“I Can Go Anywhere!”
I thought I would write down some of my thoughts on traveling around when blind. My disclaimer is that these are just my thoughts, observations and experiences. I am not a certified Orientation and Mobility Instructor.
In fact, when I think about my own travel training, I realize that I have never had even a single lesson from a certified O&M instructor, so I can’t even say I know too much about them or what they do. Nik, also says that he has had only maybe a couple of hours of training with an O&M instructor in his life, and he is not even sure that that person was “certified.”
What I feel comfortable saying, and I think Nik does, too, however, is that “I can go anywhere.” I can go anywhere I want to go at any time in any city. I’ve done it in Washington, DC, San Diego, Vancouver, Chicago, Kansas City and many other places. I may do a lot of advance work and I may even ask for help sometimes, and sometimes I get lost, but I can figure it out. Its one of my favorite skills to have. I understand that O&M comes easier for some than for others. And sometimes people have other things going on as well. Some people may need more support or information always than others. And that’s fine. I think the key is to really take responsibility for your own place in space and where you are going, and to be the person who manages your help instead of the help managing you. And to not be afraid to try and reach your full potential. In some form or another, everyone can say “I can go anywhere I want to go.” And I think that should be the goal in orientation and mobility for most people, shouldn’t it? It becomes such a metaphor for everything else about blindness as well.
I first received a white cane when I was about 17. I had a lot of vision then and I didn’t really feel like I needed one. I was given one of the rigid fiberglass, metal-tipped cane that went up to my chin and had one lesson with my (sighted) transition home teacher. Mostly, I was horrified in embarrassment that everyone I knew would see me with it. After that one lesson, I threw it in a closet.
I had to retrieve it when I attended the Nebraska Orientation and Adjustment Center. This is where I had my only formal instruction in cane travel. It was all done under blindfold and my instructor, Larry Mackey, was blind as well. I can’t even tell you what training or background Larry had in O&M, if any, except being blind himself. I may be mistaken, but I believe he had some type of social work or liberal arts degree and started as a VR counselor. If he took any other courses or training specific to O&M, I was not aware. (ETA: Per LinkedIn, Mackey has a B.A. in Music Ed and a M.A. in Ed Admin.)
Larry was instrumental in my development as a blind person. He questioned all of my ideas and assumptions and led me to their logical conclusion, in which most of the time the ideas I had were silly. But having had a lot of vision back then. I really had very little exposure to any information about blindness whatsoever. I did not know it at the time, but Larry used a method called “structured discovery.” I’m not even sure Larry knew that this was the method he was using, to be honest. It was all common sense.
The first thing I remember was a 5-10 minute lesson on how to hold a cane and how to tap with the opposite foot in front. I remember walking indoors up and down a hallway a couple of times. Then, immediately, we went outside. I think the first day we walked just around the block. But the second day I crossed my first intersection. Four way, with lights. I remember Larry going with me once, in all four directions. Talking to me about what to listen for and asking me to tell him what I heard. The second time, he went with me around all four directions, but I had to tell him when to go. The third time. He said he was going to wait at the corner. I was supposed to shout at him when to go. If I heard nothing, GO! Or he would yell at me to stop. I think we did that a few times. The next day. I had to go out and go to that intersection, cross four ways and come back and tell Larry how it went. Did he follow me? I will never know.
From there on out, Larry would give me longer and more complicated routes every day. Sometimes he would go with me if there was something special he wanted to show me, like an interesting sound cue or a crazy intersection. In the beginning, I remember a pattern of him going with me the first day, then sending me on the exact same route by myself the second day. As time wore on, I went more and more places on my own or in groups with other students. Larry was very hands off, and when he was around, he would only ever ask questions, sometimes with a little hint involved. He never gave direct answers.
My confidence was growing, but still, I was a big baby for my first “drop.” They drive you around and drop you off and you have to find your way back. They say you can only ask a passerby one question. But in reality, whatever you need to do to get back was fine as long as it wasn’t calling a cab. (Also of note: In Nebraska, blind people are not eligible for paratransit unless they also have other disabilities that would qualify them. I never knew anyone who was just blind who took paratransit till I moved to Oregon.) My first drop was super easy and just fine. I got dropped off about a block from a main downtown transit center. I had been there a million times. My last drop was somewhere I had not been before. But I ended up asking a passerby about bus stops and then the bus driver gave me additional information. I still don’t know where I was, but I know that I took the #6 Arapahoe bus to downtown and then transferred to my usual bus. I was at the point where I could say, “with a little more experience, I could go anywhere!”
I got that experience via other blind people. I never had another formal O&M lesson again. I found that I preferred getting help in new places from other blind people. Any gaps any of us had in the community, we filled by teaching each other. I did this in Nebraska as well as Kansas where I went to graduate school.
