the Blind Child's Independent Movement & Travel
Reprinted in Future Reflections
the Editor: Joe Cutter is an outstanding professional
in the field of orientation and mobility for young blind
children. He was named the Distinguished Educator of
the Year in 1994 by the National Federation of the Blind.
His words are helpful to everyone who has any occasion
to work with blind children. This is what Joe Cutter
my work with blind children in New Jersey and other
parts of this country, it has become clear to me that
the value parents place on their child's independent
movement and travel has a great deal to do with how
the child will move in the world. It has been said that
"believing is achieving." Therefore to the extent parents
and other educators, specifically blindness professionals,
believe in the independent movement of blind children,
the child usually achieves up to these expectations.
What will the movement be likepassive or active,
dependent or independent? This is not to disregard how
developmental delays may impact upon the movement of
multiply handicapped blind children. But it is to say
that the value parents and professionals place on the
blind child's movement, multiply handicapped or not,
may be the most significant factor contributing to the
child's reaching his or her full potential.
this stage of development blind children are vulnerable
to having their movements restricted and interrupted.
They often have the world brought to them, hands descending
upon them, doing more for them than they are allowed
to do for themselves. They may learn very early that
the responsibility for movement and travel belongs to
someone else. Promoting and valuing their going to the
world develops a sense of autonomy, self, and self-esteem.
The foundation for independent movement and travel is
valuing the blind child's independent movement and travel
is simple to understand, why do so many parents find
it so difficult to achieve? In my experience the most
formidable obstacle to valuing independent movement
and travel in the blind child is negative attitudes.
There is a long history of negative attitudes and erroneous
assumptions about the blind.
cartoon character of Mr. Magoo was an example of erroneous
assumptions pushed to the absurd. He bumbled his way
through his home and environment. Comedy was achieved
at the expense of blind people. If Mr. Magoo had gone
to an NFB orientation center, like the one I visited
in Louisiana last year, he would have emerged valuing
independence and having independent travel skills. Perhaps
it's time to see a new cartoonMr. Magoo goes to
rehab, NFB style.
In society ignorance becomes the foundation for erroneous
assumptions and sighted bias. The model blind person
is depicted as less than capable, to support society's
negative mindset. Dr. Richard Mettler in his book Cognitive
Learning Theory and Cane Travel puts it succinctly
when he writes, "the visual dominant model is not a
useful orientation for blind persons" and "visual orientation
does not have an exclusive claim to skillful human performance."
parents, where do you go to get positive information
about blindness? Well, one answer is where you are right
now. Certainly you can count on the NFB to supply you
with clear, reliable, and useful information. At NFB
meetings you can meet blind people who value independence.
They can be role models for you and your child. They
are living proof that your positive values and beliefs
are reality-based. As a professional I have gotten many
reality checks about blindness from blind persons, parents
of blind children, and of course the children themselves.
can benefit from all the support you can get because
dealing with negative attitudes is energy-depleting.
There are programs and services that value independent
movement and travel, and there are those that do not.
The latter are deficit models that are custodial in
their practicesthey set low expectations and stress
limitations for the child. Those in charge of these
deficit-model programs are not hurt by their practices,
but you are. And your child is hurt the most. Blind
persons raised on negative attitudes and custodial practices
may not easily perceive the limitations imposed upon
them. The use of the deficit model is the norm. That
is why it is important to identify such negative thinking
and programming and to have an organization like the
NFB to set a standard of high expectations, valuing
a promotion model, serving as models themselves, and
practicing a can-do approach. Some day this new standard
will be the norm.
are not just talking about differences in philosophies
that drive each model, as if they were preferences in
choosing flavors of ice cream or tastes in beer. We
are talking about a mentality, a way of thinking and
living. The deficit model says, "You can't," and the
positive model says, "You can." So that you can more
precisely identify custodial practices that devalue
independence, let me give you some examples:
There is a private school for blind children nearby,
in which you will rarely hear a cane tap or slide in
its halls. It is not unusual for a blind child to spend
an entire school year or longer in the assessment-and-readiness
phase of orientation and mobility. The O&M staff will
spend considerable time on pre-cane skills, implementing
pre-cane devices. During this extended readiness-skill
phase, the blind child loses valuable time that could
have been spent learning to use the cane and learning
about independent travel. To make matters worse, there
are blind preschoolers who have gone to this school
already knowing and using the cane, only to have it
taken away from them in favor of the pre-cane.
Perhaps the most overused method of travel for the blind
child is the sighted guide. When it becomes the primary
way for the child to move about, it becomes a custodial
practice. Multiply handicapped blind children are even
more vulnerable since many professionals are even more
apprehensive about giving them responsibilities for
their own travel. Learning to use the cane is a process
that develops over time. Gradually parents and professionals
will need to monitor the child's travel less and less.
But how can the blind child engage in this process if
we do not place a cane in his or her hand? And when
we do, the most interesting thing happensadults
and sighted peers are less likely to lead the blind
child. The cane sends a message of independence. As
one parent once said to me, "The cane answers the questions
most people are afraid to ask and answers them in a
who subscribe to deficit models such as these often
get very defensive when their negative thinking and
devaluing of the blind child's movement and travel are
challenged. Those of you who have called them on it
know the price you have paid.
As a professional I know the price I've paid for questioning
the custodial model from the inside. For example, one
administrator suggested that I have "crossed the line"
and that I should "carefully think about what I do and
how I do it." But, when I ask, "what line?" the response
is unclear and a bit dusty. Well, I think it's necessary
to tell you what line I think it is. It is the line
formed by those who care about and value independence
in blind children. What's on the line is self-esteem
and independent lives for blind children. We say to
the child, "You are worth it; value your movement and
independent travel. Go to the world, visit it, make
it your home as we believe you can." It is the line
of parents and professionals working together to raise
expectations for blind children, to secure for them
equal opportunity as first-class citizens. The way I
see it is simply this: those professionals who will
not or can not change their negative mindset will go
the way of the dinosaur because eventually common sense
and good judgment will prevail.
the person who matters most is you, the parent. Get
all the positive and useful information to make your
informed choices about independent movement and travel.
Seek out professionals who will share your values and
work with you. Get tips on independent travel from a
blind person you respect. He or she will be only too
glad to share them with you. Read articles and books
by blind persons like Thomas Bickford's The Care
and Feeding of the Long White Cane. It is an excellent
account and resource of how-to's regarding independent
your child's potential, your valuing independent movement
and travel will greatly affect his or her self-esteem.
Your positive beliefs and values will fuel your child
every day for developing skills that will last a lifetime.