The Need for Reason

by George M. Binder and Douglas C. Boone

Braille Monitor

November, 1994

From the Editor: In the January, 1992, issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness (JVIB), published by the American Foundation for the Blind, Dr. William Wiener and several other researchers presented a summary of the research they had done on the question of whether or not blind orientation and mobility instructors can safely do their jobs. Division IX of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) has steadily maintained that they cannot and that, therefore, AER certification for these instructors must be withheld. One of the first blind university-trained O & M instructors to feel the impact of this bar was Dr. Fred Schroeder, now Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration. In casual conversation at the time Dr. Schroeder characterized the Wiener findings as proving unequivocally that blind people cannot see as well as sighted people—a result that none of us would be inclined to question. Whether, as a result of this new corroboration of an undisputed truth, blind O & M instructors who have been trained to use efficient alternative methods for teaching the skills of effective cane use and student safety should continue to be denied the opportunity to acquire AER certification is a far different issue.

Two experienced, sighted O & M instructors whose views and experience run counter to those of the Wiener group prepared a response to the JVIB article and submitted it to that journal in May of 1992. The editor requested that it be significantly shortened, a suggestion to which the authors were unwilling to agree. They believed it was high time the underlying distrust of blindness skills demonstrated by the AER position be openly discussed, and they recognized that their article could not do the job if it were substantially cut.

In recent months the AER has again opened the question of whether it should certify blind O & M instructors. (See Dr. Schroeder's article, "Preparing for Emerging Challenges and Partnerships," in the August/September, 1994, issue of the Braille Monitor.) AER's preliminary answer seems to be that, if the blind teacher is prepared to use a sighted assistant to provide the visual information that sighted instructors depend upon, something might be worked out. Clearly, the O & M gurus continue to miss the point. Therefore, we herewith print the article which Messrs. Binder and Boone prepared in 1992. Its argument is no less relevant today, and the many students who have been taught by blind travel teachers to use the long white cane confidently and safely during the intervening two and a half years serve to strengthen their case.

 George Binder received his master's degree in orientation and mobility from Florida State University at Tallahassee in August of 1989. He is currently employed as a certified orientation and mobility instructor with the Albuquerque Public Schools and serves as a private contractor to schools in many surrounding districts. Prior to receiving his master's degree, Mr. Binder worked for eight years as a rehabilitation teacher in an agency serving the blind.

Doug Boone holds a B.A. in Education and is President of D. Boone Consultants, a private consulting firm, providing blindness- related rehabilitation consulting services. He has been employed by rehabilitation agencies for the blind since 1976 in a variety of roles, including cane travel instructor, wood shop instructor, rehabilitation teacher, vocational rehabilitation counselor, and director of human resource development for the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. This is what Messrs. Binder and Boone have to say:

The frequently debated issue regarding visual requirements for certified orientation and mobility teachers has prompted us to write in order to express our views on the matter. Additionally, we would like to take this opportunity to respond to the Wiener, Bliven, Bush, Ligammari, and Newton (1992) article entitled "The Need for Vision in Teaching Orientation and Mobility," which appeared in the January, 1992, issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. This is an issue about which we feel strongly, and our views are a reflection of the changes which are occurring within the field of O & M. Ours is not a static profession but one which is constantly evolving. Changes in attitudes and expectations, brought about by consumers and professionals alike, have made it possible for us to look at certification requirements in a whole new light.

We would like to begin by sharing with you our background in teaching orientation and mobility. Both of us have received intensive instruction at an orientation center for blind adults as part of our preparation for entry into the field of blindness. The opportunity for training at a rehabilitation/orientation center for the blind occurred when we were hired as rehabilitation teachers for the blind. As part of the training program for new staff at the Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired, we were required to spend three months as students at the orientation center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

This was an intensive training program which necessitated our wearing sleepshades (blindfolds) for approximately seven hours a day, five days a week for three months. [When Doug became an O & M instructor for the Orientation Center, he spent an additional six weeks under sleepshades in preparation for this new responsibility]. Center instruction included classes in cane travel, cooking, shop/wood-working, Braille, abacus, and typing. In addition, seminars or discussion periods were held twice weekly.

