Our Perception Based Approach

Alternative perception refers to the development and use of one's full perceptual system to perceive one's environment more completely and accurately. For the visually impaired, this means developing one's remaining vision and non-visual perceptions to "see" without sight. Thus the term "alternative" refers to alternative ways of "seeing" the environment. When vision is reduced, distorted, or absent, one's functioning in a sighted world can be challenged by substantial changes to how one must access information. World Access for the Blind applies technological and strategic approaches to foster in students the ability to access critical information, and return to full functioning. Under the direction of a blind Developmental Psychologist and Special Educator, perception specialists and scientists have developed and integrated innovative, high impact approaches to enhance remaining vision and non-visual perception. This means that blind people can develop other ways of "seeing" their environment with little or no vision.

In brief, our program teaches blind individuals how to get from any point to any other point safely, gracefully, confidently, and with enjoyment. Students learn to handle any needed or desired task or activity. With this approach and attitude we have found this not to be just a far-fetched ideal, but an attainable reality for most blind students who wish it to be. Since movement comfort and competence has been found to correlate highly with employment and psychological adjustment, we anticipate that intensive training in alternative perception will help blind students become more socially and vocationally adjusted, and improve quality of life overall.

Perception Based Instruction


The distillation of disability into the simple notion of quality of access (See *Instructional Principals) leads to the idea that our quality of access is based on the efficacy of our perceptual system, which includes how efficiently we comprehend and use information that we perceive to govern our actions. Our perceptual system is our connection and bridge to our environment. A sensitive and well tuned perceptual system allows us to be aware of our options, and exercise them. Thus, we help students maximize their access by focusing on their development of an effective and reliable perceptual process.

The curriculum of World Access for the Blind is based on the latest findings in neural research, which demonstrate that the perceptual system with regard to movement is designed around spatial processing, not necessarily visual processing. The healthy sensory system is an integrated whole with no single modality predominating. All sensory modalities go into the construction of dynamic, spatial imaging. When vision is absent, the brain naturally attempts to construct a dynamic, functional spatial image from information gathered through remaining modalities. Although this is a natural process, it seems to be a fragile process that can be impeded by negative external forces, such as low expectations, over use of external guidance, or accompanying involvements. However, we have found success in fostering development of non-visual spatial imaging through instruction in perception, self directed discovery, and positive attitude building.

The key factor here is that the human perceptual system develops, changes, and assimilates information based on a process of self directed discovery. This process is scaffolded or supported by "those who've been there", but it is directed intrinsically by the organism's will and interest as stimulated by a direct connection to the environment. This is not only true among humans, but among all mammals, and many other animal species.

We may think of the perceptual system as analogous to the intake, digestion, and metabolization of food. Information is like food. With it, we nourish our minds, and support adaptive action. A healthy perceptual system seeks information, distinguishes useful from non-useful information, then processes this information to develop insights and ideas, and gain better access to all aspects of our environment. We use information to govern our interaction with our environment. Thus, a healthy perceptual system fosters a healthy interaction with our environment, one that is adaptive to the organism. In essence we register and learn to identify elements of our surroundings, and we use this information to establish intent about how to interact with these elements. The stronger is our perceptual process, the stronger and more interactive can be our intent.

