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

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Our national office received this past year a brief letter from some parents in Kansas. The complete text of the letter was this:

Dear Sir:

You are offering canes for blind children. Our child is 2 1/2. Can she benefit from having a cane? If so, how do you determine the proper length? We will appreciate your response!

William Osborne

It is significant that the blind child in question was only 21/2 years old. Today, many parents of very young blind children are thinking ahead about their child's future. They are asking, "What skills will they need to know?" "How will they get a good education?" What job opportunities will be available to them?" "What can I do now to assure a better future for my child?"

The National Federation of the Blind is pleased that more and more parents are coming to the NFB for answers, for their questions are the very problems the organized blind have been addressing successfully since 1940. The blind know that solutions come from organized efforts, and are pleased to help, and welcome as partners, parents of blind children in our mutual cause.

But, back to the letter. Mr. Osborne's letter was passed on to me for reply. I gave it some thought, then replyed as follows: November 10,1983

Dear Mr. Osborne,

Here is, finally, the in-depth letter I promised you. I hope it helps.

First of all, let me tell you about our experiences with our son. My husband and I have a fiveyearold who is blind. We adopted him when he was two years old. He (our son) has some usable vision for travel purposes. However, he does have a cane, (and has had one since he was two) which he uses occasionally and will use more often as he gets older and more independent travel is expected of him. My husband was a cane travel instructor for the blind for about two years, and because of his experience, he was determined to get a cane in our son's hand as soon as possible. At that time it meant cutting down a regular sized NFB fiberglass cane and refitting it with a smaller handle. As you know, child sized canes are now available from the NFB National Office. (They come in these lengths: 24", 26", 28", 30", 32", 34", 36". They are $10.00 each and can be ordered from: National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230. I understand that the payment must accompany the order.)

As I mentioned earlier, our son has some usable vision but he has little or no depth perception. He could never be sure if a change in shape, texture or composition of the surface he was on also meant a step-up, or a drop-down. He was also finding out that what appeared to be a smooth, flat surface -- all of one color and composition -- could mask unexpected drop-offs. He fell flat on his face once because he did not have his cane and he assumed that the concrete walk in front of him was flat. It was a walk-way into a church building and had several of those long steps of varying widths. Since that time, he has learned that the concrete walk along a street is usually flat and that walkways into buildings, such as churches, post offices, etc., very often have "hidden" steps.

But back to my story. We gave Chaz the cane and took him on some walks. He quickly learned how to use the cane to probe the area in front of him. With it he learned some general spatial concepts and such practical things as how deep curbs are and where you can expect them. We showed him how to use the cane and what it could do for him. However, he did not fully understand (as much as a two-year-old can understand, anyway) until he had some exposure to blind adults who use canes. What really made it click for him was spending a day with a blind couple. My husband and I had a day-long meeting to attend, so some friends of ours (the blind couple) offered to babysit our two sons. They played outside, took them for a ride in a wagon, and walked to an ice cream shop about five blocks away from their home. All the while, they used their long white canes. They did not give our son any formal instructions in its use (though I believe they answered some questions he had). The results however were dramatic. He obviously had a much better grasp of the cane's function and usefullness to him after that experience.

In your letter, you asked, "Can a two-and-ahalf-year-old blind child benefit from a cane?" From our experience, I would say, "Yes!" Can ALL blind children at age two-and-a-half benefit from a cane? Maybe, maybe not. Can YOUR child benefit? I don't know. You are the best people to decide that. However, there is information and guide-lines you can use to help you make that decision. I suggest you buy and read Doris Willoughby's book, A RESOURCE GUIDE FOR PARENTS AND EDUCATORS OF BLIND CHILDREN, and YOUR SCHOOL INCLUDES A BLIND CHILD. They have much helpful information, not only about independent travel, but about all areas you may have concerns in. I am also enclosing a general article about cane travel which is published and distributed by the National Federation of the Blind.

Here, too, are some of my thoughts. I feel that learning to use a cane is no more difficult or unusual than a wide variety of skills we expect young children to learn. We expect children to learn how to properly use a spoon, drink out of a cup, control their bowels, dressing themselves, etc. We know that it takes time for a child to learn these skills and we know that not all children will learn them at the same rate. I recently met a mother whose one-year-old daughter was totally weaned from a bottle and drank beautifully from a cup. My daughter, at the rate she is going, will probably be over two-years old before she drinks skillfully and exclusively from a cup. I have a friend whose fouryearold daughter (a very bright young girl) still needed to wear diapers at night. Another friend had a child completely potty-trained at age two.

Children not only learn skills gradually and at different rates, but it also takes time for them to see a particular tool as a functional object, not a "fun" plaything. My five-year-old still thinks his fork makes a fine airplane, and my six-year-old recently decided to try his penmanship on my good sheets. Again, the use of the cane is a skill which a child can acquire early, but takes time and patience to perfect, just like any other skill.

