We have been strongly influenced by Joseph Cutter’s philosophy on mobility for blind children. He proposes that one of the key aspects of mobility in blind child is getting them to think of themselves as independent travellers — people who guide themselves rather than are guided by somebody else. This goes against most standard advice which focuses on teaching children to follow a sighted guided.
As we see mobility as one of the prime enablers for Ronan to do what he wishes in life, helping him see himself as an independent traveller has become a big focus of our efforts over the last year. Now 2y 4m, we are seeing the benefits as Ronan can navigate the downstairs of our house independently. He is also confident walking around the playground using our voices as a guide. Figuring out how to make a blind toddler get to where he needs to be, rather than where he wants to be, however has been no small task. Here are a few things we did and learned along the way:
We first focused on getting Ronan to follow sound. Starting a meter in front of him, I used to clap until he found me. If he did not move, I tickled his tummy to show him that I was not very far away. Gradually I have moved further back and he can now walk about 10 meters on the even surface of the playground. I’ve noticed that clapping is easier for him then calling or singing. I’ve also seen that if he starts to diverge in one direction, it is important that I continue to face his original location. He will return to path. However, if my head (and my hands) follows him, then he continues to diverge.
We encourage Ronan to walk around the house independently. We have arranged the living room and kitchen so that he can follow the walls and furniture to get to most places. We’ve also created a lot of open space so that he can safely walk across the space without banging into anything. We’ve noticed that tactile markers on the floor, like rugs, play a very important role in helping him orient himself in the room. He is even able to feel the direction of weave so as to know which way to go on the rug.
Another technique we’ve developed for encouraging independent travel is bridge making. I frequently make a bridge to a piece of furniture that Ronan is looking for. For example, he needs to cross the door way to get from the wall to his dinner chair. I make a bridge with my arm across the door way while tapping on the chair. In this way, Ronan can trail while training his ear for how sound feels at different distances. It also means that he does not stub his toes on the furniture something that he does a lot.
Ronan is often too tired to walk on his own given the intense concentration that it takes. Or, sometimes, he just does not want to wash his hands, and needs to be taken to the bathroom to do so. In these cases, and they are frequent with a toddler, we take his hand and focus on a movement skill rather than orientation. We march in time to each other – left, left, left, right, left. We play follow the leader during which I stand behind him while holding both his hands and copy his movements. We play bears and mice, during which we stomp around like bears and skitter about like mice. We roar and squeak too.
We try never to take Ronan’s hand as guidance, but always for some other reason. This is good reinforcement of the idea for us parents that Ronan is an independent traveller. While this is not always convenient, and we are lucky to have an explorative child, we are very proud to have a totally blind child who moves about our house and his nursery on his own. Our only problem now is to convince other adults not to guide Ronan or breath in with horror when he bangs into something.