Beyond city sidewalks: the blind traveler in a rural environment.
While many working age blind people choose to live in urban areas in order to avail themselves of public transportation and other services, many of the senior blind, along with a significant number of children and working age adults, make their homes in rural settings. Additionally, some of our nation's most inviting vacation spots lie at the edge of civilization and beyond. As blind people play an ever increasing role in the mainstream of society, they find themselves needing or wanting to travel independently and skillfully in rural and even untrammeled places. Through our own experiences, both as instructors and travelers, we have developed some effective techniques which enable blind people to travel freely while living, working, and recreating "far from the madding crowd." Before elaborating on these methods, it might be helpful to examine the framework into which these techniques are laid.
Many of you are familiar with the discovery learning approach to orientation and mobility instruction. An ever increasing number of professionals in the field of work with the blind are adopting this teaching method with exciting results. Students who engage in discovery learning tend to possess greater confidence and can apply their skills in a wider range of travel settings. Dr. Allan Dodds, in his book, Mobility Training for Visually Handicapped People: A Person-Centered Approach, clearly distinguishes between the "authoritarian" style of instruction and the "egalitarian" instructor, who employs the discovery learning method (Dodds, 1988). The benefits of this approach to cane travel instruction are far too numerous to detail in this article. However, a brief explanation seems appropriate.
The discovery learning approach simply involves instruction through the use of problem solving and information seeking techniques rather than route travel and rote memorization. This method teaches the student to evaluate his or her surroundings and apply the transferable skills of travel, using dog or long cane, to the situation at hand. Discovery learning requires us to make some basic assumptions about our students. The student is presumed capable of collecting information which is present in the environment such as sound cues, tactile variations, use of the sun and or wind, and other environmental attributes that may be present. Blind travelers must learn to recognize, evaluate, and incorporate all of this environmental information if they are to be effective travelers. The average blind person, if given an opportunity to experience the benefits of discovery learning, has no difficulty in meeting this challenge. Discovery learning is further characterized by instructor guided questioning of the student to assist in finding a solution. When a student encounters challenges in the course of a lesson, no answers are provided. Instead, the instructor asks him or her to assess and utilize information readily at hand, nurturing the student's ability to solve problems. As a result, the student also learns to evaluate his or her own technique and take corrective action when necessary. Students who successfully master travel through discovery learning travel independently and successfully in new areas as well as familiar ones. They also deal easily with unexpected obstacles such as construction, poor directions, or inclement weather.
The advent of the discovery learning method is especially applauded by blind business persons whose jobs often involve extensive travel. Their careers are enhanced and in some cases even facilitated through the use of these travel techniques. The rural traveler is particularly well served by the discovery method of learning. Since rural areas are certainly not consistent, the flexibility and problem solving ability that accompany this approach are essential to independent travel on the farm or in the wilderness.
Choosing The Cane
We believe that it is the instructor's responsibility to recommend a specific cane and provide reasons for that endorsement. Recommendations should be based upon teaching experience and the experiences/opinions of blind travelers. Our selection of a cane is based upon our own field testing, during years of instruction, together with the opinions of countless former students.
We find the rigid, hollow fiberglass cane to be the most versatile tool for overall use in traveling. This lightweight, flexible cane arcs easily when held loosely in the hand, causing minimal fatigue to the wrist and fingers. A round metal tip completes our ideal cane, sliding easily through tall grasses, without catching or sticking. The metal tip also produces excellent auditory information when used on hard surfaces while tending to glide over rough areas and small cracks. The solid fiberglass cane, also with a metal tip, shares many of the same advantages as the hollow counterpart. It takes second place in weight, being approximately three times heavier, increasing wrist fatigue. In the area, of durability however, the solid fiberglass cane ranks superior: It is almost indestructible.