While learning the various nonvisual, alternative techniques which a blind person must possess in order to be independent, we gradually began to understand what it meant to function without vision. As the students around us shared their feelings and views about blindness, the philosophical basis for our attitudes toward blindness began to develop. We were exposed to a great many independent, competent, blind individuals with a diverse range of abilities. Many of our old, stereotyped ideas started to break down. Even though we were sighted people simulating blindness, we began to realize that blindness had to be dealt with on an emotional level while at the same time addressing the immediate need to master skills. All the instruction, technology, and alternatives in the world cannot by themselves provide the answer. When blind people internalize the notion that blindness is a totally and tragically disabling condition, they start to lose the motivation and ability to become confident, competent people.

We also came to realize that nonvisual, alternative techniques work and, perhaps more important, that they are not inferior to those which require vision. For visual learners it is often difficult to realize that there is no way to determine accurately what a blind person can or cannot do without first understanding how effectively the nonvisual alternatives work. That is to say, given our sighted frame of reference, we can only understand intuitively how a thing can be accomplished through the use of vision. Without intensive training we cannot recognize how efficient and effective the alternate techniques of blindness can be.

In our view this lack of understanding makes itself felt whenever the question of certifying blind orientation and mobility instructors arises. Since the concern is basically one of safety, it is important to understand how a blind person can effectively employ nonvisual methods in teaching cane travel.

By listening to the cane arcing, it is possible to determine whether a student is maintaining a safe, even arc. If the width of an arc is too narrow, the auditory feedback will be muffled by the student's body. To determine if the arc is too wide, the instructor can use sound comparisons, judging the tap of the cane relative to the footsteps. Additionally, the height of an arc can be determined by sound. Both blind and sighted instructors teach students to cross intersections safely by using changes in the movement of automobiles to ascertain the various types of intersections and their layouts. By monitoring the street sounds carefully himself, the blind teacher can be sure that the student is lined up with traffic, judging appropriately when and where it is safe to cross, and reliably using traffic flow to maintain orientation and direction. When introducing street crossings at busy intersections, blind instructors usually remain close to the student (one or two steps behind) and position themselves between parallel traffic and the student. This arrangement allows rapid intervention if necessary. As sighted instructors we frequently employ this same approach with beginning students. Another fail-safe way to prevent a student from misjudging the traffic pattern and crossing before the light is green is to have the student verbally indicate when he or she is prepared to cross. The notion that it takes vision to cross an intersection safely is as false as it is to assume that it takes vision to cook!

For the blind cane travel instructor many unexpected situations such as construction and delivery trucks can be detected through auditory means. This too can be turned into a learning experience for students by brainstorming or by using guided problem-solving techniques. All teachers agree that safety is critically important. The question we must ask is how to ensure the student's safety. We believe that it will be most effectively guaranteed through proper training and monitoring and not by the instructor's visual acuity.

Another commonly expressed concern is that the blind instructor might lose track of a student. Once again, vision is not the only protection against this danger. Listening for the tap of the student's cane and using one's knowledge of the student's travel patterns or idiosyncratic behavior to trace his or her wayward path are simple methods of keeping tabs on the student. Even more important, let us remember that at a certain point in the instructional process the student is able to solve problems and can meet a teacher at a predetermined location. The teacher's approach to training can make it unnecessary to observe the student visually from a distance or to warn students of impending collisions.

