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The Blind Leading The Blind Or How to Be Blind Without Sighted Help

I grew up largely in west Texas but also lived in California and Germany. I did the sorts of things that my friends did like roller skating, bike riding, scouting, swimming, working on cars, and the like.

In 1975 I was trained with the Sonicguide, an ultrasonic electronic travel aid (ETA). I began working with some blind friends to show them the Sonicguide, train them a bit with it, work on their cane skills, orient them to the local university campus, and learn skills from them. I have since been trained with the laser cane, Mowat, Polaron, Miniguide, Voice, Russell Pathsounder, and a few other ETAs but the Sonicguide was the first one I seriously used and, in my opinion, the best of the lot.

In the late '70s I attempted to enroll in the orientation and mobility program at the university I was attending but was flatly turned down. I was told that it was not possible for a blind person to teach another Blind person how to get around and that I could not gain certification because of my blindness. I didn't realize that certification was voluntary at that time.

In the early '80s I continued trying to be admitted to the O&M program and continued to be turned down. I felt that my cane use experience as well as my use of and extensive experience with ETAs should qualify me.

By the later '90s the ADA was fairly well established and the AER in the U.S. had actually finally certified one blind person in California. I decided to try again for O&M certification and was admitted into the program. However, when it came time to do my internship, the only choices I was offered were at the state school for the blind or at the state rehabilitation center for the blind. I had no desire to intern at either of these locations.

The above both constitutes my reasons for my current view points about O&M and the reasons that I am qualified to write what follows.

The blind O&Mer must be able to make and update cognitive maps of the area. Another words, a blind O&Mer must be able to both get and stay oriented. However, people are not perfect and from time to time, working in unfamiliar environments will become necessary. This is one reason that the trainer and trainee should work as a team both teaching and learning from each other to problem solve during lessons.

Because unfamiliar environments will be used by the trainer from time to time and because changes in a known environment are unavoidable, the trainer should be proficient with both active and passive echo location as well as the use of sound shadows. Because active echo location requires making clicking or other sounds considered socially inappropriate, it can be used quietly and can provide much better information than passive echo location which relies on ambient sounds to produce echos.

In general, passive echo location will not function for more than fifteen feet or so and often does not function for more than a couple of feet whereas active echo location can provide information for objects over a hundred feet away such as buildings, large trucks, and other large objects.

Echo location training should be an integral part of any O&M program because it expands the reach of a person beyond arm or cane length and provides some idea of spacial relationships as well as providing cues for orientation in both indoor and outdoor environments.

Human guide (often called sighted guide) techniques are often taught first or early in the O&M training sequence. A blind instructor need make few modifications in this training with two exceptions. First, trainee safety must be insured. If the blind O&Mer must use a cane, the arc on the trainee side must be wide enough to cover both of you. This makes for a slightly awkward cane movement but is quite effective. Second, it will be necessary to insure that the trainee is moving correctly as well as catching doors correctly and the like. It may be helpful for the blind trainer to get another person to walk as the guide for the trainee so as to be able to move behind the trainee to insure correct movement and positioning. This is not strictly necessary but may sometimes be helpful.

A word about touch is appropriate at this point. A blind O&Mer will very likely be in physical contact with the trainee more often than a sighted trainer. The trainee should be made aware of this and if either being touched or working with a blind trainer causes any discomfort or concern the option of using a sighted trainer should be offered.

Ascending and descending stairs seemed to concern my university instructors a great deal. When using sighted guide techniques, no basic modifications are necessary other than to insure the trainee's position before, during, and after a flight of stairs. When a cane is being used by the trainee, nothing different from what sighted people do is necessary other than to attend very closely to the sound of the trainee on the stairs.

Never stop the trainee in the middle of a flight of stairs for correction of technique. This is begging for an accident. If the trainee's technique is so bad as to constitute a danger, simply switch to using human guide technique to finish the steps but do this with great care to avoid a fall.

To insure that the trainee is correctly using upper hand and forearm, trailing, and other protective techniques, as well as correct cane techniques later in training, get in front of the trainee and see if you are detected as an obstacle. This is also a good potential test of echo location skills.

When cane training begins, hand over hand work may help with teaching "proper" cane technique. The sound of the trainee's cane will generally tell the trainer if a correct technique is being used.

To insure a correct arc width, stand in front of the trainee at arms length. spread your feet an inch or so wider than shoulder width. Have the trainee make an arc that touches the inside edge of your feet. This will help insure learning the feel of correct arc width and the trainer can also reach down to check arc height. Remember to use the trainee's shoulders (or hips in some cases) to determine the correct width of the arc.

Some trainees use an extremely light touch with the cane. Indoors this will seldom be a problem but a metal ring or other piece of metal placed at the bottom of the cane can serve to make a sound as the cane contacts the ground even if the touch is light.

In order to monitor the trainee's use of the cane it is helpful to get ten feet or so behind the trainee. This allows the trainer to more easily hear how the trainee is using the cane and makes hearing arc width and consistency easier. This technique of moving in front of and behind the trainee will also prove useful outdoors especially in residential environments when the trainee is still developing basic cane skills.

