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History of Early Intervention O&M: 1945- 1969

Updated: 2 hours ago

The origin story of the field of orientation and mobility (O&M) is about the heroes of WWII who returned home blind, were handed Lions Club canes, and told they were ready to return to civilian life. The only problem was that the Lions Club cane was too short to check the walking surface ahead of their next step. These young men who became blind in battle were taught to wave their Lions Club canes when standing at the curb to let drivers know they wanted to cross the street.

"When the blind person crosses a street let him extend it so that everyone can see and be aware of his blindness" (Martin & Kleinfelder, 2008, p. 33). The presumption was these brave, blind WWII veterans now had everything they needed to get about town independently.

black and white photo of man and woman crossing the street holding up and waving their Lions Club Canes in front of 1930s vehicles.
Man and woman crossing the street holding up and waving their Lions Club Canes

Russell described what it was like to walk without a white cane in his autobiography To Catch an Angel: Adventures in the World I Cannot See. Born sighted, he lost his vision at age five. The first time he left the protective walls of the New York Institute for the Blind by himself was in 1936. He did not even have a short Lions Club cane when he turned twelve and his parents signed the permission slip...

“With trembling hands, I took my first slip from the principal's office to my housemother and made a dash for the gate. I had nowhere to go; but to stand outside the fence was enough...Fortunately, there was another boy in the same predicament. Together we mustered the courage to explore the wilderness of the Bronx. Stumbling over curbs and running into lampposts, we finally covered the seven blocks to the business section of White Plains Road. After banging into nine hundred baby carriages, asking countless questions, and receiving much help, we made our way to the dime store..." (1962, p. 62).

Blind high school boy approaches stairs using two-handed trailing technique. A group of 3 students sits on the steps in his way.
Blind High School Student Walks Towards Drop-Off in 1966

The young men who had helped to defeat Hitler and Hirohito rejected this precarious "the stumble and crash" strategy of getting about town (Bledsoe, 2010, p. 583). The blinded vets in their twenties were not as gullible as 12-year-old blind boys. They banged on their superior's desk demanding better. They refused to walk independently with tools and techniques that did not adequately protect them.

How the US Army invented the "M" in O&M.

US army Sergeant Richard Hoover is regarded as the father of the long cane. Hoover credited William Hanks Levy's with the discovery. Levy was blind and had made his living by establishing handicraft industries and workshops for the British blind. Towards the end of his life, in 1872, he published his treatise on blindness (Koestler, 1976).

Levy used a long stick when he walked and described the length, shape, and his system for using it specifically for safety. He described how he used his stick to systematically check the ground"...about six to nine inches from the feet, the ground will always be examined before being actually trodden (p. 70).

He called it a "stick" but, please do not picture a branch off a tree. Levy's stick was a well-crafted, elongated walking stick that was repurposed for checking ahead of him. It had a handle "somewhat like a hook, and sufficiently large to be grasped firmly, so that it may not easily be knocked out of the hand"...and "...suited to the height of the individual, but it should be longer than what would be used..." as a support cane. and " should always have a good ferrule..." (a ferrule is a metal cap or band placed on a wooden pole to prevent splitting) (Levy, 1872, p. 70).

close up of a hand on a white cane grip, the cane tip is pointed to the right, the index finger is extended along the grip..

Hoover famously altered Levy's cane arc technique, the instruction that makes up the “M” or the Mobility part of the new field orientation & mobility (O&M). Levy had described "waving the stick alternately from right to left to correspond with the movements of the feet”. He explained that he used his long stick to check ahead of his leading foot (Levy, 1872, p. 70).

Hoover recommended tapping the long cane so that it checks the ground ahead of the trailing foot. His goal was to provide two steps of reaction time. Hoover's original tapping in rhythm with each steps looks a lot like an army march, which might be due to having been soldiers for the past four years. For whatever rationale he provided for tapping the long cane; it has recently been shown that tapping reduces the amount of safety provided by the cane arc compared to Levy's technique of maintaining constant contact with the surface (Kim & Wall Emerson, 2018).

