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Blind students with white canes waiting to cross Congress Avenue, a busy six lane road.

(Originally published in the June 1995 edition of VISIONS)

Summer 99 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Adapted from a presentation by Susan S. Simmons, Ph.D.


A number of years ago I began referring to myself as a "Developmental O&M Specialist." I choose this term because many O&M Specialists seem to come from one of two schools of thought when providing services for young children. Since most of us were trained from the adult model, if the person does not have a background in child development the tendency is to take adult skills and try to simplify them for children.

I was a child development specialist who became an O&M. When I went through my training I couldn't help but think of ways to implement some of the techniques in a very different manner with young children. Because of this difference in background, I think in terms of child development instead of O&M development.

In the past ten years or so many people have published articles, curricula, assessment tools, as well as ideas on how to effectively work with young children who are visually impaired. I have had the wonderful opportunity to speak at numerous conferences on this topic, and I have found that discussing O&M in the context of a child's development is very well received.

It is vital that we think about O&M differently when teaching young children as opposed to adults. We need to realize that everything we do with children under five years of age is related to their understanding of space or their ability to move through space. For that matter, sighted children at this age also focus on learning about where they are in space and how to make their body move through space.

The most important factor in developing a successful O&M program for preschool children is the philosophy that independence permeates everything you do.

So, what is O&M for preschool children?

Here are a few areas not usually associated with traditional O&M:

  1. O&M is our attitudes, and the attitudes of all who come in contact with this child.
  2. O&M is our commitment to that child's independence at whatever level she is capable.
  3. O&M is the language we all use with our children and how, even subconsciously, we encourage independence.
  4. O&M is valuing the child's skills. Our values often clearly indicate that anything short of being able to see the environment is a disappointment.

A few words about canes

It is absolutely normal for all young children to want to do things for themselves. We often brag about all the things that the sighted child can do independently. It is critical to develop the same expectations and opportunities for the child who is visually impaired. The child's self-image and the attitudes of those who work with her will be greatly influenced by the O&M Specialist's attitudes and expectations, especially as they relate to the use of canes.

I get very excited about teaching cane skills. A cane can be one of the simplest tools a child uses for independent travel skills. As the child develops, so will her cane skills. As she begins to have more body control, she will exhibit more cane control, and more complex techniques can then be introduced. These decisions are made based upon the child's environmental needs as well as her emotional readiness.

In my experience, families are either very interested in their child learning to use a cane or highly resistant to the introduction of the cane. It is very important for professionals to tune into the concerns of the family. Many families may feel that a cane will bring too much attention to their child. They may find it embarrassing if people stare, watch their child, or stop and ask questions. Some parents feel that if they hold the child's hand and lead them around, other people will not notice that the child is blind or visually impaired. Although these feelings are an understandable part of the acceptance process, it is vital to work through them with the family.

Suggestions for encouraging independence in the home and classroom

  • Mark children's chairs and "cubbies" with an indicator, such as a shape. Then a child will not only be able to distinguish her own chair or cubby, but can also identify other children's. This technique also helps children learn about sequencing.
  • Encourage independence, but make adaptations for safety. For example, a rug placed near a step or doorway can cue the child to slow down. For children with functional vision, you can use rugs with color contrasts to alert them visually.
  • Keep toys in categories and in specific places so children can go and get them without your assistance, e.g. keep all of the musical instruments in the big basket by the window, or keep the carpet squares for music on the bookshelf. This offers children the opportunity to go and get things they want for themselves.
  • Don't be afraid to rearrange the classroom or home environment (obviously you don't want to be rearranging the environments on a monthly basis). It is not a bad idea, however, to do it a couple of times per year depending upon the abilities of the children in your class. Reorient the children to the new arrangement, and make it an exciting experience to explore and look for favorite items. This reduces rigidity, and offers children the opportunity to learn a new arrangement in a familiar setting.
  • Avoid carrying kids as much as possible. They need to experience rolling, crawling, walking, trailing, and changes in textures. Whenever possible, let them travel to places on their own.
  • Use natural sounds available within the environment when establishing auditory cues. It is really easy to fall into the habit of tapping on walls and furniture. Instead, if the child is walking or crawling to the bathroom, turn the water on and off in the sink. Entice her to listen, e.g. turning a sound on and off makes it easier to localize.
  • Pay attention to your orientation when you want a child to follow your voice. If they are following a wall, you follow the wall and face the child. It can be really helpful to be down at the child's level, which makes your voice very easy to localize.
  • Encourage a child to trail or walk using sighted guide everywhere she goes! The more she practices these techniques in familiar environments, the more likely she'll be able to use them in unfamiliar environments. For example, to help her get into the habit of trailing in familiar environments, as you enter buildings ask, "Where's the wall?"
  • Talk about sequences of rooms, toys, etc. whenever possible. This will help the child learn to think sequentially, i.e. what comes next.
  • Make a habit of pointing out environmental changes, or ask the child to tell you about environmental changes. For example, the tile floor changes to carpet, sounds change, etc. These skills help build environmental awareness.
  • Encourage the child to use riding toys.
  • Give the child opportunities to climb on various structures and explore new environments.
  • Vary environments as much as possible; sandboxes, grass, trees, mud puddles, ice, snow, rain, etc. Looking for worms after a rain is a big thrill for very young children!
  • Help children be "detectives" as they investigate and identify sensory information. Instead of telling them what is in their lunch box, tell them, "Smell the sandwich," "Touch the fruit," etc. At snack time offer two or three kinds of juices, and ask what kind of juice is in the glass? The children can first smell, then taste their juice to identify it.
  • Use spatial and directional concepts as much as possible, e.g. right and left can be used in conjunction with "side" as in "The door will be on the right side of the wall," or "The door will be on my side to the left." When giving directions, use terms such as "in front of," "behind," "above," "below," and "next to" with children who can learn these concepts.
  • Make all activities functional. Walking to the front of the building may be meaningless to a young child, but going to the water fountain may be very interesting.
  • Try to incorporate a sense of adventure and excitement about everyday discoveries.
  • Help your students practice auditory discrimination skills in naturally occurring situations. For example, someone entering a classroom may say, "This is Susan." It is more natural for the classroom teacher to greet the person, e.g. "Hi Susan," or, once she speaks, to ask one of the children to name the visitor. Many kids are very good at identifying familiar people but do not have enough opportunities to practice the skill with people they don't know as well.
  • Use visual landmarks that have high color contrasts with children who have low vision.
  • Arrange furniture to limit the amount of open space. It is easier to navigate a room if landmarks, such as furniture, help break up the space. It is more difficult to remain oriented in a room with large amounts of open space. Put furniture in useful and reasonable places. Just keep in mind, the less open space the better.