Seasonal mobility for children with vision impairment
Suzy McDonald, Habilitation Specialist at Birmingham Education Habilitation Service, shares 12 tips for mobility training in winter.
Each season of the year has its own challenges and opportunities for mobility and orientation travel and training, and on surface, winter can appear to be the most challenging when taking into account the darker shorter days, cold, rain and snow that are all familiar in those months from October through to February.
However, as long as young people are introduced to solutions to some of those problems, the opportunities for fun, rewarding experiences are plentiful and it’s important that children understand early on how different weather can affect their ability to move around.
- For younger children, the winter provides lots of practice putting coats, gloves, hats on for younger children – think zip extenders, labels on coats to identify the back, shoes with Velcro and then when they’re on, all the fun of kicking through the fallen leaves or the winter puddles. It’s an ideal opportunity to gain an understanding of the changes of the season.
- When it is cold or wet, make sure your child wears a hat that doesn’t cover their ears and don’t put their hood up! Hoods not only dim environmental sounds and approaching traffic, but can also affect a child’s peripheral vision, making crossing a road very unsafe.
- Gloves are great to keep hands warm, but if your child is a long cane user, get some fingerless gloves – otherwise the tactile feedback from their cane is significantly reduced. Or use a de-icer mitten on the cane hand with the scraper cut out and the cane pushed through the bottom opening – toasty hand without diminished feedback!
- Wellingtons enable a child to splash and stomp in all seasons, but can make feet very cold when exploring in the snow and are sometimes harder to walk in than close fitting shoes. Consider shortening sessions in the winter weather and practise putting wellies on well before the snow comes – the motor skills needed to put them on and pull them off are quite unique and not the same as those used when changing shoes.
- Don’t be put off taking your child out in the rain – the sound of rain falling onto all of the objects around you provide a soundscape that just isn’t there in the dry weather. Stand in the rain and try to identify just what is in the immediate environment – slides, ponds, bushes. Try it in an open space and then under different types of shelter – trees, bus shelters, there are so many possibilities!
- For older children, judging speed and direction in a rain shower is invaluable – the sound of tyres is amplified as the two surfaces connect and disconnect. It’s an ideal opportunity to talk about stopping distances for cars and why they are so much longer in the rain or snow.
- Conversely, snow deadens sound and changes a soundscape completely so children will have a very different experience exploring a known environment in the snow. This may be particularly problematic for pupils who use echolocation when moving around.
- In the snow, take your child out to explore the changes in landscape – talk about how their everyday landmarks disappear. If they have useful vision, ask them to say where they think the plant pot is and then go and find it, but also explain that the snow makes depth perception impossible – steps and kerbs disappear underneath the snow and any regular changes in their tactile journey such as tarmac, grass or tactile paving at crossings are masked by the snow.
- Bear in mind that snow increases glare, so caps and shades are needed for light sensitive eyes.
- Long cane users can find the snow particularly challenging and for older students, it’s a great time to develop their strategies for what to do if they can’t follow a route they normally do on foot or by bus. Do they know how to call a taxi? Do they have everything they need in case of snow – coat, phone, money?
- Ice is often not visible and students need to be aware that regular journeys, particularly in the early morning, even when it hasn’t snowed, can be susceptible to icy patches. Walking on ice whilst sighted guiding a student with vision impairment gives them the opportunity to experience this unsafe surface and to follow up with a discussion on sensible footwear and when it might be wiser to ask for help or change plans.
- Remember also that leaves can be equally slippery and can mask landmarks and edges that are used for orientation.
So make the most of the winter weather – as long as you are prepared, there is plenty of fun (and learning) to be had!