to get about in her new neighborhood. So, when she moved out of state she did just that.

The rehabilitation agency in her new state had a positive philosophy about blindness and used an approach that taught students how to travel in new environments without special assistance. However, understanding her situation and wishing to be helpful, the cane travel instructor went out on several occasions to orient her to the neighborhood and her new place of employment. The instructor later reported how difficult the experience was.

The woman did not have trouble with her cane techniques (her techniques were not perfect but they were adequate), but she had no confidence in herself. She was so up-tight about her cane technique -- constantly apologizing for it -- that she could not concentrate on directions and landmarks. The real tragedy was that she need not have been that way. The instructor recalled teaching blind students with far less potential and ability to travel confidently any place they wished.

It cannot be stressed enough that positive attitudes and a belief in the capabilities of the blind are the keys to successful, independent cane travel.

Now that we have put techniques and attitudes in their proper perspective, what can parents learn and do to encourage their child's independent travel with a long white cane? Here are some suggestions that should help.

1) DO learn the basic techniques so you can encourage and praise your child for his efforts. I know, we said that too much emphasis can be harmful, but that is only if it is done with the attitude that perfect execution of technique is essential to competent travel. Constant nagging about technique can be harmful, but generous praise and encouragement can help. Descriptions and photographs of basic techniques are included with this article for your benefit.

2) DO insist that your child take her cane everywhere and that she USES it. Going to the store? Take the cane. Going to church? Take the cane. Remember the only way to become proficient in cane travel is practice, practice, practice and more practice. The cane, if used constantly and consistently, can become as natural and as comfortable to use as putting on your glasses, carrying your purse or wallet, putting on your coat in winter or any number of things we take for granted.

3) DO NOT anticipate for your son or daughter what their cane will tell them in just a few moments anyway. For example, you do not (and should not) need to tell them when you are coming to some steps, a telephone pole, a building, etc. If you are constantly telling them everything, they will never learn to trust their cane (and neither will you). If they do miss the step or the pole, the most they will likely get is a bump or bruise (they will also remember next time to use the proper technique or pay more attention to their cane).

Of course it is only common courtesy to advise them of an overhanging branch that their cane or other senses would not detect. Use your judgment, but remember the ultimate goal is for your child to be able to travel from anyplace to anywhere independently.

4) DO NOT teach your child to count steps. The proper use of the long white cane will allow a blind person to know when he has reached the top or the bottom of the steps or when he has arrived at a particular store, house, etc. In fact, counting steps can be a bad habit that interferes with a person's ability to concentrate on the sounds, smells, and landmarks around him that are much more valuable clues.

5) DO NOT allow yourself or your child to be embarrassed about using the cane in public places, or anyplace at all. It is respectable to be blind, and the long white cane is a symbol of the independence and normality of the blind. If you and your child will learn to feel and act that way, then more and more the public will take their cues from you and begin to treat the blind with respect and courtesy instead of pity and excessive helpfulness.

6) DO help your child to learn how to properly store the cane when it is not in use. In a restaurant (movies, church, school, etc.), it can be slid under the table and chair as long as it does not stick out into an aisle where someone could trip on it. It can also be leaned in a corner or against a wall with ease. If none of these are possible, the person who is sitting can simply bring it in close to their side and rest it against their shoulder. It can be kept easily and comfortably there with little inconvenience.

In automobiles the cane can be placed in first or pulled in afterward. Even in the smallest compact car, the cane can be easily placed between or along the seat and the door or side of the vehicle. In some vehicles the person can rest the cane over the shoulder at an angle. The same principles apply to airplanes. If it seems necessary in an airplane, the cane can even be placed against your side and buckled in with you.

7) DO expect your child -- taking into consideration their age, maturity and experience -- to learn and do such things as finding a door and door handle, and opening it for you; determine when to cross the street instead of waiting for you to give the go-ahead; run errands for you to the store or to the neighbor's house to borrow a cup of sugar; walk (or run) ahead of you as you walk down the street; take the bus, alone, shopping or to a school event; and any number of other things which demonstrates your confidence in their ability to travel independently.

8) DO encourage the use of sleep shade training for your partially-sighted child. Learning to travel under blindfold has a number of advantages. First of all, it is faster and easier to learn the techniques and to trust them if you are not trying to rely on residual vision. Secondly, it builds confidence to know you can travel efficiently and safely without any vision at all. Finally, your youngster will be better able to make an informed decision about when his sight can be used safely and efficiently and when an alternative technique is better.