Efficient, safe travel is best achieved when using a cane that reaches to chin height in almost all cases. After the student develops speed and confidence, additional length will be added. We find support for this length of cane (Foundations of Orientation and Mobility, 1980) in a short, but insightful reference to the value of the extra length:
On this whole subject uninitiated
members of society are often vocal
in behalf of "a totally blind man I
know who never had any lessons
and does beautifully." And indeed
individuals have done down
through the ages. The most noted of
these was an Englishman named
John Metcalf, who in the 18th
century was a road builder and
performed authenticated feats of
getting about by himself on foot
and on horseback, once guiding a
sighted individual through a bog
in dark of night. His doings were
regarded by his contemporaries
and by succeeding generations as
little short of marvelous. To the
present they are less so, for an old
print shows he had a cane so long
it was almost up to his hat. This
instrument foreshadowed the
principle on which one type of
formal instruction was to be built
when it finally arrived (Mannix,
We find that the extra cane length allows for a more natural positioning of the cane, while providing additional response time when encountering obstacles in the environment. The confidence gained from locating obstacles in ample time to react, without panic, is very important. This is no small consideration when treading the less traveled path!
We include a brief lesson in storing the rigid cane in a car, which allows graceful entering/exiting of an automobile. This simple trick involves placing the cane between the seat and door, with its tip to the front. The cane is then pushed down to lie along the floor where it will not interfere with other passengers climbing in and out. This method takes less time than collapsing a folding or telescoping cane, and it facilitates learning by encouraging the student to take the cane on outings, using it in a variety of travel situations.
Rural (Country) Travel
When introducing travel skills in a country setting, where dirt or gravel roads are the norm, it is just as important for new rural students to develop consistency in basic cane technique as it is for their urban peers. Grip, cane position, width and height of the arc, and keeping in step should be taught and practiced in an area near the person's residence, until confidence has developed. During the course of the lessons on basic technique, we introduce an awareness of available environmental information. While continuing to stress consistency in the mechanics, we are laying the groundwork for future use of such cues as sun, wind, and traffic sounds.
Many people in rural areas are accustomed to using cardinal point directions. When someone becomes blind, the knowledge that the barn is north of the house provides a great starting point for an early travel lesson. After mastering the basic cane arc (usually accomplished through repeated trips along a path between the house and driveway), the student selects a building which he needs to locate. At this time, the technique for minimizing entanglement of the cane in tall grass is introduced. Indeed, this simple modification from the usual use of the cane is also effective in winter travel. The student holds the cane in a pencil grip, maintaining a two point touch. The arc is modified by poking the cane into the tall grass (or snow) and pulling it back out. The procedure is repeated on the other side of the arc, providing for information on the path which lies beneath the grass.
Concurrent with the introduction of the technique for traveling in tall grass, the student learns the value of the sun as an aid to orientation. Here, a simple drill proves most effective. In order to utilize sun cues, a traveler must be able to localize the sun while walking. Using cardinal point directions and common knowledge regarding the changing position of the sun throughout the day, the student walks a straight line in a given direction with the sun as a guide. The person is then instructed to stop and turn in a different direction, again using the feel of the sun as a guide. These exercises are repeated frequently during the early days of travel training in the rural setting until the student is adept at orienting him/herself with the aid of the sun. The exercises are not confined to locating only north, south, east, or west but also include northeast, northwest, and so on.
Only after the student is proficient in using cardinal point directions do we introduce a Braille compass. A number of rural travel situations, particularly on a farm, require the combination of landmark location and directional travel. The student may need to find a particular corner post, then walk several hundred yards, northeast, through an open field to locate an irrigation pump. On a sunny day, the sun can be used. On a cloudy day, our traveler uses a compass to confirm the northeasterly direction while crossing the field and finding the irrigation equipment.
Creating sound cues around the farm offers another useful alternative. Leaving a radio turned on in the barn or toolshed enables the blind farmer to locate each building instantly, facilitating rapid, easy movement from one place to another. The volume needn't be inordinately loud to be heard in the relative quiet of the farm. Hanging tin cans or wind chimes on the irrigation pump works well to create a sound cue in the middle of a field, where using a radio is not practical. While not useful on a day without wind, the chimes should almost always provide at least an intermittent sound cue.