In 1977, Bledsoe explained to John Chester on his radio show “Dialogue Today” that long cane

"...use has to be taught and carefully taught in conditions and situations in which blind travelers go. One of the first things we discovered is that no one picks up a cane and touches in front of the trailing foot naturally. In fact, it takes hours and hours of training to get blind people to do it that way. It seems to be the opposite of conditioned reflex."

Curiously, when Hoover (sighted), Bledsoe (sighted) and Williams (adult on-set blind), devised training newly blinded men to orientate to their surrounds non-visually otherwise knowing as the “O” of the O&M or the "Orientation" part of the new training program; they did not make any changes from the Levy's text as it fit neatly into the walk first narrative.

Levy had written that the most important ability is for a blind man to be able to get about without a human guide. He explained, "...if he were to be left alone at any moment he would be master of his own actions, and be enabled to direct his steps through the world, gives to him such confidence and comforting self-reliance which no other possession could afford" (1872, p. 69).

Levy's description of the confidence a blind man gains by walking alone without a guide occurred in the chapter prior to his discussion of his stick. Levy does not emphatically state, to walk alone you must you the stick, but he was very detailed on the importance of the stick in walking alone.

Yet, the history of blind independence has shown that most believed that people with a MVI/B would be better off, once they were able to walk alone without a guide or anything helping them to improve the safety of this task. Everyone knows the danger of not being able to see where you are going, yet for some unexplained reason, blind people were expected to at best benefit or at least prove their capacity for independence through enduring the injury of self-locomotion.

The walk first, safety unimportant paradigm has plagued the field of early intervention O&M since its inception. The purpose of this blog is to demonstrate the lineage of this debilitating belief, how it made its way into current EI O&M practice, and why it needs to be replaced with Safety First, Everything Else Next system of early education.

Walk first, safety later has always been a bad idea.

Levy's 1872 recommendation for all blind people (including children) to use a long stick to probe the ground ahead for safety, was all but ignored for 73 years. In 1945, it received a make-over. The US Army used their surplus supplies such as aluminum tubing, golf grips, chair glides, and florescent paint to create the long white cane.

Although it was the blind vet's very refusal to walk unprotected that led the US Army to invent the long cane, their instructors insisted the vet's prove they could walk without it, first. Thus, before they would be taught to use the long cane they had to continue to expose themselves to injury (Miyagawa, 1999). To mitigate their exposure, the blinded veterans were taught "pre-cane skills".

Pre-cane skills are a refined version of the obvious hand gestures used by anyone when they can't see where they're going. Such as raising one's hand to protect the face, or extending one's arm to slowly grope and feel along walls and furniture.

The development of pre-cane skills in 1945 suggests either there was no recognition whatsoever that blind WWII heroes were afraid to walk without protection. Or that they interpreted Levy's words to mean that blind men must overcome their innate fear of walking blind to earn the right to be protected from obstacles. Instead of respecting fear and finding ways to make sure they always had protection. The army, akin to a fraternity hazing ritual, made their men prove that they could walk calmly, efficiently and erectly into danger to achieve true blind independence.

The belief of overcoming fear without protection was essential to independence firmly established the 'walk first' paradigm for all ages of blind people. The purpose was an unfounded belief that only those strong enough to endure these conditions could rightfully attain full independent travel.

Pre-cane skills and long cane skills became the primary method and sequence for teaching O&M. Safe travel was now a goal that could only be achieved by demonstrating dangerous travel skills, first.

Thus, it is no mystery why ,in the 1960s, the use of pre-cane skills was the first part of the O&M instruction adopted for use with school-aged children. as something they could learn until they were they needed a long cane for independent travel. The definition and execution of independent travel instruction has always hinged on what to do when you leave the comfort of walls and furniture to grope.

It is unthinkable for any one to have to touch every surface inside, yet it is tolerated children with a MVI/B and taught to newly blind adults. There are schools for the blind that do not allow long canes in their institutional bathrooms.

