Toddlers taught us everything we know about belt canes

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

We made a lot of assumptions about how blind and mobility visually impaired toddlers would respond to belt canes. This is a list of ten assumptions that have been proven wrong since collecting videos of children wearing belt canes. The blue links take the reader to webpages containing specific example videos demonstrating the point made in that paragraph.

We continue to learn about belt canes from the toddlers and preschoolers who are blind and mobility visually impaired wearing them. It won't be long before we need to add part II of what blind and mobility visually impaired toddlers have taught us about using belt canes.

1. Hands free – We thought hands free meant building a cane frame that never deviated from the path ahead.

A major emphasis of the belt cane design was to make something that was completely hands free. We thought the belt cane should never drift from the path ahead. The belt cane design does stay ahead of the child on most smooth surfaces when walking alone (not holding a hand).

Yet, on rougher surfaces and/or when walking in guide with an adult, the cane frame can drift off to one side, causing the need for either the child or adult to right the cane (put back into forward position). When asked, parents were the first to allay our fears about this aspect of the belt cane. Charna’s mom and dad frequently responded by saying,

“That’s not a problem for us. She doesn’t mind and Charna knows how to fix her cane.”

In fact, when Charna, who is blind and two years old, wants attention, she moves her cane around to her back, knowing her parents will say,

“Charna, fix your cane.” and she does. And because they spoke, Charna seems to use that strategy to figure out where her parents are located and go to them. She is so clever.

2. Push back – We worried that it would take time for children to learn to tolerate the intensity of tactile path feedback.

Alilah put her first belt cane on when she was 20 months old. Right out of the box, she was filmed walking in the kitchen. We see her O&M specialist block her path with a chair. When the cane base contacted the chair legs, you see her get pushed back from the force of inertia. She remains standing. Several more times when the cane contacted something on the ground, she again withstands the impact. Once, she does fall back and she cries a little.

However, mostly Alilah took it all in stride. In her videos you can watch her gait and her pace improve. She walks much faster and away from parents with greater ease than she did in her "before" videos. She uses cane frame contacts to locate objects for further investigation.

While it is true that two year olds are more likely to cry when they first put on the belt, remember that's normal for "terrible" twos. When we watch Matias' journey, we see a two year old boy who is blind who does everything he can to move across open space, including pushing very heavy wooden chairs. These are not safe or effective mobility tools. And mostly he was guided, stayed attached to objects or he didn't move.

Matias cried and appeared to reject his belt cane, but a year later, with his belt cane he easily crosses open space, has let go of his parent's hands and he wears his belt cane to preschool everyday. He is confident and his language has improved.

3. Stairs- We thought the most important aspect of the belt cane would be that it performed like rod and rectangular canes on stairs.

The first question that every O&M specialist asks about the belt cane is, “what about stairs?” We are O&M specialists, so we were the first people to ask that question. As we too want the belt cane to easily negotiate ascending and descending stairs. We have found that descending stairs, the cane works well. The method for ascending stairs wearing the belt cane has varied.

However before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it is important to remember the value of knowing exactly where the stairs are. The belt cane tells the wearer exactly where the ascending and descending stairs begin. The problem that we see in children who are blind right now is that they can only guess at where the stairs begin, and can only find the stairs when their foot collides with the riser. Without consistent tactile path information, children under five have no warning before their body touches/falls down the stairs. We need to be reminded that currently, children five and younger without consistent tactile path information demonstrate highly inadequate outcomes of navigating stairs.

The benefit of the belt cane is path information. I am sure that given time and opportunity, toddlers will figure out how to navigate stairs, in fact Matias has found that going up the stairs backwards is one way to go.

4. Free time – We thought that there was a benefit to being without a cane when you’re blind or mobility visually impaired.

Many authors of early intervention articles have contended that blind children benefit when they are urged to walk as if they can see where they’re going. However, there is overwhelming evidence that this is not true. When you cannot see where you are going, it is only a matter of time and distance before you collide with obstacles.

     These unavoidable obstacle collisions cause developmental delays in children who are blind or mobility visually impaired.

That is because: babies and toddlers trust adults. Therefore, at one year of age, when encouraged by an adult, they will stand and take steps with assistance. At fifteen months, they will let go and walk. The more children who can’t see the path ahead walk freely, the greater number of body collisions they experience.

Blind and mobility visually impaired children have no way of veering away from these collisions or slowing down to reduce the impact. Therefore, children learn that walking causes pain and that causes them to avoid walking alone. Instead, they smartly ask to hold onto a hand, touch a wall, cruise furniture, but they do not want to walk across open space on their own. It isn’t the walking with assistance that causes delays, it is walking with fear. There is no benefit to walking in the pitch dark and there is no benefit to walking while blind without consistent tactile path information (like lights for blind kids).

When children wear their belt canes, they gain confidence in themselves. They walk across open space, they let go of the wall and they let go of the hands of adults. They become hands free, because they don’t need to walk with assistance anymore.

Children who are blind or mobility visually impaired walk more, better and faster wearing their belt canes. The more they wear it the better.

Just remember: lights on, cane on.

5. Cane sticks – We thought that canes getting stuck under furniture would cause children to reject the belt cane.

The belt cane is a set of one belt with two cane frames. The two frames were created for children in order to reduce the amount of cane sticking. The daily cane is the correct length for children who are blind and mobility visually impaired to obtain two steps of warning. The tight spaces frame is ninety percent of the length and the cane tip is turned inward to reduce catching. However, the rectangular cane frames catch on chair legs and get stuck, and this is all a part of learning.

Children who are blind don’t know that canes getting stuck are a different experience from sighted people, because when you are three-years-old you think everybody is the same. Canes get stuck and that’s a fact of life, and the more you wear your cane the better you get at getting unstuck. More experience adds up to better skills.