Caution: if the instructor will only give sleep shade training on a limited basis, your son or daughter may be better off without it at all. A small amount of training under blindfold can increase not decrease their fears and insecurities about travel. This is because they never have enough time to build up their skills and therefore their confidence under the blindfold.

9) DO NOT allow your child's training to get "bogged down" because they cannot (or will not) execute a particular skill perfectly.

One mother, who had consented to pre-cane technique for her seven-year-old on the understanding that it would be brief and cane instruction would begin soon, became concerned when week after week passed and no progress was made. She called the teacher, who insisted she couldn't move on until the child demonstrated his knowledge of a particular skill and concept. The mother sat her son down to talk to him about it, and discovered that he was so bored with the whole thing that he was deliberately doing things wrong to "spice up" his classes. Needless to say, the mother got that straightened out fast, and he had a cane within a week.

Other children may not be progressing because they are timid, so they manipulate the teacher so they do not have to move on. But even if the child really does not have the skill or concept down pat -- it is no reason to refuse to go on to something more challenging. Again, perfect execution of a skill or complete understanding of a concept is NOT necessary for independent travel.

10) DO use sighted guide techniques SPARINGLY and only after careful consideration. Yes, it might be faster, for now, but how will it affect your child's progress? It is also faster to tie the kid's shoes, pick up the toys, make the beds, dress them, do the dishes, and all kinds of things they need to learn. Most parents finally figure out that they must take the time and let the kids learn to do by doing.

Next time you are tempted to let, or ask, your child to take your arm, ask yourself, "Am I doing this for my convenience . . . because I don't want to take the time, or handle the stares, or because I get tongue-tied trying to give directions ... or because it is appropriate in this situation?"

When you do go sighted guide, encourage your child to continue using the cane in the usual manner, or with modified grip. This puts your child "in-control" even when going sighted guide.

Remember, if your child is to develop skill and confidence in traveling in open areas (such as parking lots); in buildings, and yes, crowds too; they need PRACTICE. They can't get that by hanging on to an arm. If the sounds you make walking are not sufficient clues for your child to follow, just remember to talk some, and you won't loose each other.

There are other kinds of information you, as a parent, also need to be aware of as you anticipate your child's beginning cane travel instruction. Here are some commonly asked questions and their answers.

1) Why is the cane sometimes called the "long white cane?"

Blind people have been able to travel independently since ancient times. Blind beggars in ancient China traveled in groups with the aid of "sticks and gongs." Blind guides led travelers across the deserts of Egypt in the fifth century A.D. John Metcalf, blind entrepreneur, road builder, boxer, etc., of 18th century England is said to have had a stick nearly as long as his hat and once walked 200 miles in six days.

The short, wooden, white cane with a red tip or strip became popular among the blind after World War I, and its use spread throughout Europe and finally to North America.

Richard Hoover, who worked with blinded World War II veterans, is credited with developing what we call the long white cane. The cane was called "long" because he discovered what John Metcalf had obviously discovered centuries earlier; that is, that the traditional wooden cane was much too short to allow a person to walk safely at a normal stride. Hoover also experimented with different materials to use for the cane and various techniques for travel with the cane.

2) What kind of cane is recommended?

Two of the best known, most widely used canes are the typhlocane and the hollow, fiberglass cane commonly known as the "NFB cane."

The typhlocane is made of aluminum tubing, has a nylon tip and a "crook" handle.

The fiberglass cane is sometimes called the NFB cane because the National Federation of the Blind began stocking and selling these canes a number of years ago when long white canes were not always easy to get. As with any product that the NFB decides to stock and sell, the fiberglass cane is of superior quality and, we believe, the best cane available. The cane has a metal tip and a straight handle. Users of this cane report superior tactile and sound feedback, and find its lighter weight less tiring. It also has an attractive appearance. The canes used in the photos with this article are all fiberglass canes.

Folding or collapsible canes are also available, but they are NOT recommended for the cane travel student. These canes do not have the durability or the necessary sensitivity especially important for the beginner. (However, the NFB recently obtained a collapsible cane which is the best developed so far. These are available from the NFB national headquarters. Again, these should not be used with the student in training.)

Note: cane tips, both metal and nylon, do wear out. Both kinds of tips can be removed from the cane and replaced with new tips.

3) How long should the cane be?

The cane should be long enough to allow the user to walk at his/her normal stride and still locate and react to obstacles in a timely manner.