Children unable to see are taught to touch every surface with their hands including in shared, institutional, bus station, and port-o-potty bathrooms. This is the nature of pre-cane skills. Sighted teachers expectation, without exception, is for blind people to touch everything with their bodies and hands and feet. It is as disgusting and wrong as it sounds.

A long cane, plastic gloves, perhaps even a new tool, not yet invented, would be what I suggest as a start. The real start is to delete that expectation entirely, and replace it with one of respect and understanding that we all fair better when we feel safe and protected from the unseen.

Safe Mobility and Age of Onset.

Most would have us believe that infants born with a MVI/B and adults who acquire a MVI/B have very different outcomes from the same disability due to the age of onset. Adults who became blind as adults demonstrate the same outward visible motor affectations as children with a congenital MVI/B do when they are asked to walk exclusively by the grope, stumble, and crash method.

Consider the story told by Dorothy Eustis, founder of the first US guide dog school The Seeing Eye, of a blind WWI veteran before and after he took the harness of his guide dog.

"He was about forty-five years old and stockily built. She guessed he had once had a good deal of exercise, perhaps as a farmer, but since his blindness, his muscles had turned to fat. When he moved, he shuffled uncertainly with hesitant groping gestures of his hands and feet. He seemed timid, lost, helpless, and very, very blind...when the big farmer straightened up from buckling on his dog's harness.... his head was erect. His shoulders were thrown back. He gave his dog the command forward and strode out confidently" (Putnam, 1963, pp. 25-26).

The guide dog and the long cane demonstrated that blind travel could be safe and efficient. These were the first tools that could replace two functions of vision necessary for independent walking: obstacle preview and balance. Yet, the leading profile of a 'mobility tool user' was someone who was smart, physically able, with an adult-onset MVI/B.

  Up until recently, no infant born with a MVI/B has known the feeling of reliable safety from obstacles all day long. We cannot know and will only learn what blind infants are capable of once we ensure they feel safe all day, every day.

We will learn what blind infants are capable of once we ensure they feel safe all day, every day.

The development of mobility tools by adults for adults fit neatly into the "must walk first" paradigm. All the people who used them were able to walk and talk already. Graduate students who learned to travel with the white cane fit the same profile, they were all physically and cognitively capable people.

University programs preparing teachers of learners with a visual impairment (TVIs) and O&M specialists imported the cane training curriculum directly from the originators of O&M. The walk first, safety last paradigm was adopted without question into the curriculum for preparing teachers of children with a MVI/B.

Starting in 1945, adults were provided long canes and gained the confidence only attainable through independent safety. At the same time, parents continued to watch their infants fail to navigate through their world safely and seeming to lose more confidence with each passing year.

The problem with external motivation is it doesn't work on infants.

One major difference between adults and children under five is that it is harder to get children to ignore their basic instincts and walk into danger, than adults. The young, blinded vets of WWII were able to patiently wait and endure their difficult training protocols because they were externally motivated. They could only receive their additional blind benefit pay if they completed the mandatory program (Koestler, 1976).

Infants have an internal sense of self-preservation. Since the beginning of time, they have successfully thwarted all attempts by adults to make them walk without safety.

Infants with a MVI/B's inability to walk independently only served to make adults work harder to achieve this unattainable goal. This safety-last instructional sequence remained throughout the century. Any further innovation of white cane safety tools for the diverse group of humans with MVI/B would have to wait.

Including white canes in the advice for educating children with a MVI/B.

The introduction of the US Army's long cane instruction crashed civilian life as an uninvited party guest. In the 1950s, the loudest opposition to white canes came from residential school staff, who found fault with the method for training the instructors, “The sighted individual who is blindfolded can approach problems of the newly blinded adult in a way he cannot approach problems of the congenitally blind” (Bledsoe, 1952, p. 3). Which, of course, is true.