One reason we wanted to introduce the cane early to our son was to foster a positive attitude in our son about using a cane. Young children are open-minded and eager to accept and learn anything new. Teen-agers are likely to resent and resist the cane as something they fear will make them "different" and set them apart from others. Our son may very well go through such a stage, but because of his earlier experiences, he is more likely to accept the cane as he gains maturity and confidence.

I have told you some about our son's use of the cane, now let me tell you about another fiveyearold and her experience with the cane. This girl and her parents attended the National Federation of the Blind Parent's Seminar in Kansas City, Missouri this past July. Their daughter was with them throughout the seminar. After the seminar, these parents purchased an NFB child's size cane for her. Though I did not see her, many of my friends asked me if I had seen her (the little girl) "zipping" around the hotel. Apparently her parents were amazed at the difference in her. I was told that before she got the cane she walked slowly and with great caution. Even when walking hand-in-hand with someone, she would hang back and would not walk at a normal rate. After she got the cane, she struck out on her own and was exploring rooms and hallways with confidence and enthusiasm

Remember, her parents purchased it at the seminar and to my knowledge she and her parents only received some pointers on techniques from the film that was shown -- "Kids with Canes" -- and maybe some pointers from blind f eder ationists also attending the seminar.

But these parents' experience has this significance: when a child reaches a point where they are NOT significantly as independent, mobility-wise, as their peers, then it is definitely time to get a long white cane. Again, that does not mean that they should not be exposed to it earlier. Early, positive exposure can play a significant role in your child's attitude toward using the cane.

This brings us now to your question of proper length. I think Chaz's cane was somewhat between shoulder and armpit height. Although 0 & M specialists will often say that the cane should be no higher than sternum level, we believe that is far too short. That belief is based upon observations of various travel-training programs and the experiences of competent blind travelers.

Actually, there is no good "formula" for determining length. It's like my English teacher used to say when we asked her how long our assigned essay should be -- "Long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting." A cane should be long enough to allow the individual to walk at a normal pace and still allow them enough time to stop or react to any obstacle or drop-off that may be encountered. A person's length of stride, confidence, skill, health, age, etc. will affect the proper cane length much more than their physical height. It is not unusual for a person to use a shorter cane when they first begin learning its use, and in a matter of months start using a much longer one as they gain confidence and skill. If that same person has a health problem which makes them weaker and slower, they may go back to a shorter cane for a while.

This has been a lengthy response to your brief questions, but for many reasons I thought it best to go into some depth. One of those rasons is that the very early introduction of the cane is not yet commonly accepted practice among the Orientation and Mobility/profession, or other educators of blind children. Educators who are teaching cane travel to very young children are truly "pioneers". They are breaking new ground, challenging tradition and flouting the "accepted practice". It is no coincidence that these pioneers are, almost without exception, active members of the National Federation of the Blind.

You notice I said that teaching young children the use of the white cane was not yet common practice. The implication is that someday it will be, and I believe that is so. Despite the resistance among some of the professionals, there is already evidence of increased openness and interest in this new approach. The results, of course, speak for themselves.

I cannot close without also making some comments about why this resistance in the first place. In part, it can be seen as coming from the old "protect your turf, and "we've always done it this way" syndrome. Nothing new in that. However, the roots of resistance go deeper than that. If you are going to be in a position to advocate and defend your child's early use of the cane, you must understand where the real source of resistance comes. It is, quite simply, an attitudinal problem.

It isn't too difficult to understand that what you believe about blindness will determine what your expections will be of a blind child, or any blind person. Is blindness a tragedy and disaster? Is it so much more terrible than any other limitation that you simply cannot expect a blind person to ever be as "good" or as "competent" as any sighted person? If you believe that, then you likely also believe that all the alternative techniques used by the blind are not only inferior, but extremely difficult to learn. If you believe, however, that blindness is only another characteristic and that its' limitations can be reduced to the level of a mere nuisance -- then your expectations will be different. Furthermore, you will not view alternative techniques as mysterious and complex, but merely common sense adaptations to that characteristic. I believe that many professionals resist the concept and the practice of teaching young children cane travel because they have the first attitude I mentioned. After all, if blindness is that terrible and the alternative techniques are so complex to learn, you certainly couldn't expect a very young child to learn them. On the other hand, if blindness is reducible to the level of a nuisance then there certainly is no reason a child cannot begin learning the necessary techniques at an early age.

Again, I am glad you wrote and I hope my comments have been helpful. I truly applaud the interest and concern your questions obviously indicate you hold for your child's present and future well-being and independence.

Barbara Cheadle

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