Cane length must be matched to the individual and will depend upon speed, stride and individual reaction time. It isn't uncommon for two travelers of the same stature to need canes of different respective lengths. Generally, the length is somewhere between mid-chest and the nose.

Skill and confidence increases one's speed, so students can expect to complete training with a cane anywhere from four to six inches longer than the one they began training with.

4) How old should a child be before beginning formal cane travel instruction?

(See page 20 for a discussion of cane travel and the pre-schooler). Certainly as soon as a child is ready to start school they are ready for a cane. The O & M profession has traditionally frowned on this early introduction of the cane, but that is slowly changing, largely because of the National Federation of the Blind. There are now teachers all over the country (Maryland, Iowa, Colorado, Arizona, Nebraska, California and other states) teaching five-year-olds the use of the long white cane. Doris Willoughby of Iowa and Fred Schroeder of Arizona are two such pioneers of this area.

5) Should I consider getting a dog guide for my child?

Dog guide schools do not recommend or accept students younger than ages 14 or 16. The care and use of a dog requires more maturity and discipline than a child can be expected to have, have.

There are many pros and cons of canes as travel aids versus dogs as travel aids, but it generally boils down to personal preference. There are legitimate reasons for wanting a dog, but there are also some bad reasons for selecting a dog. As a parent, you must be careful to help your child avoid these. A common one is thinking that a dog would be a "good companion" to a young blind teenager who seems to have few friends. This problem is one of socialization and attitudes about blindness, and getting a dog is not the solution to this problem.

If your son or daughter is a young adult and is considering a dog, the National Federation of the Blind has an active dog guide committee and could help you get in touch with dog users in your area and/or refer you to the several reputable training schools around the country.

CANE GRIP . . . The cane should be held in the prominent hand as if the user were about to "shake hands" with the grip of the cane. The inside of the hand should be tilted upwards. The index finger may be extended along with the shaft of the cane, or not, according to the user's preference. The cane hand should be slightly extended and towards the center of the body. It is easy to center the cane correctly if you line-up the cane hand with the navel. Centering the cane facilitates walking in a straight line.

TWO POINT TOUCH ... The major purpose of the cane is to detect obstacles in the path of the user. To do this, the user arcs the cane from side to side (tapping it once on each side) in an alternating pattern with their steps. That is, when the left foot is forward, the cane is to the right; and when the right foot is forward, the cane is on the left. The alternate cane/step pattern allows for an additional step and reaction time when the cane does encounter an obstacle. By arcing the cane back and forth, the user is not only aware of obstacles directly in front of him/her but also of obstacles to either side. The width of the arc should, at a minimum, clear the shoulders and can be up to 3-5 inches wider than shoulder width. The cane should be moved with the wrist, not the arm. This way, a person can use the cane for long periods of time without tiring. The longer cane shown here allows the user to keep the elbow comfortably flexed. If a cane is too short, the user is forced to extend the arm straight out in front in order to get the necessary length. The flexed elbow allows the user to travel longer without tiring and also presents a natural and pleasing appearance.

MODIFIED OR PENCIL-GRIP . . .In situations where it is not desirable to have the cane fully extended (such as large crowds of people) a modified cane-grip may be used. You first choke-up on the cane, that is, slide the hand down below the handle or grip of the cane and grasp the shaft. This will shorten the cane's extension. In this position, the cane is held just as you would hold a pencil, with the cane gripped between the index and middle fingers and the thumb. You then use the two point touch technique, just as you do with the usual grip. This can be a good technique to use in tall grass, sand and snow. It is also helpful to use when going sighted guide.

STEPS Three photos of three different cane users are shown here to demonstrate how the basic techniques can be used, but with a range of acceptable variations.

GOING DOWN ... In going down steps, the cane should be extended in front of the body and, for maximum safety, at a slight angle extending from the cane hand toward the other side of the body. The regular cane grip can be used and the cane hand can be held at the side. Some instructors suggest that the cane be held in a pencil-grip and gently swung back and forth to clear a path as you decend. The feel and angle of the cane will let the user know when the bottom of the steps have been reached.

STEPS GOING UP ... When going up steps, the cane should be held in front of and parallel to the body. (The pencil-grip can be used here if desired.) As the cane user ascends the stairs, the cane should be one step ahead of him/her. The cane should be allowed to swing naturally against the side of each step. This way, the user can immediately tell when they have reached the top of the stairs and can continue on their way without hesitation.

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