Instructor training methods were only part of the resistance to long canes (Bledsoe, 1952; Hoover, 1960). There was great professional concern that providing a safety tool and systematic instruction to children with a MVI/B would do more harm than good. As it was truly believed that blind babies needed to walk first, despite the injuries (See prior blogs).

Warren Bledsoe was born and raised on the campus of Maryland School for the Blind (MSB), because his father was superintendent. Bledsoe was the co-inventor of the long-cane technique, after which he, Hoover, who had been a PE teacher at MSB before the war, and many others spent considerable time trying to get long cane use accepted into civilian life. Bledsoe explained,

“…this battle began in a world in which one of the most complimentary things his friends could say about a blind person was, "He goes all over the place without a cane." To this it was often added by some cynic, "With the help of 120 million people." I know in any case that a great premium was put on the natural appearance which was attributed to blind people who managed to go about without canes” (Bledsoe, 1952, p. 2).

During these early exchanges on whether to teach long cane use, what never appeared in the discourse was any imperative to improve safety through white cane designs for infants, people in wheelchairs, on crutches, with cognitive limitations and those with no functional use of their hands. People who were on the move, but unable to see where they were going and needed safety, too.

The field instead presented the long cane as the one and only mobility tool for people who did not want or were too young to use a guide dog. Anyone who could not use the long cane continued to be taught 'pre-cane' skills until they were ready to use the long cane or never. Most children with a congenital MVI/B are unable to use the long cane for safety, no matter what age it is introduced to them (Ambrose-Zaken, 2023; 2022).

Pre-Cane Hand Skills. The US army formalized the natural response of using one's hands for protection and information and called them pre-cane skills. Done the army way, pre-cane skills resemble a soldier marching in a military parade. The problem with pre-cane skills is they are unable to guard against hazards beyond hand's reach, like drop-offs.

black and white photo on left 1940s a man walks towards camera with left hand held in upper arm technique, on right a young teen walks towards camera trailing the wall and using upper arm tech. caption reads Figure 15.11. A student using the upper-body protective technique while trialing a wall.

Pre-Cane Listening skills. The US Army had an interest in finding other technologies and strategies beyond the 'long white stick' for use by its blind veterans. One example included investigating and testing the limits of human hearing. As part of their final stage before discharge, and their increased benefit pay, blinded WWII vets were told to leave their long canes behind at Valley Forge before being shipped out to Avon Old Farms. There, the men were taught to use facial vision to navigate.

Facial vision is a term that encompasses the hearing ability to detect both audible and inaudible sound waves as they bounce off objects. The farm had low ceilings and many oddly shaped stairs and passageways. This made navigating without a long cane extremely stressful.

Most reports from the blind vets confirmed that facial vision did not work well enough to feel safe walking without the long cane. They simply put up with it to receive their pay bump at the end of the program and this crazy scheme was the last obstacle in their way (Koestler, 1976; Miyagawa, 1999).

Various teachers in public schools attempted to teach children with a MVI/B to use their facial vision and said they found improved outcomes for their subjects (Manley, 1962; Hunter, 1962). As described by Hetherington in 1955,

“Much of the success of a student’s ability to master foot travel is dependent somewhat upon his ability to perceive objects in time to avoid them... It is our belief that the sooner a child can become aware of this ability and develop it, the more confident he becomes. The elementary students taking travel are given obstacle perception exercises and training...” (P. 15).

black and white photo of a little boy who is blind leaning on a table supporting himself with his right hand and an adult helps him reach out and touch the empty metal umbrella holder center of the table.
This young boy is the devastating physical embodiment of walk first, safety last paradigm.

To be clear, the "obstacle perception exercises" being advocated for here were listening skills. While listening is an educable skill, nobody's hearing can detect the exact location of the edge of a coffee table or drop-off. To do that, you either need sight or a white cane.

Children and adults with a MVI/B, who are also hearing capable, can develop more skillful listening abilities. It is just a lot easier to detect obstacles with a white cane. People with a MVI/B who have highly trained listening skills, like Daniel Kish, a blind man who has made a career teaching object perception and echolocation, use long canes (pictured).