Once the student has mastered the basic skills that ensure safety and the teacher is absolutely certain that he or she appreciates their importance and applies them consistently, the conscientious instructor can fade more and more into the background. The goal now is to instill self-confidence by initiating solo routes and encouraging self-exploration routes. It certainly does not require vision to accomplish this task either. Warning students of impending collisions with large or small objects is not always necessary. If the student has received proper instruction, the cane will detect obstacles and warn him or her of danger. Students who become careless quickly discover that life is full of consequences. Please understand, we are not saying that we would intentionally allow a student to get hurt, but we seldom warn students in advance of objects they should be locating with the cane. A student who encounters an object because of a poor arc has learned a painful but effective lesson—one that is better learned when an instructor is available to help analyze the cause of the problem. To avoid such lessons is to deprive students of valuable opportunities which contribute to the growth of both skills and self-confidence.

Students who are taught using a creative, problem-solving approach to O & M will learn to ask relevant questions about the environment rather than depending on being told in detail what is going on around them. This is a model similar to the cognitive process described in E. Hill and P. Ponder's "Orientation and Mobility Techniques." This results in a structured discovery learning model, which allows blind travelers to interact with the environment and to interpret and process information effectively. Until a student gains a certain degree of confidence and feels somewhat at ease in traveling, it is difficult for him or her to perceive the vast number of environmental cues available. Too often feeling out of control or fearful blocks the development of practical, common-sense decision-making skills. The role of any cane travel instructor (blind or sighted) is to empower the student through a guided, problem-solving approach, thereby instilling a sense of confidence.

In his book Mobility Training for Visually Handicapped People, A Person-Centered Approach, Allan Dodds, describing different teaching styles, states:

The authoritarian rehabilitation worker . . . will feel superior to all clients and will find it rewarding to be in control of them. . . . He will leave the fully trained client with the nagging feeling that he will never really be independent once training is over and that he still needs further lessons. The egalitarian instructor . . .will have respect for the individual based upon a healthy respect for himself, will regard him as a fellow adult, and will get pleasure out of seeing him reacquire his independence and dignity. . . . At all times she [the egalitarian instructor] is guiding his problem-solving and helping him to interpret what he is doing and what the consequences are. . . . In this way she is getting him to solve his own orientation problems and increasing his confidence to keep track of where he is as he travels. . . . So the authoritarian instructor tries to fill the client with facts, rather than letting him discover through his own activities what the environment is like. The second style, practiced by the egalitarian instructor, assumes that learning consists in discovering things for oneself and that the role of the instructor is to guide this process of discovery.

It is possible to undermine a student's confidence unintentionally by offering too much information. For example, the sighted travel teacher who warns a student about the presence of stairs prior to the student's reaching them with the cane certainly does not instill self-reliance but instead reinforces the notion that vision and safety are somehow connected. It is critical that students learn to trust the cane and their own abilities and not to rely on visual information.

To use fear tactics such as saying "Differences of seconds may seem small, but the stakes are high," or "It only takes a second for an individual to overstep a stair or to move into a dangerous situation," is unfair. It conveys the conviction that a blind traveler is never completely safe. At some point every O & M teacher (sighted or blind) has to step back and allow the student to accomplish solo routes. Besides, why should we assume that a blind instructor would be unaware of a student's approaching a dangerous situation- As stated earlier, blind or visually impaired instructors usually position themselves close to the student while crossing a busy intersection during the beginning stages of training (as would a sighted teacher) in order to ensure quick intervention in an emergency.

Still another positive aspect of certifying blind O & M teachers is that of providing a positive role model. The value of this point can hardly be overstated. It is important for blind children and adults alike to be exposed to good blind role models. This exposure will assist them in making a positive adjustment to blindness and acceptance of the cane while providing proof that it is indeed possible for blind people to be independent.

To insist that blind cane travel instructors teach in the traditional style of some sighted instructors is to ignore the validity of comparable non-visual alternatives. We find ourselves agreeing with Allan Dodds (1985, p. 137) when he states: "The degree to which one accepts or rejects blind people working as mobility instructors . . . is conditioned only by one's own prejudices about blindness." The alternatives to vision which we have offered in this article are only a sample of possible solutions, and they vary from person to person. In any case, we are certainly not aware of all of the non-visual techniques in use. We are aware, however, of the success with which the techniques can be employed. It's time that those of us who say we expect independence and safety from our students realize that these things really are possible and begin trusting the message we say we teach.

