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Valuing the Blind Child's Independent Movement & Travel
by Joe Cutter
Reprinted in Future Reflections

From 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 said:

In 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 like—passive 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.

During 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 being established.

If 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.

The 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 cartoon—Mr. 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."

As 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.

You 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 practices—they 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.

We 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:

1. 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.

2. 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 happens—adults 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 positive way."

Professionals 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.

Ultimately 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 travel.

Whatever 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.

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