Kish walks across a bridge using his white cane. caption Daniel Kish uses echolocation to overcome his blindness. That's...

Long canes intentionally excluded from the classroom.

In the 1960s, teachers of learners with a visual impairment (TVIs) were employed by school districts and most O&M specialists were employed by vision rehabilitation agencies. Most TVIs in schools were women who were doing everything they could to follow the prescribed standard of education, 'walk first'. Most O&M specialists were men who jealously guarded their new profession.

O&M specialists were taught that students had to possess certain pre-requisite knowledge and skills before they could learn long cane skills. TVIs were responsible for students developing travel concepts and pre-cane skills.

TVIs understood that the long cane was not in their job description.

All TVI university programs intentionally omitted the use of the long cane during their blindfold lab classes. Lord and Blaha (1968) wrote,

 “The presentation of the skills was done by placing the teacher under a blindfold, the actual use of the cane was not involved. The acquisition of cane techniques is universally seen as the function of the fully trained specialists, and this role was clearly defined for the participating teachers” (p. 21).

black and white photo of a high school boy walking down the middle of a hallway. a drinking fountain sticks out from the wall.

From the start of the 1960s, the accepted division of labor between TVIs and O&M specialists was TVIs would continue to teach everything but the long cane at school and O&M specialists would teach long cane and outdoor travel skills, when the child was ready.

O&M instructors in the 1960s began to use the long cane as a carrot, a reward that children with a MVI/B could earn by learning to walk without it (Lord and Blaha, 1968; Gronemeyer, 1969; Weiner, 1980). For example, Gronemeyer (1969) concluded the difficulty in teaching an adolescent blind boy is he “needs to be more physically active before he can have a cane” (p. 41).

Waiting for the long cane.

The long cane is a deceptively difficulty tool to use correctly for safety. It is important to understand the mechanics of long cane safety. The user must be able to interpret and respond to sensory information transmitted through the half-inch diameter cane tip. To ensure the best safety outcome, the user must rhythmically swing the cane tip back and forth with each step to check the ground for danger.

Used correctly, the user is two steps from a decision. He must be able to interpret the tactile information in time to stop, investigate further, and decide what to do next. Used any other way, the long cane is not a safety tool. Infants do not possess the intellect, patience, or motor skills to maintain the cane tip position, rhythmical movement or respond to long cane feedback.

In the 1960s, attempts to teach high school students to use the long cane were frustrating to the O&M instructors for many reasons, not the least of which was the difficulty students had in learning the precision the proper techniques demanded, finding that "some were careless in the application of the skills, which resulted in unsafe and inconsistent performances (Miyagawa, 1999, p. 193).

The degree of difficulty in using the long cane further ensured the walk first, safety last paradigm for infants with a MVI/B. The need to qualify for long cane instruction may have brought even greater pressure to bear on parents of infants with a MVI/B to get their children walking and talking on time so they could finally be safe.

For example, Lowenfeld (sighted), a highly acclaimed educator of blind children, instructed parents that their children with a MVI/B…

 “…must learn to walk without help of any kind in familiar territory. What is familiar territory expands as they grow older, until they learn to venture out into places that are new to them. When the time comes to do this, they should learn to use the cane. Usually this is found practical only after a youngster is fourteen years of age, more often older than that” (Lowenfeld, P. 187-188).

Table 5. Modern interpretation of 1961 advice to parents.

Table 5. Modern interpretation of 1961 advice to parents. Advice to Parents in 1961 “…must learn to walk” Modern Interpretation “•	Children with MVI/B don’t move very well, very far, or very often.  •	Actively walking is the only way to learn about the environment.; advice permit the child to become oriented himself, modern "actively walking is the only way to learn about the environment; advice without help of any kind in familiar territory, modern children with MVI/B appear to walk more freely at home. Advice when the time comes to do this, they should learn to use the cane, modern; children with MVI/B appear to walk less freely in unfamiliar places. Children with MVI/B only need canes once they have a place to go on their own; advice learn to use the cane. Usually this is found practical only after a youngster is fourteen years of age, more often older than that..., modern - in 1961, the long white canes were only used by adolescents and adults with MVI/B. Blind babies don't need to feel safe.