NIk’s O&M training is even more ad hoc than mine. He lost his vision suddenly when he was 11. And for weeks after leaving the hospital after his accident, he just roamed around his house and his 200 acre farm while his parent and his school systems shuffled around for a bit, not knowing what to do. He credits this “roaming around the farm” for weeks with giving him that much needed compass in his head. The one I learned from Larry’s emphasis on always knowing cardinal directions, Nik taught himself. It certainly helped that he knew the farm like the back of his hand, and with that previous information, he taught his brain to create pictures of his environment. He says he always has a working layout of wherever he is at building in his brain. He is constantly adding to it as he gains more information. Nik had a teacher bring him a cane that was way too short. An ambutech came that went to his waist. She later brought him a chest height one, but he had no lessons from a teacher because one was not available. His parents made him walk to school and back by himself.
His next travel revelation came when he was 18 and moved to Toronto. He was an international student with very little English and he had never lived in a big city before. His roommate was blind, and taught him how to cross streets and use the subway. He gradually branched out from there, and soon began to enjoy the freedom that living in a big city with transit had to offer.
Apparently, the way I learned to travel, structured discovery, is the “NFB way.” The way the National Federation of the Blind promotes. But I had no idea that the way I learned cane travel was a different way or that it was associated with the NFB until I went to get my first guide dog. I saw that most people had the shorter, collapsable ambutech canes that I had never used. Even Nik had one. And I could not figure out why the trainers in guide dog school would tell us so much information beforehand.(also not certified in O&M but most receive some training in O&M from traditional methods) I kept saying, “why are you telling me there are steps in front of me? How am I supposed to learn how to use my dog to tell me if I know they are coming?” And they would give us very detailed information at every street corner. I kept telling them to shut up! How am I supposed to listen and start to understand this intersection if you won’t keep quiet about it?
I also noticed that some of my fellow students literally had no idea where they were in space. They really needed constant assistance. I know that all people are different and we all have our strengths and weaknesses. A lot of blind people are by far better at braille than I am, and I am a decent traveler. Nik is an excellent traveler, much better than me.When I heard stories about other student’s O&M experiences, I noticed that they were very rigid. And that they were taught only to travel on pre-O&M-approved and practiced routes. This is the way the guide dog school taught, too. In fact, when I went back to the same school almost 20 years later? Yup! Same routes.
Once a person said that she had been looking for an apartment and she really liked one that was perfect for her. But she was disappointed that when she had her O&M instructor come and check it out, he suggested she shouldn’t live there because a small, not so busy street she had to cross was too dangerous as it was near a loud highway. Nik and I had been on that street. It was rather loud there, but we had crossed it several times without a thought. She decided not to take this apartment. Wow, I thought. So your O&M instructor is actually LIMITING your options? Not showing you how to accommodate? This was foreign to me. It gave me this idea that people are actually getting taught anxiety and fear instead of confidence from some of their O&M experiences.
Other people told me about how long it took them to learn “gait.” One man said that it took him almost 12 weeks to leave the indoors of the building because his O&M instructor did not think he had a good gait. I don’t understand what type of gait you need to have to get you outside, but I do know that if you have confidence, you gain speed and with speed comes a good gait and a good clip. By speed, I just mean a good walking clip, not a sprint. But it is very hard to get good speed if you are scared and not confident. If you walk too slowly and timidly with a cane, you will get caught on everything, never get a good line, and bounce around from obstacle to obstacle. It is kind of like how you can’t steer well on a bike if you go too slow.
Apparently, even the type of cane you use can be seen as a political statement. I don’t think canes are a hill I want to die on one way or another. I think people should be able to use whatever cane makes them happy. But I will share my experiences. As I said, I have always used a long white cane with a metal tip. I really never knew anything different, although I did see lots of others with the collapsable ambutech ones. Then I became a guide dog user, but even guide dog users need to keep their cane skills up because guide dogs aren’t always the best choice in every situation. I started throwing one of Nik’s ambutech canes into my backpack, and I used them on occasion. For a few years, all I had access to was ambutech canes. I found them heavy, awkward, and I could not hear anything because the tip did not make any noise (that I could hear.) But they were reasonably functional.
But I remembered being a better cane traveler before. I just wasn’t very smooth with the ambutech. Maybe I was giving myself too much credit? Maybe I used more vision than I thought I did? Maybe my skills got worse with old age? I didn’t think too much about it. But I was going to my night job without my dog quite often, so I finally decided to get a new cane. A 65inch, metal tipped, rigid fiberglass cane. Back to my roots. (I am 65 inches tall. I actually ordered a 63 inch, which would come up to my nose. But after the 65 inch came instead, I’ve come to like it better that way.)
