Future Reflections         Special Issue: The Teen Years

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Kyra Prepares for High School

by Barbara Mathews

Arm-in-arm with her friends, Kyra is a proud and confident cane user who doesn’t let blindness deter her from seeing the world.Reprinted from Future Reflections, Special Issue: Cane Travel and Independence, Vol. 27 No. 2

From the Editor: Barbara Mathews lives in Santa Monica, California, and serves on the board of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). In the years since this article first appeared, Barbara's daughter Kyra has been an active, successful high school student.

My daughter, Kyra Sweeney, will start high school in a few months. It's a huge school with three thousand students and multiple buildings spread out over a couple of acres, so mobility is on our minds. We all like to tout our children's skills and accomplishments (and implicitly, I suppose, our own). Well, here's an admission: mobility is not Kyra's greatest skill.

We have a couple of excuses. One is that she seems to have inherited my sense of direction, or lack thereof. Those "You are Here" signs always confuse me. At our vacation home in the mountains, I swear the sun rises in the west. Another reason for Kyra's weakness in mobility is even harder to admit. It's that we're busy. We're often in a hurry. It's usually quicker just to guide her than to insist that she walk by herself.

Nonetheless, I'm really not concerned about how Kyra will get around in high school. With the help of the NFB, we have been preparing for a long time. Here are some steps along the way that I remember most vividly.

Wake-Up Call at Convention

When Kyra was four, we attended the NFB national convention in Dallas. It took place in a big hotel in the middle of the Dallas-Forth Worth Airport. The hotel is no longer there, but some readers may remember the long, long hallway that connected the two towers. We were walking down that hallway one day, and Kyra was holding my hand. Along came a blind mom and her blind daughter, who was probably under two years old. They were not holding hands. The daughter walked independently using a cane. She seemed to be having fun walking by herself. As they passed us, I realized I was doing something wrong. Kyra was already behind where she should be. Ever since that day, Kyra has not left the house without her cane.

Big Step into Middle School

Three years ago we were preparing for Kyra's transition to middle school. It was a big, sprawling school with twelve hundred kids. She was coming from a small elementary school where she had more help than she needed or we wanted her to have from staff and friends.

Three things made a difference as we moved her toward greater independence. First, we developed an IEP goal stating that Kyra would have mobility lessons on campus during the summer. She went to the school every day during the week before classes started so she could learn her way around. Second, we had a goal written into the IEP that she would get her class schedule before school started. Her mobility lessons could include learning the routes to her specific classes. For reasons that escape me, getting the class schedule early is always harder than it should be. But we kept after the counselor and got the schedule a bit early. Finally, and most important, Kyra was motivated to learn. She did not want an aide or classmate to guide her from class to class.

I will never forget the first day I dropped Kyra off and watched her walk by herself down a long outdoor corridor. I wondered if she would remember where to make the left turn toward her classroom. She did. I was very proud.

Taking Ownership

Kyra recently returned from her eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C. Together with two good friends she boarded the plane to come home. The flight attendant tried to take her cane, saying, "Your nice friends can help you." They all laughed; Kyra said, "No, thank you," and they proceeded down the aisle. When she told me the story I said, "You should have said, 'They won't be able to help me if they're dead.'" But we agreed that might have sounded a little harsh. I was really thinking, "All those times I embarrassed even myself by insisting that she keep the cane with her--it paid off! The lesson sank in!" Beyond that, even her friends get it.

We have not depended entirely on school mobility lessons to teach travel skills. Summer is a great time to take advantage of other learning opportunities. When Kyra was ten she spent the first of three summers at Buddy Camp at BLIND, Inc., the NFB training center in Minneapolis. This summer she plans to go to the middle school program at another NFB center, the Colorado Center for the Blind. These programs are great places for kids to boost mobility skills and to make friends as well.

Lessons Learned

Have your child start using the cane when she or he is very young. It will become a habit before your child realizes it's "different."

Convey a positive attitude about the cane. Help the people around your child understand that the cane is not only essential; it's a symbol of independence and pride. When people call Kyra's cane "her stick," I say (politely, I hope) that it's called a cane. Then I respond to whatever point they've raised.

Calling a cane by the proper term is a matter of respect. It's also a matter of remembering that teaching others is part of changing what it means to be blind. Our children are ambassadors to the sighted from the blind community.

There's a story about an old man walking through the forest. He sees a young man cutting down trees for firewood. The old man watches for a while and says, "If you'd sharpen that saw you could get the job done faster and better." The young man responds, "I don't have time to sharpen the saw. I have to get all this wood cut by sundown." When we are impatient, when we don't take the time to let our children learn and explore by moving independently, we're not thinking logically about the future.

Be a pest about mobility lessons and "cane rights." Sometimes it's hard to keep after educators. It takes time to learn about your rights. But your efforts will be worthwhile. You can model self-advocacy skills that your child will need when she or he leaves home.

Incidentally, no school or mobility instructor has the right to tell your child what kind of cane to use or when she/he may use it. Obtain the cane (or canes--having a spare comes in handy) yourself. You can get a cane free of charge from the NFB. If the mobility instructor insists on teaching with a different type of cane during lessons, you can decide whether to fight it or not. If the instructor tries to tell you what kind of cane your child should use outside of lessons, you can laugh and say, "No, thank you." By the way (and this is especially important in the teen years) Kyra's friends have opinions on which canes are cool. The sleek long white NFB cane is cool; those short heavy canes are not.

Kyra's next IEP meeting is coming up soon, and I have requested that an administrator from the high school be present. We want to include provisions for getting her class schedule early and having mobility lessons on campus before school opens. I'm prepared to work through the summer to make sure the promises are kept. At 7:00 AM on September 2 I plan to drop off Kyra at school. I will watch her head off to her first class--probably Marching Band--with her backpack, her lunch, her flute, and her cane.

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