9 Questions You Should Ask Before Teaching Blind Students in Crowds

16 Feb
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Darick Williamson teaches cane travel at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, is a member of the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, and an instructor at Louisiana Tech University. When he's not working, he's an intermittent student of history.

Latest posts by Darick Williamson, MA, NOMCT (see all)

On Tuesday, the staff and students from the Louisiana Center for the Blind will travel to Mardi Gras, as we do every year, to practice cane travel through crowds. When I was first learning to teach crowd travel, I was pretty nervous. I wondered how I would keep up with students and keep them together when I couldn’t see or hear them when wearing sleep shades, because they would be moving through such large groups of people.

When I used the correct strategies, though, I saw that crowds were not as difficult as they might seem. If you take the time to answer these questions before your next cane travel lesson in a crowded environment, I know that the experience will be more enjoyable for everyone.

1. Have you dismissed the idea that it may be OK for students to travel arm-in-arm with one another?

While students are in training, I discourage them from using sighted guide whenever possible so that they get comfortable using their canes. Sometimes, though, it’s helpful to use sighted guide technique with another student as a means of staying together to have a conversation. At those times, I certainly encourage them to keep using their canes; it’s important that students remember that they are in charge of their own safety and mobility. Let’s consider the case of extremely crowded environments, like sports stadiums or concerts, that are so busy or loud that the students can’t keep up with one another verbally. (Indeed, keeping a straight line may be impossible, too!) it might be helpful for the students to work in pairs—still using their canes, of course—but walking arm-in-arm so they don’t get separated.

While the arm-in-arm technique looks like sighted guide, neither student is guiding the other; instead, they are working as a team, clearing obstacles individually, and looking for the same pair of seats or concession area. When I am wearing sleep shades myself, or in the event the instructor is blind, he or she can place a hand lightly on the student’s back to keep pace with him or her.

2. Are your expectations age appropriate?

A few weeks ago, we were in Washington, D.C. so that students had the opportunity to work through a mass-transit system. At one point, I was working with a 12-year-old girl and another woman in her mid-20s. While both students worked the same route independently, I had different expectations for them. I certainly expected both women to navigate independently and confidently, but I didn’t expect that I could drop a 12-year-old off in rush hour and meet her across town. Both ladies are certainly capable of asking directions, but just as I wouldn’t expect a sighted pre-teen to wander a big city on her own, I didn’t expect that a blind child would either! It’s important to note, however, that age appropriate expectations don’t mean that I suggest lowering your expectations of blind people; rather, I mean adjusting the routes and tasks to be more in line with what you’d expect your own, sighted children to do on their own.

3. Do you have a game plan for keeping track of your students…and them of you?

When we’re at Mardi Gras, we’re traveling on some of the most busy and crowded streets that our students may ever encounter. It’s easy for anyone to get separated, get swept up in the crowd and unable to stop.

We organize our students into groups of four or five per instructor, and we have one very simple rule: don’t cross a street until we’re all together. If we lose track of one another, we know that the student or teacher is only ever one block away; either the student is waiting at the end of the block where we would expect, or the student accidentally turned left or right and is waiting on the next corner. (Of course, things can happen and a student can accidentally and unknowingly cross a quiet street, but still he or she is only one block away.)

So, we don’t worry about keeping students together as we’re going down the block. If one student does get separated, though, I tell everyone else to stay put and wait for me. The last thing that I want to do is find one student, only to lose another!

Also, so that we aren’t yelling for each other on the street (unattractive but less-than-useful in New Orleans!), we have a more nuanced signal for finding one another. So, I tell students to tap their cane nice and hard three times in a row. If I, or one of their fellow students, hears this signal, then we tap our canes in the same pattern. It’s pretty easy then to use echolocation to find each other.

I rarely have to make sure students have their phones with them these days, but I always make sure that they have my number. We also talk about the route and our destination, just in case we get majorly separated.

Whatever your plan may be, it’s important to have a game plan. You first plan for ways that you are unlikely to get separated, and then you plan for the worst-case scenario. This will reassure you, give the students confidence, and promote a fun, safe environment.

4. Are you hoping to teach a new, fundamental concept in this lesson?

Working through crowded environments is certainly a necessity during blindness training. However, crowded environments are the place to practice and test new skills; they’re just not a great place to teach a new technique. (Tweet this!)

For one, the noise makes it tough to communicate. Plus, as much as we try to help students feel comfortable exploring in the midst of chaos, it’s a stressful time for everyone. Teaching pencil grip in the middle of Mardi Gras is not optimal. I want students to practice and master that technique before we get in a large crowd.

As we’ll discuss through the next few questions that cane travel instructors should ask before crowd travel, you can prepare your students for what they’re likely to encounter ahead of time.

