Teaching a blind child to orientate: where to begin

Audio description: This is a collage of two colour photos. In the left photo, a young woman is walking in a large white room with a white cane in front of her. The woman has shoulder-length blond hair and is wearing black trousers and a beige jacket. This is Marta Lyubimova. In the right photo, a girl aged about three is walking indoors with a white cane. She is accompanied by an adult, who is holding her hand.
Teaching a blind child self-sufficiency includes not only self-care, which we described earlier, but also the ability to move in their surrounding space safely and gracefully. These skills should be developed as early as possible, but that does not mean that there is an age when it is too late to learn. Typhlo-teacher Marta Lyubimova (who teaches the visually impaired) told us how to begin teaching spatial orientation and mobility, and what you can do for your child today so that they are able to get around independently in the future.

Teaching visually impaired children orientation and mobility should be conducted not randomly, from time to time, but purposefully. It is important to work with a child every day, even if just for short periods of time. Many tasks do not require any special training or knowledge from a parent since they are the same for each child. However, some things such as teaching the techniques of using a white cane or crossing a road with the help of hearing require the participation of a typhlo-teacher. Ideally, moving around should be taught to a child by a typhlo-teacher and a parent who has undergone special training.

So what can the mother of a visually impaired child do to give them a good basis for further successful training in orientation and mobility?

She should help the child discover their own body and get familiar with it: teach them the correct names and functions of different parts of their body, where left and right are, the notion of mirroring (left/right of the person in front of them), upper and lower parts of the body etc.

She should encourage physical activity for the child and create proper conditions for it. Sighted children are often motivated for activity and movement by visual stimuli. For example, a baby notices a toy and tries to reach it by crawling or sees an interesting object high on the side of the cot and attempts to stand up and get it. For a visually impaired baby, sound stimuli should be created: you should actively interact with the child, call out to them, shake a rattle toy, hang bells or attach jingle bells to the baby's arms and legs etc.

She should help the child explore their surrounding space and widen their knowledge about the surrounding world. It must be remembered that a child only has knowledge about the things that they have come into direct contact with and what they have held in their hands. At each opportunity, give your child new interesting objects, put your hands over theirs and examine the object together, describe it, tell the child about it and its function, and show them how to use it. In the same way, study not only small objects, but also large landmarks at any place where it is safe and appropriate to do. Show the child different textures.

Audio description: This is a colour photo. In a playroom, there is a boy aged about three holding a white cane. He is looking up at the camera. He is wearing multicoloured pyjamas and rubber slippers. He has a hat and medical mask on.

Ask your child to pay attention to their footing. By all means, choose a safe moment and let your visually impaired child, regardless of their age, examine with their hands the asphalt, kerb, the way the asphalt turns into a kerb and then into a lawn etc. This is extremely important work. Even if a child walks along the street every day and lifts their foot up to step onto the pavement, it does not mean that they have a correct and full understanding of what a kerb is. The child will only know that a kerb is where the surface level changes when they step up onto the pavement from the road. If you tell your child: “Go along the kerb,” they will not understand you because they will not know that a kerb consists of a series of long concrete blocks that go along the road and separate it from the pavement.

Encourage your child’s curiosity, but in moderation.

Study the surrounding world together with the child and do this actively, but do not forget to teach them about good manners and normal behaviour established in society. Teach the child to control their curiosity. Talk to the child about safety; otherwise, the child might get the impression that they can examine the surrounding space and whatever they want anywhere and anytime. Explain to your child what can be examined with permission and what cannot be examined under any conditions.

Tell the child how the surrounding space is organised and what it contains. It is not by chance that one of the first paragraphs on this list is about how important it is that a child should examine the surrounding space and objects with their hands. It is because, in these children, hands and tactile perception compensate for the loss of vision better than hearing. Your words will make sense to your child only after they properly familiarise themselves with the objects by touch. There is a notion of 'verbalism'. It is when you use a word in your speech, but you have no true understanding of its meaning – the word has no content for you. Therefore, make sure that your child accumulates experience. Use the simplest and clearest words when describing the surrounding space and what is happening around you. Constantly refer to the images that are well-known to the child.

When describing the surrounding space and what is happening around you, do so selectively. Talk only about important, permanent and interesting landmarks and events. Do not turn your description into a jumble of words with lots of useless information – the child is not likely to remember all of it anyway and will not be able to single out really important bits of information.

Try to walk with the child using the same routes and taking clean turns at the right angle. It will help the child remember the route and complete it independently later. Tell the child where you are walking, mention all the turns and some of the landmarks you are passing by. Speak first yourself and then ask the child to prompt you: “Where have we just turned – to the left or the right?... Where should we turn here?”

Audio description: This is a colour photo. On street steps, there is a pair of feet in grey summer trainers, with a white cane nearby.

Teach your child to determine the direction of traffic of vehicles and passers-by. Draw your child's attention to the vehicles that are passing you. Talk about these types of vehicles and how their sounds differ. At first, tell your child yourself in what direction a passing car was moving (from left to right) and then ask the child to determine the direction. Make sure you show the child how the car passed: take the child's hand and show the movement of the car, for example, from left to right. The skills of localising a sound and understanding the direction of movement by hearing will be very helpful for the child in the future.

Make a cardboard road with textured markings and intersections with three and four roads, and then wheel toy cars with the child over these model intersections. Regardless of your child's gender, play toy cars with them and have different types of vehicles. Show the child in which direction the cars are going, which side the cars keep to, why they are not colliding, where they can turn and so on. This work can be started even at preschool age.

Teach your child to examine objects with the help of a tool. Inspect objects using a stick, pencil or probing white cane. Let the child guess what material the object is made of, what its shape is and what it could be.

Not all of the aspects of teaching a child orientation and mobility are presented here, but this is a good start. It is important to do something towards achieving your goal each day.

Spatial orientation is taught to visually impaired children at kindergarten and at school, and after 18 years of age – in rehabilitation centres. However, it is always much more difficult to achieve a good result without the family’s participation.