Bronwen’s white cane is almost as tall as she is, and she prefers it that way.
“I think it works better for me,” says the 16-year-old Secondary Program student. “I’m a fast walker.”
She certainly is. She strides down the hallway, her ponytail swinging, the tap-tap of her cane echoing off the Howe Building’s tile floors and brick walls. She’s practicing how to navigate to her history classroom on the second floor and then to the Perkins gym.
Paul Doerr, an orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist, trails a few steps behind. He teaches students how to use a white cane and how to find their way from place to place, safely and efficiently. O&M is one of nine blindness-specific Expanded Core Curriculum skills taught at Perkins.
Doerr asks Bronwen if she needs directions. “I want to do it myself,” she says.
The 104-year-old Howe Building is a great place to practice O&M. It’s full of long hallways, sharp turns and twisty staircases. The building also offers many audio cues, which Bronwen hears as she taps her cane. The flat thump of a brick wall sounds different from the bass note of a stone doorway. The soft thud of a carpet is distinct from the sharp click of tile floors.
Bronwen takes a wrong turn and has to reverse direction. “I’m still skeptical about the route,” she admits. “Yesterday I kind of got lost.”
Doerr says O&M lessons should strike a balance between independence and encouragement.
“I watch everything she’s doing and decide when to say, ‘Good for you!’ and when to just be quiet,” he says. “Like any teaching, you want students to see it as kind of fun, and a challenge. But not insurmountable.”
Bronwen makes her way to the classroom and then the gym. She has excellent white cane technique – for example, as she taps her cane from side to side, the width of the arc is perfect – so they don’t spend much time on fundamentals. Instead, they focus on navigating the Howe Building’s complex, three-dimensional space.
“You’re doing a nice job,” says Doerr as the lesson winds down. He asks Bronwen where she wants to go next.
“I want to sing in the rotunda,” she says, so they head upstairs to the round room beloved by Perkins students for its extraordinary acoustics.
Doerr guides Bronwen to the center of the rotunda and steps away. Bronwen raises her head and sings “Me Myself and I” by hip-hop artist G-Eazy:
“Oh I don't need a hand to hold
“Even when the night is cold
“I got that fire in my soul.”
Her voice soars sweetly in the enclosed space.
When she’s done, Bronwen says goodbye and heads off to her next class, her cane tap-tapping ahead of her. She walks quickly and confidently. She doesn’t need a hand to hold.
“Independence is a good thing,” Doerr says. “If you can get someplace by yourself, and not have to rely on other people, it opens up all kinds of things for you.”
The Expanded Core Curriculum is designed specifically for students with visual impairment. It covers everything from using technology to independent living to socializing with peers – knowledge most sighted children acquire by observing everyday life. The ECC gives students who are blind a toolbox of crucial skills they need to succeed at school, in social situations, at home and on the job.