5. Do you think that the general public can give accurate directions most of the time?

Last fall, we took several students to the Louisiana State Fair. It’s not super crowded, though it is tight in a few areas. It is a great place to introduce the idea of crowd travel before the students get into major crowds at Mardi Gras or concerts. The main point of that experience is for students to learn how to deal with the public. We asked them to gather information from vendors’ stands and find somewhere to eat in the open-air market. The students quickly learned what questions were most productive and how to clarify the information that they received; the sighted folks don’t always give good information.

When it comes to clarifying directions, I always tell students, “Point in the direction that you think the person is telling you to go, and then ask, ‘That way?'”The sighted public isn’t used to cardinal directions (e.g. north or south), and most people usually confuse their right and left. This way, if students point themselves, the person giving information can correct where the student is pointing. With this technique, you’re more likely to get the right information the first time.

6. How will students maintain their orientation in wide-open spaces?

The first time that I traveled in a big, crowded space, I was worried about keeping my orientation and not losing everyone. In a crowd, you focus on your own travel and individual obstacles. If you think only in terms of what is right in front of you, you’ll quickly start zigzagging through the space, so I tell students to slow down…almost dramatically so. I suggest that they gather info when they need it and think about what they find in front of them. As they clear the obstacle, I suggest that they work their way back to where they were beforehand and pick up their original direction.

In those spots where we don’t have traffic, we remind the students about mental mapping, using the sun as a point of direction, and following the person ahead of them in line by placing the cane lightly on the sole of their shoe. To reiterate question 4, though: we’re going through these strategies for the first time at the fairgrounds.

7. Do your students think that they can use the same, textbook-style grip and wide arc?

The number-one complaint that I hear from my students—and from the public about my students—is that their long, rigid canes get in the way. We normally suggest that our students travel with an arc just a little wider than their shoulders and with the cane at a 60 or 70-degree angle. In crowds, though, I tell my students to pull their cane in at almost a 45-degree angle and hold it like a pencil. This “pencil grip” (which can be even more vertical in very tight crowds), combined with walking more slowly, will still give students enough, advance warning of obstacles yet not trip other people passing by.

I always say that it’s better to find someone with your cane than your body, but you have to balance that with how many people are going to be crossing in front of you and not see your cane at a distance. When we have students who struggle with this grip, there may be some fine motor skills trouble, but often it just comes down to more practice, the teacher reminding them to “use pencil grip here,” or the student being comfortable not clearing as wide of a swath as normal.

8. Do you believe that “accessible” technology will also be intuitive?

Metro Passes/Farecard MachineWhen we were in D.C. a few weeks ago, one of my students, Joanne Gabias—who has written for this blog in the past—had a fun adventure using the fare machines in the Metro system. The machines have an audio mode, but she quickly discovered that the mode doesn’t orient you to where buttons are on the face of the machine, which measures four feet tall by nearly two feet wide! “The machine talks so slowly that, just as you hear what button to push and find it, the system times out,” she lamented. “It was really frustrating, but by the end of the week, I was showing someone else how to work faster at it!”

So, yes, this technology is accessible, but it certainly is not intuitive or easy. I encourage you teachers to think about what other technology your students will encounter and how they might learn to use it. ATMs are an easy example, but most stores these days have other gadgets that customers use. Some of them (like the touch screens) are completely inaccessible, but there again lies an opportunity for the student to advocate for herself, get assistance, and educate the store managers about a better, more private solution.

9. How are you feeling…really?

On that first trip of mine under sleep shades to New Orleans, I was nervous…until I realized that my teacher didn’t seem scared. Arlene Hill, whom many of you know, was calm and collected. So, I was. If she had said the trip would be tough or was worried about keeping us all together, it probably would not have been such a great experience. Our students follow our lead when it comes to the way they feel about traveling in certain situations. As a teacher, you cannot just pretend all is okay; you have to honestly feel confident. You have to accept the fact that you are going to lose track of one another from time to time, meet up with everyone at the next block, and continue from there.

I’ve enjoyed watching my students’ confidence grow. We’ve taken folks who haven’t had the chance to take responsibility for their own orientation and direction before, and we’ve empowered them to work through their passive and rebellious states to find their own levels of independence. For just about every person with whom I’ve worked, they celebrate the day when they don’t have to ask someone to go with them from point A to point B. Our goal is for them to learn how to pick a route, get information along the way, and have fun reaching their destination.

The following two tabs change content below.
Darick Williamson teaches cane travel at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, is a member of the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, and an instructor at Louisiana Tech University. When he's not working, he's an intermittent student of history.

Latest posts by Darick Williamson, MA, NOMCT (see all)

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