Lowenfeld’s recommendation rests on his correct assessment that the long cane was too challenging for infants to learn to use correctly for safe mobility. Yet, he firmly believed that infants with a MVI/B could be motivated to work against their own self-interest and learn to walk independently without safety.

He understood that children who remained stationary, as children with a MVI/B did, were also delayed in reading comprehension. He was aware that TVI lessons did not include the long cane. He taught TVIs to include independent walking into their teaching activities because,

"Reading will come more easily to a child who can relate the words he reads to realities he has experi­enced. It is the responsibility of his teacher to see that he continues to enjoy many experiences and has opportunities to learn what is going on in the real world around him, first in the school, its grounds, and then the world outside (1956, p. 126).

The unattainable prerequisite skill.

Lowenfeld, like so many before him, truly believed children with a MVI/B needed to wait until they had the prerequisite skill of walking independently before getting a white cane. The prerequisite skill of unsafe independent walking is unattainable for most children with a MVI/B.

The ability to walk into danger should not be the necessary bar to achieve before infants are provided with tools that allow them to safely walk independently and learn to read. Lowenfeld's use of the term “permit” again promoting the theory that blind infants would walk if adults allowed them to.

The newly minted curriculum for teaching independent travel was based on working with blind adults which led teachers to the misguided conclusion that children with a MVI/B, like recently blinded adults, were pining away for safety. These children had no concept of what safety meant; they had always just run into walls without warning. Doesn't everybody?

An early 1950s pilot project brought three of the originators of O&M, Stanley Suterko, John Malamazian and Larry Blaha to teach a group of high school students with a MVI/B. It was very difficult for them to understand why some high school children could master the long cane and some could not.

Those children who could learn O&M skills were seen as cooperative, those who couldn't were faulted for not trying hard enough, not wanting it enough.

They reported, "In spite of those who encountered problems, other youngsters showed both the ability and desire for extending their skills and quickly learned to travel independently from their home to a variety of locations" (Miyagawa, 1999, p. 193).

There was no understanding of the life these high school children had led until then. Every child who failed to pass the prerequisite test or master the long cane was faulted for lacking an interest in learning to be independent.

No one took into consideration the fact that these children had been left to fend for themselves for 16 years without safety. How could they even conceive of the idea that there was a safe way to get about.

Those children who actually received these specialized services were the lucky ones. In describing the results of her experimental life skills program at the Illinois braille and sight saving school for developmentally-delayed visually-impaired children, O'Meara admitted that

"Each year a greater number of these children have come to the school seeking admission. Unfortunately, the deprivation which they have suffered in the area of experiential and sensory stimulation during infancy and early childhood has made it very difficult, even at times impossible, for them to benefit from regular educational programs provided for blind and/or partially seeing children" (O'Meara, 1966, p.18).

Imagine the strain that must build up when you must travel without safety.

In the 1960s, educators began to ask in earnest, “At what age should mobility training start?" Miller's answer "I would risk saying, emphatically, ‘in the cradle!” (1964, p. 307). Miller was among the first graduates with a master's degree in O&M. After having learned to travel blindfolded with her long white cane, it was plain to her that children with a MVI/B needed the protection of white canes too, but how?

Infants with a MVI/B could not use a long cane; toddlers did not have the language to learn long cane skills, preschoolers appeared to reject holding the long cane, and most school-aged children were unreachable, quiet, solitary, stationary people, worn down by a life of unsafe expectations and demands to walk into danger to prove their worthiness for safety.