The Country Lane
While learning to travel down a country lane, several pieces of information will assist the blind traveler in maintaining orientation. Ruts or irregularities in the road surface provide a great source of information and should be noted when introducing the student to the lane. The relaxed, confident blind traveler would easily notice the ruts and recognize their value in keeping oriented. The beginning student, by contrast, may feel somewhat overwhelmed, with low self-confidence and high anxiety, necessitating that the instructor draw attention to the seemingly obvious. During that first walk down the lane, sun and wind cues are again called into play and their usefulness stressed as a strategy for maintaining orientation. If a student becomes disoriented, we prefer to ask questions to allow for problem solving to occur. Students who travel in the country, where the population is sparse, must learn to rely on themselves and their own instincts, which are almost unerringly correct. The primary purpose of these first few sojourns is to develop problem solving skills and self-confidence while gaining insight regarding the use of effective travel alternatives. The student is well served
by concentrating on these things rather than worrying about completing the formal "assignment." In keeping with the discovery learning approach to instruction, the instructor's questions become more general as the skill and confidence of the student develops. At the conclusion of training, the student possesses the ability to problem solve independently, correcting mistakes without the aid of an instructor.
Additional information along the lane provides useful assistance. The hard packed tire tracks on the dirt or gravel lane, the lane's edge (usually lined with weeds), and the sound of sporadic traffic in the distance can be effectively used while traversing the lane. Other information in a given setting can be useful if put in context with the route being traveled. The hum of electrical wires along the county road, the rustle of a lone tree somewhere en route and myriad other cues can be used in combination with directional orientation to navigate the country lane.
Out of the Lane, and Down the Road!
The student will benefit from prompting by the instructor regarding the various cues that can be used to locate the convergence of the farm lane with the county road. Encouraging the student to make effective use of traffic, even if sparse, starts during the first lesson by prompting him to listen to the distant approach of any vehicle passing by on the county road. The sound of cars traveling along the road tells the student exactly where that road is located and draws an auditory line, marking the direction in which the road leads. The instructor also provides specific information regarding the change in the texture underfoot as the lane meets the county road. If it is a dirt lane meeting a gravel county road, the transition is immediately obvious. Where both roads are gravel, turning and passing cars will cause the gravel to form a pile at one side or in the center of the intersection. These piles of gravel will many times be accompanied by a slight slope and/or a well worn, hard packed tire track. Learning to use this information warrants taking as much time as the student needs to discern the distinguishing characteristics of the intersection. This information will be used to find other lanes along the county road and will enable the traveler to locate his own lane on the return trip.
In rural America, cars traditionally drive down the middle of the road, moving to the right only when meeting oncoming traffic, or perhaps at the crest of a hill. When walking down a rural road, the accepted pedestrian rule concerning facing oncoming traffic will, out of necessity, be set aside. The blind traveler should gather certain information about his destination before setting out along the county road. This information is almost identical to that required by a sighted traveler. How many roads lie between his lane and the destination? Which way must he turn upon arrival? The successful traveler must walk on the side of the road where he will find the intersecting road for which he is looking. In this way, the blind country traveler can easily locate his turnoff.
To locate another residence down the gravel county road a combination of compass direction, sun cues (if available), distance, time required in walking to the destination, and changes in the gravel (the piling mentioned earlier) will assist in finding a neighbor's lane. Also useful is the disappearance of weeds along the road just prior to or concurrent with an intersecting lane. Other pieces of information may be present and by questioning the student, such things as the smell or sound of barnyard animals, the sound of an air conditioner, the smell of a furnace which has just turned on, provide useful cues.
What about going from the county road to a hard surface road such as blacktop or pavement? Along a busy road of this type there generally exists an edging or shoulder that is suitable for walking along. The shoulder may be dirt, gravel, or an extension of the blacktop road surface. If the shoulder is gravel or dirt and in good repair, the student can walk approximately a cane's length from the edge of the road surface. The student will quickly discover that being too far away from the road leads to encounters with weeds and washouts, while being too close will cause the passing cars to honk or otherwise respond in a less than positive fashion. This problem is solved by dividing the distance between the edge of the road and the grass line. As with travel in the city, the sound of traffic appearing in the distance, passing alongside, and fading away is used to assist orientation when traffic is present. If the road surface is continuous with the shoulder, then it is a simple task to occasionally arc to the side near the grass or weed line to maintain a reasonable distance from the parallel traffic. In a few instances, the road surface can extend to what can only be termed a ditch, not suitable for walking. This poses a problem for both the sighted and blind pedestrian and raises the question of safety. Each situation should be carefully considered, with the test for safety being the same for the blind pedestrian as for the sighted. The fact is, a few areas exist where it is simply not safe for anyone to walk along the roadside.
The Small Town
Travel in a small town, where no sidewalks exist and streets are predominantly gravel, requires use of some of the approaches previously described for traveling in the country. Time, distance, direction (using the sun), the transition of one street to another resulting in piles of gravel, slopes of the tire tracks, and the hard packed gravel where the cars usually drive are some of the cues which might be used. Ask your students to tell you when they get to an intersection by using some of the cues discussed previously. Additionally, some of the information found in larger cities can be employed in the rural small town. Teaching the student to note the sound change and the feeling of things opening up enables that student to know when he or she reaches the intersection. There may also be some prominent or subtle landmarks that the student may choose to use. Mail boxes, sidewalks leading from houses to the street, driveways, and, perhaps, wind chimes are just some of the landmarks which might be available. By working a given route several times, focusing on identifying useful cues and permanent landmarks, the student is empowered to apply the same technique when exploring other routes independently. Again, the discovery method allows students to become practiced in analyzing situations, separating useful information from the general surroundings, and using that information to assist them in finding their destination.
Finding specific businesses in the downtown area of a small town is not unlike locating stores in a shopping mall. The sound of closing car doors, pedestrians' foot falls as they step in and out of stores, and odors from a bakery, bar, feed and grain, or hardware store provide blind travelers with a wealth of information about the shops they pass on their travels. A particular business is located in much the same manner as it would be in a larger town or city.
In some small towns, paved streets may exist but no sidewalks paralleling the street are present. In this case, the traveler walks along the edge of the street, using the parallel curb as one source of information. We encourage the student to utilize the sun and the sound of traffic, if present, in combination with the tap of the cane against the parallel curb. Assuming the student is on the left side of the street, he/she should walk in or near the gutter and maintain a good arc with the left swing of the cane encountering the curb. In cases where the student will be walking several blocks without needing to locate a particular address or street, the left arc need only contact the curb every three or four steps. Constant shorelining is not necessary for most students and, if used full distance, tends to slow the rate of travel. Shorelining may also focus the student's attention on the curb and away from other more important bits of information in the environment. As the student nears an intersection, the open space of the converging street results in an "opening up," where the sound is markedly different and more wind movement is felt. Additionally, streets in the country (as well as in town) are crowned in the center, sloping down to the curb or edge on either side. This kind of road surface facilitates runoff when it rains and it is also easily detectable by the blind traveler. The road dips slightly as the traveler approaches an intersection, then rises gradually as he or she crosses the intersecting street.
Locating a specific residence along either the gravel or paved street is a matter of knowing how many streets need to be crossed, the side where the residence is located, and the approximate position of the residence in the block. To confirm location of the correct address, landmarks (which are best discovered by the student, not the teacher) can be helpful. As previously discussed, these landmarks will vary from situation to situation.