This new cane makes such a difference in my travel skills it is hard to believe. It is so much lighter. It gives me so much more auditory and tactile information. It doesn’t stab me so much and hurts less when it does. It is longer and so allows me much more speed and improves my line. It decreases my bumping into things so much. I could not believe the difference. Then I had Nik try it. At first he said he didn’t like it, but after a few days, I had a convert. Now he is always steeling my cane. He says it is the best cane he has ever used. And so I had to finally get him his own.
Again, use whatever cane you want. If you grew up with the ambutech cane, I can see why it would be hard to get used to another. Or maybe the weight feels good in your hand. But, at the very least, try different canes out for a few days and see which ones you like the best. I know that many O&M instructors prefer the ambutech cane and seem to hate the longer metal-tipped cane. But when I ask them why, the only reasons I seem to hear have to do with other people, not the blind person. Stuff like, it folds up and is out of the way True, but I rarely folded mine anyway. I always noticed the people who folded it every time they sat down. Why? You are just going to get back up again, right? It is easy to lean a rigid cane against a wall, and it will fit in a car along side the seats. They say it’s too loud (for who?) They say that the shorter length keeps from tripping others, but I have never tripped anyone with my longer cane. There are methods to prevent that in busy places. So, I am not sure why so much love for that cane nor do I understand the animosity for the other one. Use whatever cane you want.
I can’t say that I really understand much about formal or traditional O&M training. I am sure that there are some great O&M instructors who do a lot of good work. I do know that the blind people who have taught me, both formally and informally, have been excellent teachers. Traveling while blind is 90% in the brain. It’s about taking responsibility for where you are, collecting and processing the clues all around you like a detective. Being able to access information when you need to. Being able to problem-solve when lost. And most importantly, being confident in your abilities. I think that it would be really hard for many O&M instructors to be able to teach these things if they haven’t personally mastered the skills themselves. It is a little like having a piano teacher than only can tap out a tune with one finger. Technically, they probably can teach you some stuff about the piano, but they will not have the rich tapestry of skills, nuance, even artistry that a lifelong concert pianist has. I think it is the same way with cane travel. The skill is rich and deep and there is artistry to it.
Nik is a great travel instructor. I learn from him all the time. He notices and processes everything and knows how to show what information he is gleaning to others. He notices the ramp to this driveway, the sound of the autoshop over there, the changes in the wind, the sounds of people. The differences in sounds and pressure when a building is near. (Sometimes called sonar or proprioception, but not really either and not really magical. It just takes time and practice). Every little thing he pairs with what he already knows and instantly processes it. But mostly, he is a confident traveler. He is relaxed and calm and humorous and knows that he will get where he wants to go. He instills confidence.
Since I am hearing impaired, I cannot do some of what Nik can do travel-wise and never will be able to. I cannot hear the changes in the air when walking past a building. But sometimes I can sense changes in the wind. Recently, I wrote this to a friend:
Weird Deafblind O&M observation: I’m walking downtown holding a paper bag with a handle that contains a Chipotle’s burrito bowl. I notice at intersections that when I hold the bag handles parallel to the traffic on my left, I can feel vibrations in the bag handle when the cars move. When I turn my wrist 90 degrees so the handle is parallel to the cars in front of me, I can feel those cars in the handle of the bag. Hmmm, I think. Could something as low tech as a paper bag be a haptic tool for DB-ers? Not quite. Later, I test my theory with the empty bag. Doesn’t work. The bag vibrates too much for everything to distinguish. What if I threw something in the bag? An iPad? No. not right. The burrito bowl is the paramount ingredient to this new system.
I notice stuff like this all the time. Some of it Nik misses. Its because your brain uses what it has and learns new ways to process this information. I learn all kinds of these little types of tricks from blind and deaf blind people. I don’t know that they can be taught or learned from a book quite as well. I think you have to experience it and over time your brain reaches automaticity with it. Perhaps your brain even adapts and processes the information a different way using different pathways. I know that I can almost physically feel the switch in my head when I change from visual (using ASL), auditory (listening to a talking book) and tactile (reading braille). I think my brain has adapted to multiple sensory modes and can mix and match much easier than someone who may be used to doing things the usual, sighted way. This is why disabled people are so diverse and their skills should be so highly valued.
Oh, sometimes people ask me if I ever was afraid to learn O&M from a blind person. Did I feel safe? The answer is never and always. I never was afraid and I always felt safe. Most likely because I did not ever feel like Larry was afraid for me. He could do it so I could do it. He was confident so I was confident. He always told me that this is about being able to go anywhere I want.
I talked in a previous post about using technology like BlindSquare to aid in gathering travel information. This is exciting stuff! We do have BlindSquare workshops coming up that are a lot of fun! Contact us to find out more.