The same year Miller (1964) was reporting the detrimental motor outcomes she found in the student population she served, Royster (1964) detailed his instructional map for teaching a child with a MVI/B from birth using the walk first, safety last approach. Royster explained:

"In the infant stage the primary emphasis must be concentrated in more than usual amounts of emotional warmth in physical care. As the child becomes a tod­dler, he ...needs to be taught free and independent ex­ploration techniques to orient himself, ...and acquire motor skills of balance and coordination. During the preschool years, ...teach imagery stimulation and spatial orientation of objects in the environment. At school age, ... activities of running, jumping, swinging, bal­let dancing, climbing, and pounding should be a regularly scheduled part of the school cur­riculum....

Provided a continuous sequence of orienta­tion opportunities and activities, the adolescent is ready to learn mobility and travel from a peripatologist" (p. 42).

In 1964, Miller observed:

“The problem presented itself to me as soon as I entered a school for the blind. Why, if blindness was their only defect, did these children present such a picture of physical abnormality, with poor posture, awkward gait…I asked Dr. Hoover*, What could be the cause of this?

“…He looked sad and said, “Nothing, I guess, but tension. Imagine the strain that must build up when you have to travel like that (without safety)” (Miller, 1964, p. 305).

* R.E. Hoover, originator of the Hoover cane technique.

At the time of her publication in 1968, Moor reported that, “one-tenth of the population of individuals with a visual impairment were under twenty years of age” and 25% were infants and toddlers who were not receiving educational services.

Moor also painted a bleak picture of the children with a MVI/B entering her school at the end of the 1960s. She described the children with a MVI/B as “frequently indifferent to the school experience, and at first may physically withdraw by curling up on the floor or even on a bookshelf” (p. 9).

Moor’s choice of the word ‘indifferent’ seems out of context with her description of children with a MVI/B physically withdrawing. A blind child hiding inside a bookshelf seems more like a cry for help, than indifference.

Early school standards favored the able bodied, visual child.

The practice of preparing TVIs to walk without long canes created in them a certainty that walking without a white cane was a 'best practice' for their students with a MVI/B. It was simply expected that blind children would roam the hallways untethered and unprotected.

Black and white with yellow overlay cover of a journal titled A Symposium American Foundation for the Blind No Time To Lose. Shows a child with an adult behind her one hand on her shoulder, one hand helping her extend her arm to locate a doorknob, door labeled class room.

The children who succeeded in achieving these standards were those who could walk independently. The more sight you had the better you could walk. This is not to ignore the those children with a MVI/B who were able to walk and learn to use the long cane as teenagers.

Most children with MVI/B were crushed by the expectation of walking into danger every day had to be in special classes to address the consequences of daily, unsafe mobility. For example, New York City schools used students' mobility as an entry criterion to resource room programs. The 1965-66 Curriculum Bulletin: Educating Visually Handicapped Pupils: Board of Education – City of New York, stated:

“1: Resource Program for Visually Limited Children: The resource program for visually limited children serves those pupils…whose mobility is sufficient for regular class placement…” and
“2. Resource Program for the Blind serves those students who…possess sufficient mobility with which to participate in the regular school curriculum” (p. 1).

1966 COMSTAC Report

Twenty years after the introduction of long cane “most of the work with systematic orientation and travel training programs had only been done with blind adults” (Koestler, 1966, p. 231). Yet, when the leading experts in the field of blind travel gathered in 1961 to create O&M standards, they believed that there had “…been enough experience to confirm the validity of using the basic cane program standards for children as well” (p. 231).

The most anticipated publication in the field of O&M of its day, The COMSTAC report, detailed the standards for teaching O&M to children born with a MVI/B as:

“It is often said that preparation for orientation and travel should begin at birth. In a blind child’s earliest years, the emphasis is on orientation; as he grows, he needs more and more systematic travel teaching. Just as much care should go into good teaching and experience in orientation in the early years as should go into systematic travel teaching later… “ (Koestler, 1966, p. 231)

Table 6. Modern interpretation of 1966 advice to parents.

table What they wrote in 1966, Modern Interpretation; “…orientation and travel should begin at birth” modern children with MVI/B don't move very well, very far, or very often, in a blind child's earliest years, the emphasis is on orientation, modern, actively walking is the only way to learn about the environment; 1966 without help of any kind in familiar territory; modern children appear to walk more freely at home; as he grows, he needs more and more systematic travel teaching; children with MVI/B appear to walk less freely in unfamiliar places. orientation in the early years...systematic travel teaching later; in 1966, long white canes exist and are used by adolescents and adults only, blind babies don't need to feel safe. Just as much care should go into good teaching and experience in orientation in the early years; Children with MVI/B Do not appear to learn orientation, language or social skills on par with sighted peers.