We do not believe that every good blind traveler would make a good orientation and mobility instructor. Many of us have had math instructors who were brilliant mathematicians but who were unable to convey their knowledge in a way that could be easily understood by the majority of the class. We do propose, however, that the O & M field give blind people who possess the skills and the desire to teach the chance to prove themselves.

Simulations and experiments are not necessary. Blind cane travel instructors have been successfully teaching for years without the use of sighted assistants. These instructors have done more to instill confidence, foster positive attitudes, and effectively teach cane travel than many of us who are sighted cane travel teachers. To quote Allan Dodds again (1985, "New Beacon"):

As a psychologist I was interested from a number of points of view in being on the receiving end of blind instruction; and, having undergone mobility instruction with a sighted instructor, I was interested in making comparisons. For example, not knowing anything about how a blind instructor operated, I was concerned about how in touch she could be with her client in terms of monitoring his motor skills. . . . After only a few steps, she called out that my cane was not going far enough over to the left and asked me to correct it. Slightly surprised, I consciously swung it further over to the left, and she told me that was better. [And again later in the same article] So confident was he (a student of the blind instructor) that I stopped checking up on his decisions to cross at busy junctions, simply putting my trust in his decisions and maintaining a conversation with him. That was the moment when I realized that my residual prejudices about blind travel had finally been put to rest. In spite of myself, I would never really have trusted a blind person to make a safety decision on my behalf without checking it out visually. Now I realized that good blind travel had to be judged on blind criteria, not sighted ones, and the fact that blind travelers don't get run down by cars is not due to the consideration of the motorist but rather to the sound judgment of the traveler. And yet I had trained blind people to do this myself, without fully believing that it was safe. . . . For my own part, I was thoroughly convinced that blind instructors could do most of what sighted instructors could, and what they couldn't do was not vital to the teaching of safe and independent travel.

Below is a sample of only a few state and private agencies which reveals how widespread is the practice of employing blind persons whose sole job description is that of orientation and mobility instructor. We did not sample these same service providers with regard to the number of clients trained in O & M by blind rehabilitation teachers whose primary duties are not O & M but who teach it as the need arises.

ABLE (Alternatives for the Blind in Living and Employment), Source: Former employee. [approximate student count] . . . . . 60

 BISM (Blind Industries and Services of Maryland), Source: Former employee [approximate student count, 1983-1987] . . . . 85

BLIND Inc., Source: Program Director [approximate student count, 1988 until April, 1992] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .125

Colorado Center for the Blind, Source: Program Director [approximate student count, 1988 until April, 1992]. . . . . . 75

Louisiana Center for the Blind, Source: Program Director [exact count, 1986 until April, 1992]. . . . . . . . . . . . .180

Nebraska Rehabilitation Services f/t Visually Impaired, Source: Agency Director [approximate count, 1975 until April, 1992]. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .450

New Mexico Commission f/t Blind, Source: Program Director, [exact count, 1986 until April, 1992]. . . . . . . . . . . . . 87

The numbers presented here were compiled in April of 1992. Total number of blind persons trained in O & M by blind instructors in the above, limited sample . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,062

 In the face of the significant number of safe, competent blind travelers trained to use the long white cane by blind orientation and mobility instructors, we ask one question of Mr. Wiener and other advocates of the present certification requirement: if the numbers provided here are not proof of the capacity of blind O & M instructors to train other blind people safely and effectively, at what point will studies and research give way to practice and fact?


Hill, E., and Ponder, P., Orientation and Mobility Techniques, New York, American Foundation for the Blind, Inc., 1976, p. 4.

Dodds, A.G. (1985) "Mobility: Blind Instructors-" New Beacon, 69, 137-139.

Dodds, A.G., Mobility Training for Visually Handicapped People: A Person-Centered Approach, London, England, Croom Helm Ltd, 1988, pp. 73-77.