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Visually Impaired Students Depend on Other Senses to Navigate Independently

Geri Darko, Orientation & Mobility Specialist at the Montana School for the Deaf & Blind (MSDB) explains, "incidental learning happens when you have vision and you see somebody do something".  Blind students, however,  need to learn a different way.  Darko says, "they have to rely on their other senses to get the most information from their environment".

A white cane is one tool visually impaired students use to learn about their environment.  Darko says, "the feedback that you get from your cane can really tell you where you're at in space".  Canes can tell you about subtle differences in materials like asphalt versus cement sidewalks and prepare you for obstacles.  Fourteen year old, Alyson Flamand of Great Falls, is a visually impaired student at MSDB.  She says, "you bump something with your cane, of course you're going to want to touch it".

Darko says. "the tip of the cane taps each of the risers on each step. When it swings free the student then knows they have one more step to take until they are on the top level".  This cane technique is called contacting objects. 

Proper cane technique is a lot more than simply moving a stick in front of you.  So for students that have decent day vision, but poor night vision, they wear noir shields or dark tinted glasses to block the light in order to learn those proper cane skills.  Darko says, "they start slowing down, they start remembering oh yeah I'm supposed to keep my cane in front of me, oh yeah I need to arch my cane from left to right".

Even with great cane technique, navigating a world full of traffic can be dangerous.  Darko says, "all of those traffic laws that we understand we learn in driver's ed.  Our students don't understand those things".  Therefore, students start their version of driver's ed at a young age.  Darko says, "we need to know what traffic can do, not just what I'm allowed to do, and be prepared for the unexpected".

There's only one audible signal in Great Falls, so students learn to rely on their own senses.  Alyson says she uses her sense of touch and hearing.  To really get a sense of what it's like to be blind, you have to walk in their shoes, so the students and staff at MSDB put me in a blind fold to see how well I could do.  Students playing musical instruments served as my sound source and using only my sense of touch and hearing, I had to find them.  Needless to say it wasn't easy and I stumbled off the sidewalk more than once, but I eventually found the students.

Darko says, "one of the misconceptions is that if you're blind, you have a better sense of hearing or a better sense of smell".  In fact, it's not a matter of super senses, it's about paying closer attention.  Darko gives this example: "making that differentiation between the sound that a car makes when it's accelerating through an intersection as opposed to accelerating and turning in front of you".

Darko says, "it's really motivating to travel independently".  It may seem like a nice gesture to help a blind student cross the street, but you may be doing more harm than good.  Darko explains, "the general public does want to be helpful, but sometimes that can interfere with their process of listening for parallel traffic, or environmental clues, or using their cane".

It can be disorienting to be led somewhere rather than giving students the opportunity to figure things out for themselves.  Alyson says, "yes I can do a whole lot of things you may not think a visually impaired person can do".  Darko adds, "it gives them a sense of self and they get to know they can do this, they just have to do it a little differently than somebody else".

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