When outdoor work begins, the blind O&Mer may find it helpful to have had training in the use of etas if there are any etas available to use with trainees. The Sonicguide is probably the best ETA for working with trainees. It allows for tracking the trainee even in a crowd while simultaneously being able to scan the environment. The use of an ETA is not mandatory but can prove quite valuable.

The best way to handle outdoor work is as a team with the trainee. Echo location work should continue in the outdoor environment because echo sources change in the out-of-doors and the character of echo sources becomes quite a bit different.

Since signs cannot be read, olfactory training now becomes important for the identification of different types of buildings. Attending to auditory cues also becomes quite important in the outdoor environment.

It is sometimes necessary to very quickly examine an area just prior to beginning a lesson. A very wide arc covering the width of the sidewalk can be used for this and makes checking the area much faster. Keep in mind that this technique may not pick up drop-offs or holes in the center of the traveler's path so use it with care.

Another technique which may prove helpful is to use the cane tip to trail the curb as the trainer walks behind the trainee. This does not cover the path in front of and to one side of the trainer but does keep the line of travel straight and is quite quiet. It also serves to pick up landmarks such as driveways, poles, etc. The use of an ETA makes this and the previous technique safer. Do not teach these techniques to trainees.

One particular concern that sighted O&Mers seem to have is that a blind O&Mer could lose a trainee during a street crossing. Many of them seem to feel that constant physical contact with the trainee during a street crossing is necessary. With good echo location skills and/or hearing this is not necessary. In fact, for some trainees, physical contact will cause veering problems in itself. If it is necessary, there is a good probability that the trainee has been moved in to the current O&M situation too rapidly. The only exceptions to this may be when crossing very busy streets or around construction sites.

Remember that the trainee will not have someone following behind to warn of obstacles once O&M training is completed. It is important that the trainee use the skills learned to avoid obstacles. If the trainer spends time telling the trainee when and where to use upper hand and forearm techniques, where to avoid running in to poles, and where holes are, the trainee doesn't learn these skills and is turned free at the end of the training somehow expecting this kind of help in the future. It is true that it is sometimes necessary to intervene with a trainee to prevent injury but these times should be very limited.

The best piece of training I ever had was when a low vision trainer I had let me walk off in to a four foot deep hole. Admittedly I could have been injured but the hole was dirt in the bottom and I wasn't injured except for my pride as I thought I was quite a hot shot with my cane. However, it taught me immediately why I needed to attend to my cane and I have never done anything like that since. I've come close but have never fallen in another hole.

Working with partially sighted trainees is more difficult for the blind trainer. These trainees will need visual cues while traveling. This requires that the blind O&Mer know what is out there, what to tell the trainee to look for, and to be able to answer visually related questions. It may also require being able to correct the trainee's use of visual aids such as telescopes. This may and probably will require some sighted assistance for obtaining visual information about signs, building colors, etc. The use of the voice may be helpful with this but at present it is quite difficult to use and probably requires so much attention on the part of the user as to become a liability.

Two-way radios may be a good way to keep in touch with trainees during bus and similar trips as may cell phones. The blind O&Mer should not hesitate to utilize sighted assistance during a route if it becomes necessary. After all, this is exactly what the trainee is being taught to do and if the blind trainer doesn't use the techniques being taught it says very little about their usefulness.

As a practical matter it is not possible for a blind O&Mer to monitor a trainee from distances of tens of yards. This is generally not necessary but if it is for some reason, the use of a trained sighted assistant should be considered.

An easy way to get feedback from a trainee is to have him/her verbally express what is going on, and talk through any O&M problem they are solving. This can provide both the blind and the sighted O&Mer a wealth of information.

One thing I usually have trainees do is tell me when they are about to begin their street crossing. This gives me the opportunity to stop them immediately if necessary and cues me to be tracking their movements. This is not asking my permission, it is simply informing me of their intent. This is a useful technique for sighted trainers both at the beginning of street crossing training and at the beginning of training to cross busy intersections.

As is the case with sighted trainers, trainees need to be given specific instructions for what actions to take if they become separated from their trainer and/or lost during a solo lesson.

Obtaining sighted assistance, getting to a known location, using a cell phone or whatever method is chosen will prevent panic and demonstrate to the trainee an ability to deal with an unexpected situation in an efficient and successful manner.

If eta use is being taught to the trainee, the blind trainer needs to know what the trainee is hearing with the aid. Nearly all etas have earphone plugs on them and a small fm transmitter can be purchased and plugged in to this jack. A splitter can be used so the trainee can still hear the signal. This allows the O&Mer to stay well behind the trainee (up to 50 feet at least) if necessary and still hear what the trainee is hearing with the eta. It requires only that the O&Mer have a small fm radio preferably with an earphone. Since most of these little transmitters are stereo, it allows for hearing the binaural output of aids such as the Sonicguide or Kaspa.

It is possible to head mount an eta such as the Miniguide on a cap or glasses and have the trainee wear it solely to provide feedback to the O&Mer. This is a version of looking over the trainee's shoulder and requires only the use of the fm transmitter and receiver.

Obviously there are many situations I have not discussed in this brief commentary. I would be glad to talk with any O&Mer interested in this subject and can be contacted by e-mail at or on my web page at