Disruption to the Perceptual Process

Blind people are often erroneously subjected to a great deal of physical and verbal direction from others throughout their early years, and throughout the stages of adaptation. This external imposition of direction shifts the organism's locus of control from internal to external - from self-direction to direction by others. In other words, the organism learns to forego interaction through self-direction, and becomes a recipient of direction by others. This often happens at a time when the individual is vulnerable to inculcating external influences into a perception of self. In this case, these negative influences can become deeply seeded to develop a self that cannot engage in the self directed discovery process, and therefore suffers a stunting of perceptual maturity. Access to the environment becomes mediated by and relegated to external forces. Although humans appear to be receptive to this negative condition, the human perceptual system doesn't mature under these conditions. When direct connection to the environment and the self will process is usurped or blocked by frequent direction imposed by an external agent, the perceptual development process becomes short circuited and fails to thrive. If we examine human and animal behavior, we never see the perceptual system fostered by direction from external forces. It would seem that we aren't wired to mature under these restrictive conditions. A baby bear may occasionally ride on its momma's back, but it remains connected to the surrounding environment while it travels, and typically enjoys discovering the meaning of what it senses when it is not being carried. When a blind child or newly blinded adult is tied to the arm of another, or is restrained from using his cane or his echolocation, direct connection to the environment is broken, and the individual is forced to give up the reigns to another rider. The individual becomes a passenger to his own perceptual process. In this way, the perceptual process of the individual is relegated to a second class status, and the adaptation process through self directed discovery is crippled or altogether negated. In the early stages of blindness, it only takes a few such incidents to throw the adaptation process completely off kilter.

The organism, humans in this case, must be free to explore with his or her own body, directed by his or her own perceptual system. The scaffolding that may occur from caregivers is intended only to foster the organism's ability to reach beyond himself with assurance and purpose. The intent is to point the developing organism in the right direction, and protect from dangers. But, it is not done by consistently taking over control of the learner's functioning. It is done by mentoring, encouragement, and facilitation with a minimum of force or direction.

Self-Directed Attitude Building

At the foundation of our system, we teach and apply techniques of self-directed attitude building and mindfulness. Our approach rests on the understanding that progress is made most quickly and naturally when attitudes about oneself, one's relationship to the world, and one's future are positive and without perception of limits imposed by others. A key part of this involves the management of apprehensions or fears about oneself and the world. We use high impact methods of sensory integration and meditative focusing to teach students how to calm their minds so that perceptions become open and un-confused. For example, many blind children exhibit difficulty listening attentively to gain information before acting. They often fidget or bounce unproductively, and move and random directions. We've discovered that placing small but heavy beanbags on their head, shoulders, or wrists greatly improves body concepts, and increases attention to purposeful, self-directed movement. Another example: many blind adults, especially those who have once driven, are jumpy, bewildered, and apprehensive around traffic in parking lots and street crossings. We provide several strategies for attending thoroughly and calmly to surroundings so that important information is not missed. For example, awareness of breathing and open perception. With open perception, the student and instructor compare notes about what they can hear and perceive in their surroundings. This simple method challenges students (and instructors) to attend more mindfully to what is around them, by bringing to light the wealth of information that we miss by inattention.

Flash Sonar

Central among our sensory techniques is the use of Flash Sonar, which is a technique based in natural human echolocation. (For more information about Flash Sonar and instructional methods, see *Flash Sonar, a new way of seeing, Flash Sonar Training Guide, and Sonic Echolocation: a current review and synthesis of the literature.) With flash sonar, blind people can establish similar connections with their environment through a process of hearing space. Flash sonar and related technology leads to enhanced perception of physical objects, spatial boundaries, and environmental features. This greatly improves object to object and self to object relational awareness, plus recognition of distinct environmental features, such as openings, corners, alcoves and entry ways, passageways, landmarks, landscaping, and very much more. Open spaces can be crossed without disorientation. Objects such as trees, cars, buildings, planters, poles, and so on can be recognized tens or even hundreds of feet away. Students learn to use sound instead of light to sense their surroundings much like a bat. Blind humans using flash sonar can move about as though they have a crude but effective form of vision. They are well oriented, negotiate obstacles gracefully, quickly, and safely, and enjoy a broad variety of meaningful life activities.

In this way, spatial concept building is approached through expanded spatial perception based on sound rather than light. What is more easily perceived can be more easily conceived. Sighted people are connected to their surroundings largely through vision.

