Sunday, October 4, 2009

The day my brain stopped working in the middle of class

As some of you know, I am enrolled in the Master's Orientation and Mobility Program at San Francisco State University. This is my second year, and the year I get actual, hands on training in O and M. Even though my classes are Friday and Saturday nights, I love them. The teachers are knowledgeable and excited about O and M and my fellow students are a fun and diverse group of people. With only 12 in the class, we really get to know one another.

The lessons are intensive and quick, but so far I've managed to keep up and learn the skills to teach others. While under blindfold I've learned to walk a straight line with my cane by using diagonal and constant contact technique, to trail a wall with my cane to locate landmarks, to open and close doors, estimate distances, and make accurate turns.

On Friday night, we learned how to go up and down stairs. The idea of using stairs under blindfold is pretty scary, but we work in teams with a TA and/or the instructor to guide us, so the danger is minimal. It's more stressful for the student teaching the skills to her partner who is under blindfold. There are numerous issues to be aware of while teaching a visually impaired student to walk up and down stairs safely. They have to approach the stairs; find the first riser; find the handrail; align their body to the stairs so they climb them straight; determine "the height of the riser and the depth of the tread"; shift their weight forward and figure out how far in front of their body to hold the cane (one step ahead or two); remember to keep their cane lifted one inch against the riser so it doesn't drag and get caught on the stairs; walk up the stairs while holding out their cane and hanging on to the handrail; then remember to "sweep" with their cane when they reach the landing AND remember how many steps ahead the cane was so they count those steps to ensure their feet are on the landing before letting go of the handrail.

Down stairs is pretty much the same process, except there are three different ways to hold your cane depending on the surface of the stairs, and you shift your weight back instead of forward. But going down is usually scarier because you don't have the riser against your cane to guide your steps. Plus, gravity likes to pull objects down stairs, rather than up.

Imagine that you've just been taught how to teach a student to go through all these steps, and now, only an hour later, YOU have to teach the student yourself. Yeah, I was pretty freaked out.

I wrote copious notes and asked lots of questions. There were so many details I needed to understand so that I could explain the process to my partner/student. My head was packed with every nuance and fact, so much so that when we arrived at our designated stair case and I began to teach my blindfolded partner, my brain completely shut down. What do I tell her to do first? Square off to the steps. Yes, that's it. Then walk forward until the cane finds the riser. Then anchor cane. No, sweep cane? Was it diagonal or constant contact? How do you find the hand rail? Step to the right? No that's not it. Slide the cane to the right? Take a step, no... first anchor... but she's too far from the hand rail...

The TA kept stepping in to help and she was wonderful. So patient. I knew we only had an hour to have three skills checked off, but she said, "Don't worry about the time. Just go through the steps one by one." My poor partner was under blindfold the entire time, listening to me fumble around with the words, holding a position far too long, and probably terrified that I was the one trying to teach her how to go up and down stairs. I couldn't even follow the instructions, how the hell was I going to keep her safe?

I finally said, "I don't know what's wrong with me. I can't sort this out. My brain has shut down."

The TA smiled and said that happens sometimes. The class goes fast and everybody will have a bad night now and then. My partner said I was doing fine and don't worry about her. I fought tears and just focused on getting through the lesson. At least I could show my teacher I don't fall apart or give up when it gets hard.

Somehow we got my partner up the stairs twice, and down the stairs once, but I couldn't be checked off on the skills because I couldn't recall what to do without help. I think the problem was that I got so bogged down in all the details, I lost the specifics. This isn't the first time something like this has happened to me. I tend to analyze and ponder information in depth until I understand every nuance. I break the problem down to its core, then rebuild it with a new understanding. There is no time to do that in this class. We learn several skills each day and I just have to memorize the steps and learn to teach it. Understanding will have to come several days later.

Next week it will be my turn to go under blindfold and have my partner teach me. In the mean time, I'll sort out the actions of climbing stairs and then practice teaching the process to my husband. Because eventually I'll have to be checked off stairs in class.

How much you want to bet my teacher chooses stairs when she tests me on my skills?


Terri said...

I have found that there are things I have trouble learning on the fly too, but when I have taken it home and processed my way through it, I am way better next time.

Your course sound really interesting.

Grace Ambrose-Zaken said...

I teach O&M at Hunter College in New York- I understand the feelings you were describing about learning to ascend and descend stairs under blind fold.

It is precisely those feelings that we want to practice with - for the O&Mer's job is 1) to teach the skills (easy part) and 2) to build rapport and establish confidence in the traveler with a visual impairment.

So, - in stair lesson with adults with acquired vision impairment is the perfect opportunity to convey that the instructor has set a goal for a client with full understanding that the client will be able to achieve it. That going up and down a stair is "scary" but if we make the lesson "boring" enough - we then enable our student to overcome fear and simply begin to once again go up and down stairs with confidence.

When the O&Mer does well at the stair lesson - she can look forward to greater confidence in her student - if the O&Mer gives in to the fear- allows the student to use the handrail or even to avoid stairs- then moving on to more challenging skills becomes much harder.
Thanks for sharing your stair lesson! see my O&M blog at: