Learning to Gage Initial Position

A series of pre-requisite skills must be in place before a student can be expected to accurately gage initial position; ie. align their body in the most favorable direction to reach a known destination. These basic skills are the foundation blocks for establishing good navigational abilities. If a student can't integrate these skills, then they will be unable to initially align themselves in space, unable to plan routes, and unable to monitor their travel as they move through space. Most of a mobility specialist's time with elementary aged blind children should be focused on the development of these pre-requisite skills.

The term "body image" is an abstraction that is used differently by various authors. It is often listed as the necessary first developmental spatial accomplishment of blind learners. Sometimes the term means that students need to know body parts and body functions. Most often, it also means that the child has an understanding of body planes, and has a grasp of simple spatial concepts (next to, across from, in between, etc.). In this discussion, from a practitioners point of view, the term encompasses the basic skills listed below.

one The student must have a good sense of his or her body, left and right sides, front and back, and must know how to align the body relative to landmarks and clues. Associated with this, students need to be aware when they have made a turn, and be able to make sharp 90 degree turns (as well as 180 and 45 degree movements). At this level, students learn to do orientation checks (say what is above, below and to the four sides).

two The student must understand and be able to demonstrate normal hip flexion (ie. they can swing their leg straight ahead, not outward). Poor hip flexion causes blind children to swing the leg outward and immediately set off in a wrong direction (usually 45 degrees to the straight ahead path). The student must then know how to walk (continue) in a straight line, and know when they have veered left or right. They must also learn to re-establish a straight line of direction after encountering an obstacle. Poor hip flexion will interfere with sustained straight ahead travel and will result in a veer.

three The student must learn to stand in one place without "bouncing" all around; to freeze in position when stopping, so that when restarting they will maintain a straight line of travel.

four After orientation checks have become routine and accurate, the student must learn to use the cardinal directions, and to differentiate them from left and right, front and back (which change with the body as turns are made or directions reversed).

fiveThe student needs to learn the difference between landmarks, cues, and clues, and must be able to interpret the relevance of individual inputs. They must answer the question for each landmark encountered: "What is the message that this landmark is conveying to me?" (start here, face in this direction, keep going, turn left here, look for an upcoming cue, stop, wrong way, etc.)

When the student has the ability to do the above skills, then they have sufficient "body image" to learn higher order travel skills, like those listed below.

sixThe student must understand how to create mental maps, and must have already created a mental map of the area that is to be moved through; or, if the area is unfamiliar, the student must be able to use a tactile or auditory map to locate position and to set alignment.

sevenThe student needs a generic understanding of layouts to make educated guesses. There must be an understanding of common environmental concepts found in indoor settings (walls, doors, floor surfaces, typical furniture, etc.) and in outdoor settings (sidewalks, curbs, grass lines, etc.)

eightThe student needs specific layout knowledge to make sophisticated environmental guesses. Kitchens have repeating patterns and standard appliances and furniture. There are typical layout patterns found in supermarkets, malls, residential neighborhoods, bathrooms, garages, airports, etc.

When all the above are mastered, the student is ready to begin setting a course and navigating complex routes. Simple routes in small scale environments, like in the home, are learned by children through repetition; familiarity over time. The learning of large scale travel requires the skills we are discussing in this section.

Mobility specialists gage progress on three outcome levels: experiences, knowledge, and demonstrated competence. During the elementary years, a major goal of the mobility teacher is to expose students to as many experiences as possible; trips to the mall, grocery store, city park, on the bus system, etc. These are informal play times where instruction is incidental or related to the needs of the moment. If a student is in the mall and needs to use the escalator, the instructor can motor (hands on) the student through the proper procedures. If the student needs to cross a street, the mobility teacher can position the cane for the student, listen with the student for quiet, walk sighted guide across the street, pointing out the camber (rise and fall) of the road, and stepping up on the curb to continue the journey.

Before a beginning student is allowed to travel alone to a destination, they must be able to do an orientation check, saying what is on either side of them, and to the front and back. They must also be able to use landmarks to align their bodies so that when they depart on their journey, they begin to travel in a direct line toward their destination. There are any number of beginning approaches to teach blind children how to do orientation checks and to gage initial position; the routine discussed below is an example.

The blind student has to be aware of the six coordinates he or she must monitor, either from a stationary position or when moving. A good place to start is in a closet or in a very small room. It is best if the room is small enough so that the child can easily reach in any direction (left, right, front, back) and touch a wall. Artificial rooms can be constructed from movable walls or waffle blocks. Start with the up and down coordinates. Tell the student that he or she must stand on something, a floor, a sidewalk, the street, the grass. In the closet, it's a floor, probably wood. Have the student feel the texture, pound on the floor, jump on it, give it a name (jump on George), a direction. Then lift the child to the ceiling. Talk about the purpose of ceilings, to keep the warm or cool in (control temperature), keep the rain and snow out, to give the walls something to hook into so they don't fall over. Lift the kid up and down and repeat "floor to ceiling, ceiling to floor."

Next agree that there are four walls, a front, back, and two side walls. Start with the front wall where the door is. Give it a name (the "door wall"). Next do the back wall. Talk about concepts: "The back wall is opposite the door wall, across from it. It is toward the back when you face the door wall." Find a feature on the back wall and give it a name. Now do the side walls. Give these walls a name using some feature that is prominent on each wall (put something artificial there if the walls are blank).

You can play a game with the walls. Call one the taste wall (put food there), one the smell wall (put scents there), one the touch wall (put textures there), and one the movement wall (the front door wall, open and close the door or put something that moves there, like a wind up toy).

After the child has practiced locating and naming walls in the small room, tell them that what they have done is called an orientation check. Tell them orientation checks are important for blind children because they will be using them all their lives. Practice orientation checking in all the rooms of a child's house (do it as homework; parents are the teachers). Do orientation checks in every room of the school. Drill and drill until the student begs for some fresh approach, or until you run out of money buying food and wind up toys.

Now go back into the closet or small room. Face the door. Do an orientation check. Now turn the student 90 degrees to the right. Do another orientation check. Discuss how the position of the walls change as the student moves 90 degrees. Keep changing position at right angles, doing orientation checks. Practice this in many other rooms until the idea is mastered. Introduce right and left and the cardinal directions when doing orientation checks as these skills become age appropriate.

The small room is important for initial training because it establishes a tactual awareness, tactual feedback. When this tactual knowledge is ingrained, begin using sound sources located at farther distances for establishing the four principle coordinates (left, right, front, back).

Students need to be told why they are learning to be oriented; what the instructor is trying to teach them on any particular lesson and why it is important to the lesson. Discuss navigation and put blind orientation in historical context. Discuss how they will learn over the years to be better and better travelers using the strategies discussed.


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