Canes And Preschoolers:
The Eight-Year Revolution

by Barbara Cheadle

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          In 1980 you couldn't buy a white cane for a preschooler for any amount of money. They didn't exist. I know because we tried to find one for our two-year-old son. My husband ended up cutting down an adult-size cane for our son to use. The adult handle was too large, so he made a smaller one using layers of electrician's tape. There weren't any canes because there wasn't any demand. There wasn't any demand because the Orientation and Mobility (O and M) profession didn't believe in giving canes to young children. O and M professionals had been taught how to teach adults, and children were taught the same way--as if they were just smaller versions of adults. Naturally, this meant most children couldn't meet the O and M standard for cane readiness. Occasionally a bright, precocious child would get a cane in elementary school, and very rarely a preschooler would get a cane, but almost always blind youth had to wait, often until fifth or sixth grade--usually later--to get one.

          But by 1982 this was beginning to change. That was the year the National Federation of the Blind first offered child-size white canes for sale (see the July, 1982, issue of the "NFB Newsletter for Parents of Blind Children," the POBC publication that preceded Future Reflections.) To the best of my knowledge, these were the first mass-produced children's canes in this country. About the same time Fred Schroeder (a blind O and M instructor, an educator, and a leader in the National Federation of the Blind) began giving canes and lessons to all blind children as soon as they entered school in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, school district. (He supervised the Albuquerque Low Incidence Programs from August, 1981, through June, 1986. See the article, "A Step Toward Equality: Cane Travel Training for the Young Blind Child," in the Winter, 1989, Future Reflections.) His success raised doubts about the traditional approach to cane travel for kids and gave the professionals a new model to follow. Then in 1983, while Mr. Schroeder was in the middle of implementing his program, the Parents of Blind Children Division of the National Federation of the Blind began distributing the video, "Kids With Canes." This video, originating in Nebraska, showed innovative approaches to teaching cane travel to youngsters as young as five. Both the New Mexico program and the "Kids With Canes" video set the stage for encouraging even earlier use of the cane. The following year, 1984, Future Reflections printed an article which openly promoted canes for preschoolers, "Canes and Blind Preschoolers," March/April/May, 1984. Since then Future Reflections has featured a steady stream of articles which focus on cane travel for young blind children--articles such as "God, Table Manners, and Independent Travel: A Mother's Viewpoint;" "We Have Just Begun to Fight;" "Joseli"; "One White Cane Saga"; "Dan"; "Cane Travel for Preschoolers"; and "Parental Attitudes Can Make the Difference."

          Although there were a few O and M instructors eager to experiment with this new approach, the O and M professionals on the whole fought this trend. They wanted nothing to do with this grass-roots movement. And that is what it is. Information and encouragement came from the National Federation of the Blind; but parents--as it should and had to be--took the lead. Perhaps the professionals felt threatened or inadequate to the challenge. Certainly some were downright offended to think that non-professionals (parents! blind people!) could actually teach them something about O and M. Please do not misunderstand me. There are, and have been from the beginning, O and M instructors who are open-minded and earnest in their desire to form partnerships with blind consumers and with parents. But the overall tone has been arrogant and elitist.

          Nevertheless, this revolution in the approach to cane travel and children, as led by parents and nourished by the National Federation of the Blind, could not be denied or turned back. And the reason lies in the children themselves. Invariably, young blind children love the white cane. The joy and eagerness with which they accept it is sufficient evidence of the need to make this a standard practice.

          Maybe that is what finally turned the tide. Although there is still resistance from individual instructors and institutions, there is a new tone of acceptance (although cautious and usually overlaid with tedious professional jargon) within the O and M field. What evidence do I have for this judgment? There are many signs and indications--such as the warm reception given to the 1989 Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students. Written by Doris M. Willoughby and Sharon L. M. Duffy and published by the National Federation of the Blind, it includes four chapters on teaching cane travel to children from preschool age on up. The mild reaction to what had once been considered an extremist approach was one sure sign that the revolution was coming to an end.

          But the surest evidence came in the form of a catalog. In the "New Products" section of its 1990-91 aids and appliances catalog, the American Foundation for the Blind, the granddaddy of the blindness establishment, offers children's canes in sizes from twenty-four inches on up. It seems appropriate, somehow, that the end of the revolution should be marked by the same action which marked its beginning when, eight years ago, the National Federation of the Blind was the first organization ever to sell mass-produced child-size white canes (twenty-four inches and up).

          Although there will still be individual battles and skirmishes as parents slug it out with die-hard O and M instructors, it is only a matter of time before it will be standard practice to give canes to preschoolers. However, as we have learned from the recent war in the Middle East, it isn't good enough to win the war; one must then win the peace.

          Parents will now be faced with a whole new set of problems and questions. Most of these are not new to the adult blind, but they will be new to parents. Do parents have to wait for permission from an O and M instructor to get a cane? What if the parents and the instructor disagree about the type of cane or its length? Should you wait to get a cane until your child can get O and M lessons, however long that may take, or should your child have a cane right away? Can blind people safely teach or demonstrate cane travel to children? What do you do if your school can't find an O and M teacher, or if the teacher can only come once a month? What do you do if you get a poor O and M teacher and your child begins to lose confidence, not gain it? Most of these questions can be boiled down to these fundamentals: What do the professionals really believe about blindness? Does your child's O and M teacher truly believe that a blind person can learn to travel safely and independently, or does he or she have a limited definition of independence and low expectations for your child?

          As we straddle the end of one era and the beginning of a new one in our approach to independent mobility for blind children, parents more than ever need information and guidance. We have come to understand that there are pretty straightforward answers to many such questions. Yes, competent blind people can safely teach and demonstrate independent mobility, and yes it is best to get a cane for a child as soon as possible, even if professional instruction is not yet available. But what parents need most of all and what the National Federation of the Blind is equipped to provide are plenty of inspiration and a philosophical blueprint to follow for the mobility-related problems that will inevitably have to be solved individually by parents and blind youth. Together, parents and the organized blind movement have brought about a revolution; let us continue to work to ensure that every blind child in this country has the opportunity to benefit from our victory.

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