The following is a copy of an article published in the latest Blind Citizen’s Australia parent newsletter – you can access the full newsletter and previous editions here.
Early intervention orientation and mobility research
Orientation and mobility (O&M) is recognized as one of the core domains of the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) for children who are blind or have low vision. Despite this, O&M in the early childhood years is a relatively new area within the profession and O&M intervention, particularly early long cane mobility, is not routinely provided in Australia for this age group.
I am an Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist from Independent Options for Mobility who is completing research into Early Intervention O&M. I am in the final stages of completing a doctoral research project into O&M within the early childhood context, based upon work I did in Western Australia in the mid-2000s as a member of the Department of Education Vision Education Service Early Childhood Team. Within this service O&M skills and techniques, including the long cane, were introduced to children as young as 14 months of age. The successes I observed prompted me to undertake the research.
As an O&M specialist, I am very aware that much of the current research within the field comes from the perspective of sighted O&M professionals. It was therefore important to me to present the perspectives and experiences of parents and children involved in the O&M process, as well as those of early childhood visiting teachers involved in the program. I collected data through interviews, along with archival documents and video material, to explore the experiences of early O&M and long cane mobility within this group.
The results of the study strongly support the early introduction of O&M intervention, including long cane mobility. The children in this study all successfully learnt long cane techniques at a very young age, which then positively impacted on their learning in other areas of the curriculum as they entered formal education settings.
As a part of this process, I found that children developed a sense of ‘ownership’ toward their own long cane mobility. This was developed in part by allowing children a choice in cane colours (or decorating white canes), and by using cane ‘names’, which helped personalize them and make them a ‘part of the family’. For parents, seeing their very young child moving confidently and independently through different environments gave them a sense of pride and excitement around their child’s potential, and all parents became strong advocates for early O&M intervention.
Importantly, the introduction of early long cane mobility enabled children to have a high degree of personal control over their own learning and movement. This supports the views of Joseph Cutter and Daniel Kish, O&M specialists from the United States, who advocate for the long cane to be introduced as early as possible. I also found that the introduction of early O&M intervention helped teachers facilitate the outcomes of the Australian Early Years Learning Framework, which are: children have a strong sense of identity, children are connected with and contribute to their world, children have a strong sense of wellbeing, children are confident and involved learners, and children are effective communicators.
One of the most significant findings was that early O&M intervention can potentially change perspectives toward blindness by teaching the skills of independent movement at a developmentally appropriate age. For the individuals in this study, the long cane was seen to be a natural extension of the young child’s body, a tool allowing them to develop their other perceptual senses to safely and effectively move through the world. In doing so, children also developed the body, spatial and environmental concepts that are essential for independent travel. The early development of O&M techniques assists others to understand that children with vision loss can be as independent as their sighted peers, they just learn and perceive their world in different ways.
For many years, it has been argued that young children are not ‘ready’ to learn long cane mobility until they have achieved particular developmental milestones. This means the long cane is often not introduced until children are entering preschool or primary school. However my study, and other work within the United States, is indicating children can learn long cane skills at a very young age, and that this has benefits across all areas of development and learning. I would encourage all parents of young children to access O&M services at as young an age as possible.
Some of my published work relating to this research can be linked to from the Independent Options for Mobility (IOM) website. IOM is a Melbourne-based partnership providing training and education for independent travel. Independent Options for Mobility is a registered service provider under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).