  Koestler, the editor of the COMSTC report, was a highly respected author in the field of blindness and visual impairment. She wrote "The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the United States" (Koestler, 1976). As the editor, she was responsible to ensure the result accurately reported the tone, intention, and current thinking of the leaders of each specialty area serving learners with a visual impairment or blindness.

The COMSTAC report once again described the familiar instructional sequence for teaching infants with a MVI/B as walk first, safety last.

Landmark O&M study exposed flaws in current theory of early O&M methods.

At the close of the 1960s, Lord and Blaha reported their findings from the first of its kind O&M demonstration project. Three O&M instructors evaluated and taught fifty-one adolescents with a MVI/B aged thirteen to twenty-one to use the long cane.

Their evaluations found the “blind adolescents have limited travel …in relation to normal youths of similar age. Their social life is very limited... Their travel often is confined to a high school campus and home...” (1968, p. 78).

The report recommended the adolescents' “Orientation skills and knowledge need to be developed further, primarily because blind children lack experiences with their environment. They have a great need for orientation materials that can be classified as educative rather than rehabilitative” (p. 11).

Their O&M instructors reported that long cane instruction had “enhanced their physical and mental development” (p. 11). They also reported that, like Blacklock did in 1797, the 1968 “Students tend to blame parents for their limited travel experiences” (p.  12).

These fifty-one adolescents were the physical and cognitive demonstration of unsafe walking since infancy. Lord & Blaha’s conclusion was ‘parents needed to try even harder to give their infants with a MVI/B more opportunities to walk independently BEFORE they became teenagers’. Their recommendation,

“It therefore appears that active programs of recreation, travel, etc. should be instituted to generate normal travel needs. Orientation and mobility training would then become an important service to a youth in relation to these needs.” (Lord & Blaha, 1968, p. 74).

Blaha had died suddenly of a heart attack in March of 1968. Lord was tasked with finishing their report. Throughout the report we see the suggestion that children with a MVI/B did not travel because they were uninterested in going places outside their familiar routines. This narrative appears to blame children for the outcomes of the decisions made by adults since they were infants.

Lord's thesis demonstrates the utter inability for sighted people who keep flashlights, extra batteries, candles, and matches at the ready for when the power goes out, to understand the safety problem for blind children. How could they never once consider how impossible a task they had given infants with a MVI/B to grow up and learn with only their two feet in contact with the world.


Beginning in the 1960s, it became well documented that toddlers with a MVI/B didn’t explore even when their legs worked fine, didn’t speak even though they understood, and didn’t seek out their peers even though they loved being engaged socially.

Lord and Blaha's 1968 findings had exposed the antiquated 19th century experiment of “treating blind children the same as sighted peers” as an epic failure, yet the connection of delayed walking skills and unsafe mobility remained elusive to these early educators. Afterall, 160 plus years of certainty that infants with a MVI/B must first learn to walk, was difficult to dispute and was left unquestioned.

Instead, research throughout the 20th century consistently described preschool children with a MVI/B, as demonstrating devastating developmental delays that began very early and recommended additional external motivators be applied. Although throughout the 1970s there were multiple studies that revealed these instructional mandates were not successful with children with a MVI/B, the fault was assigned to the children and to their families.

Any innovation in mobility tools would have to wait for the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that included Part C, early intervention. The next blog will discuss the early intervention in the 1970s before and after the authorization of P.L. 94-142 Education of All Children Education Act.


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