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Confessions of a Sighted Cane Travel Instructor

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Braille Monitor,ÂJuly 2006:

Over the thirteen years I have been a teacher of the blind with the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, I have learned much about blindness. At first

I was guided by the coaching, instruction and correction of my blind supervisors. I also learned firsthand from other blind people.

I have held the hand of weeping seniors dealing with the double complications of getting old and becoming blind, heard the angry storms of consumers who had someone else to blame for their blindness, and chased blind youth who wanted to get to the donut shop before me.

I have learned that the personalities, comprehension levels and abilities of blind people are as varied as those of the sighted population, that blindness is truly just one characteristic of the many characteristics of an individual. In short, I have learned that, if there is one characteristic that will keep people from leading a successful life, it is not blindness but a pessimistic attitude about their blindness. This negative attitude is the liability, not the blindness.

Growing up with two blind sisters, Mildred and Eileen Rivera, our family always talked of them as amazing. It was not uncommon to hear a relative go on and on about my sisters doing as well as they did with so little sight. Today one is an attorney, the other a Wharton-trained marketing manager raising a family with a husband who is also blind. After attending a national conference on cutting-edge practices in training the blind, I called up my Federationist sisters and told them, anymore. You are awesome sisters, but not amazing.And they were glad to hear it. Today I know that to believe my successful blind sisters are amazing is to believe that blindness should have kept them from being successful. I now understand.

My sister, Eileen, first experienced the white canes in college. One Christmas she came home to Puerto Rico with her cane. She was getting around nicely with it and explained that it helped her move about more comfortably. My family accepted this because it seemed to work. My sisters no longer took someone hand to get from the car to the house or wherever we were going. I no longer felt responsible for their safety.

Before I worked in the blindness field, my job was coordinating recreational activities for seniors at a nursing home in upstate New York. I called my blind sisters on several occasions and complained that if someone had shown some of the ladies how to use canes and read braille, they would be much better off.

When opportunity knocked, I came to work with the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, then under the direction of Dr. Fredric Schroeder. My sister, Eileen, assured me that it was one of the most progressive in the country,a belief I share to this day. Still I knew little about mobility and how it was successfully accomplished. In New

Mexico I learned the alternative skills of blindness while blindfolded for a few months. Then I went out as a field teacher to blind adults and seniors.

My first mobility instructor, Doug Boone, taught me that when phoning new referrals, I was to ask them their height. By subtracting about four inches from this number, I could bring them a long white cane on my first visit to their homes.

At first I convinced my students to use the cane by explaining that drivers would know they were blind. Over time my philosophy and methods have progressed. Today I teach that the long white cane in the hands of experienced blind persons promotes independent travel and helps avoid hazards--that listening, focusing on one's surroundings, and knowing how to cross intersections keep one safe.

In addition to my usual work with adults, I work with teens during our Students in Transition to Employment Program (STEP). Most blind adults I work with are cooperative and unquestioning. In working with partially blind teens, I have learned that students need to be convinced of the value of learning and properly applying the most reliable alternative mobility techniques. The teens who had learned other ways of doing things want to know why these techniques are best. From them I learned the importance of explaining the techniques of structured-discovery cane travel. I have been busily learning new ways to illustrate these principles and incorporate them along various travel routes.

With both teens and adults I have learned that I need to keep my expectations high for my students. This is a continuing process because I sometimes realize I did not believe my students could do what they just did. When I recognize these thoughts as a hindrance to progress, I begin to weed them out. Although I would like to think that I have weeded out all my subconscious low expectations, it is probably not true. This kind of thinking is too prevalent in our society not to affect me. That is why I enjoy attending the National Federation of the Blind conventions with my sisters. I think of it as my annual tune-up.

I wholeheartedly concur with the writings of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, founder of the National Federation of the Blind. This wise leader said, Given proper training and opportunity, the average blind person is able to perform in the average job in the average way.

How do we provide proper training at the New Mexico Commission for the Blind? To begin, we apply the structured-discovery method. As Jeffrey Altman and Joseph Cutter wrote, "Structured

Discovery is more than a collection of instructional methods and strategies. It is a philosophical view of blindness--a view which regards the major barrier to independence to be misconceptions about blindness manifested through low expectations and internalized by the individual."

We assess blind clients' strengths and weaknesses and develop plans to address these areas. The plans include instruction in the alternative skills of blindness, such as braille and cane travel. In addition, students and teachers collaborate with blind role models during training, which is carried out for the most part or entirely under sleepshades and using a long white cane.

To succeed, this rehabilitation must include confidence-building exercises, as well as seminars that deal with society's attitudes: exercises that enable blind individuals to apply their knowledge and skills in a society that often doesn't believe that blind people can do much with their lives. Proper training enables a blind person to live a quality life and compete alongside the sighted population in the world--in other words, to pursue happiness along with everybody else.

I firmly believe that what our graduates are doing should be comparable to what their sighted peers are doing. Once our graduates complete their adjustment-to-blindness training with long white canes in their hands and new-found independence in their hearts, they have no trouble confidently advocating for themselves and following their dreams.