The Recreation Side of Travel
An interesting but challenging request came from one of our students who lived along the Oregon coast. In Oregon, all beaches are public domain and, while it is possible to own property set back from the beach, a significant expanse of beach/sand dunes may separate a residence and the ocean's edge. Such was the case of one cane travel student who wished to walk to the beach and then take walks along the ocean edge. A path, of sorts, led from his home through the dunes to the beach. The student's travel skills were good, so getting to the beach was not a problem. Returning was another matter! The shifting sand where the high tides contacted the sand dunes effectively eliminated the use of land marks. He had tried hanging wind chimes but these were either blown down or removed by someone walking along the beach. The solution was found in a talking clock with a time elapse feature. As the student left the convergence of the trail and the beach, he started the clock. He then walked a desired amount of time away from the trail. When he stopped and turned to come back, he checked his clock to see how much time had elapsed. He then walked back toward the trail for the same amount of time as was spent going away from the trail. We found that this system allowed him to stop very close to the trail on his return and all that was needed was a systematic check with the cane in order to locate the trail. The one variable, in addition to walking at the same gait, that needed to be taken into account was the occasional encounter with another beach walker. It was important to pause the clock when this occurred to account for the time spent talking. Numerous trials were conducted and all resulted in success, with the student enjoying recreation in the form of a solitary stroll.
Many blind travelers enjoy hiking through a wood or along a rugged mountain trail. The techniques employed in hiking and packing will vary somewhat, depending upon the terrain involved. Woodland trails are generally fairly smooth, broken by occasional roots or rocks but otherwise flat. In walking these trails, most blind hikers find it helpful to maintain a normal cane arc while keeping the cane on the ground as it moves back and forth. Thus the traveler easily detects objects protruding from the ground and can step over them.
The rocky mountain trail offers quite a different challenge. Here the ground often lies completely hidden beneath rocks and boulders. In such a setting, the pencil grip works well. The traveler uses the cane almost as he/she would when climbing stairs, arcing it back and forth directly in front to judge the position of rocks and find a foothold. When traversing steep or rocky trails, blind hikers also use their feet to feel the terrain beneath them. This enables them to maintain balance while climbing.
Because we love the Colorado Rockies and the beautiful high mountains of New Mexico, we often find ourselves in areas where feet and hands are both required to scramble up a steep incline. Here, having a chain or chord on one's cane is helpful as the traveler can simply loop the chain over his/her wrist, letting the cane slide along behind, while negotiating that part of the trail. We do not recommend folding or telescoping canes for hiking along rugged rails. The sturdiness of the straight cane is far more dependable in the uneven, unpredictable areas that comprise our national parks and wilderness. We have also concluded, through trial and error, that a cane with a rounded metal tip works best when hiking or packing. The nylon tip lodges easily in crevasses between rocks and sticks in the soft dirt of a woodland path. By contrast, the metal tip tends to glide over these places and seldom causes a jam.
A Braille compass should also be part of the hiker's standard equipment. Although not an absolute necessity, the compass provides valuable information on the direction of travel, enabling the traveler to quickly set a course in the opposite direction for the return trip. On a sunny day, the direction of one's travel is easily maintained, but after sundown or on a cloudy day, the compass is especially helpful. The recreational traveler should also include a folding cane in his/her pack. When the day's plans include horseback riding or canoeing, the straight cane can remain in camp, while the folding cane rides easily in a pocket or backpack as the traveler paddles downstream or sits astride a horse. The folding cane also provides a backup if the straight cane should break during a trip.
When following a woodland or mountain trail, one generally begins and ends at the trailhead. The trails either wind in a complete circle or reach the summit, at which you turn and retrace your steps to the starting point. Before embarking on a trail walk, the blind hiker, like his/her sighted counterpart, should get some information about the trail. How long a walk is involved? Does the trail form a circle, or must one walk to the end and return along the same path? Do other trails branch off from the main path? The blind traveler must take careful note of the surroundings at the trailhead since he/she will need to recognize them upon his/her return. This is not difficult as the trailhead usually widens into a more developed area such as a parking lot, visitor's center, or large clearing. While proceeding along the trail, the traveler should keep track of the movement of the sun (if it is shining), the rise and fall of the terrain, and the amount of time spent on the trail. These factors, together with the use of a Braille compass, can assist the hiker in keeping track of his or her location during the hike. If other trails branch off from the main route, blind and sighted hikers alike must locate each fork as they travel to facilitate a safe and speedy return trip.
Another area in which a blind vacationer might find him/herself could include a rushing stream or a quiet but swiftly flowing river with a cozy and secluded cabin nearby. We visit just such a spot every summer and it offers unique and spectacular venue for solitary morning walks and fishing expeditions. This little cabin is located in the midst of a pristine wilderness. In fact, the National Forest Service recently designated the area as such under the Federal Wilderness Act and the cabin is the last human habitation between that point and the headwaters of the Colorado River.
The first step in orienting oneself to this kind of setting involves a thorough exploration of the area immediately surrounding the cabin. It is important to note the terrain and any prominent landmarks within 20 yards or so of the building. This exercise works best when the blind person explores alone. In this way he/she can become completely familiar with the area before striking out along the footpath that leads deeper into the mountains. Walking down to the river is the next step.
When walking toward or along a body of water, the blind traveler must use a good cane arc at all times. Sometimes a smooth sandy beach precedes the water and sometimes the water itself makes a lapping, gurgling, or rushing sound. In these instances, the traveler receives ample information regarding his proximity to the water. At other times, however, the water flows quietly along and lies directly at the bottom of a rocky slope. Such is the case at our mountain retreat. In fact, tiny inlets run into the bank under the grass and a number of hikers, blind and sighted, have stepped in one and taken an unexpected swim in the chilly Colorado. Again we find that a pencil grip works best here, and, because of the hidden inlets, the cane must firmly contact the ground at every step. This is not always easy, as fallen trees, rocks, and undergrowth blanket the steep slope. However, with an hour of practice the technique soon becomes second nature.
Sound travels much further in the wilderness than in town, providing an excellent travel tool for the blind explorer. A radio left on the porch can be heard at a great distance. We can also preserve the silence and simply sing out a greeting when we know we have drawn near. The answering shout will leave no doubt as to the location of the cabin. The talking clock (mentioned earlier) can be used here as well. Keeping time on the trip upstream can enable the hiker to accurately determine when he/she reaches the vicinity of the building. The earlier exploration then quickly pays off and one is able to locate the entrance easily.
We simply cannot address in one article all of the recreational travel activities in which blind people participate. The body of literature in this area remains small, but as more blind travelers discover the pleasures of country travel, we look for this to change. For some excellent tips on fishing and related matters, we suggest "Hook, Line and Golf Balls," by David Walker, The Braille Monitor, (July 1995).
Unfortunately, some professional orientation and mobility instructors, together with members of the general public, remain unaware of the relative ease with which blind people can and do travel in rural and recreational areas. We hope that our teaching experience, guided as it was by enthusiastic, adventuresome blind travelers, will benefit our colleagues as much as it has enhanced our own instructional abilities. When an instructor begins with the premise that the blind student possesses the ability to travel independently, given the right tools and training, that confidence flows to the student. Through discovery learning and problem solving, the student learns to rely on himself and trust his instincts. The techniques outlined herein enable blind travelers to successfully navigate the millions of square miles of land that lie beyond the city sidewalks.
[1.] Richard L. Welsh & Bruce Blasch (1980). Foundations of Orientation & Mobility, p. 582. American Foundation for the Blind.
[2.] Allan Dodds (1988). Mobility Training for Visually Handicapped People, A Person-Centered Approach. Croom Helm Ltd.
[3.] David Walker (1996). Hook, line and golf balls, The Braille Monitor, July 1995.
Mr. Boone is Director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, Harrisburg, PA; Ms. Boone is an associate with the law firm of Stokes Murphy, Atlanta, GA.