Other Areas of Applied Perceptual Instruction

We apply a curriculum of sophisticated orientation strategies - both technical and mental. Among the technical, we focus attention on use of talking global positioning systems and use of a Braille compass. Training in cardinal directions is useful, but we have found that specific training in compass use dramatically speeds up the training process, and improves student assurance at a minimal cost.

Specialized tactual/kinesthetic techniques are used to improve awareness of surface gradient and textural information. Refined tactual awareness improves sidewalk travel, crossing driveways, and maintenance of alignment during street crossings. For example, a stimulus transfer technique combined with street cambre analysis and echo detection is applied to improve street crossing ability. With tactual awareness, one can learn how to maintain one's alignment based on how cement panels are laid in sidewalks. These panels are usually laid at right angles to each other, and at right angles to nearby structures. In this way, especially for those with reduced hearing, improved orientation to surrounding structures can be achieved by tactual awareness of ground surface construction.

Manual coordination issues are also addressed where needed using a new technique based on perceptual psychology called successive approximation. This is used to improve manual and daily living tasks. This is combined with a freeze frame approach to perfect shoe tying - a common difficulty for young blind children.

A key area that we address is community participation through leisure and recreational involvement. Recreational movement and exploration is found to be the key catalyst for body awareness, social development, and psycho-emotional development. Ball play, mountaineering, and bicycling are a few of the pastimes that we address.

In Summary

instruction generally covers the following areas (See *Instructional Program Outline for more details.):

  1. Object detection and recognition (walls, trees, fences, bushes, cars, and poles).
  2. Ability to move comfortably around objects to find, avoid, and otherwise interact with them - walking parallel to walls, turning corners, passing through doorways, ducking under tree branches, not running into poles or tripping over planters, finding entrances to buildings.
  3. Orienting self to unfamiliar areas - finding one's way around rooms, shopping centers and malls, stores, schools, neighborhoods, and transit stations, and knowing how to find what one is looking for without loosing one's way.
  4. Crossing streets, driveways, parking lots, play yards, and other open areas safely and independently without confusion. Crossing broad spaces is historically one of the greatest challenges facing the blind and their instructors. It is common for blind children not to be able to find their way back to class, because they get lost trying to cross the play area. High school students often cannot find their way across court yards and quads. College students become confused among meandering pathways, and adults may never visit the mall without a sighted guide. Finding one's way to work can be an insurmountable challenge. The blind are traditionally taught to rely on others for negotiating broad spaces. Street crossings are generally taught with independence in mind, but only a minority of blind people learn to accomplish this task safely and comfortably. Sensory development with emphasis on distant object perception is the only way known to allow the blind to undertake these tasks with ease.
  5. Interacting with a ball, and strategies for fostering community participation. It is common for blind people to find themselves segregated from the general population and mainstream life. In schools, the blind kids can often be found standing in their small group against a fence, or sitting on a bench or planter while all the other kids develop and grow through active play. Even active blind kids are drawn more to self sports than interactive games. We have developed strategies based on the "Access Sports Model" (Western Michigan University and U.S. Association of Blind Athletes) to give the blind the opportunity to participate purposefully and interactively in mainstream sports, games, and life in general.
  6. Transportation: Efficient, affordable transportation is one of the greatest barriers confronting blind people. We implement a transportation curriculum based on the "Finding Wheels" curriculum (Dr. Anne Corne). This involves the use of all forms of public transportation, para-transportation options, private transportation options including taxis and hiring private drivers. Transportation scheduling and planning is a critical factor. Affordability is addressed through discount ride programs, rehab transportation reimbursements, SSI PASS program supplementation, and tax deductions.
  7. Shopping and domestic organization techniques using tactile writing implements and voice recorder.
  8. Manual skills development according to a common daily living tasks program. A combination of successive approximation and freeze-frame paradigms are used. These may include shoe tieing, pouring, food preparation, cutting with scissors, folding paper, taping, opening and closing packages, packing a suitcase or backpack, rolling up a sleeping bag, making a bed, cleaning (vacuuming, dusting), and so on.