SFA students learning unique skill set while blindfolded

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - Blindfolding your students and setting them lose in downtown Lufkin is not your usual teaching technique but for a group of Stephen F. Austin students, it's the best way to learn a particular set of skills.

You may notice a group of people walking around downtown Lufkin with blindfolds on and wonder what they're up to.

Assistant professor for the training program for professionals in visual impairment, Barry Stafford says SFA students in the orientation and mobility program learn a unique set of skills that they'll eventually use to teach people with visual impairments.

"It's a teacher preparation program," said Stafford. "What the young ladies are learning how to do is to work with people who are actually blind travel safely or independently. Part of their coursework at SFA is they have to learn how to perform the skills that they're later going to teach to somebody."

Students like Alli Smith, wear a blindfold, hold a cane and learn how to rely on their other sense to navigate their way around.

"The biggest thing I've learned so far is perception and just how much you rely on your hearing and your other senses because when you're walking and you're under blindfold you have to be able to perceive where you're going, understand where you're going and what's around you to be more successful and to feel comfortable and to feel safe," said Smith.

Stafford says his students don't use the blindfold so they can feel what it's like to be blind but because it's the best way to know and understand the skill.

"And you can say to the person I  know I don't know what you feel like but I do understand why this skill works they way it does and this is why you should use it in these situations," said Stafford.

Smith says she was really nervous at first but as your skills develop it gets easier.

"I was really nervous at first. It was very difficult but when you're with some wonderful student teachers like I have and people who have been through blindfold already when you have them with you a and them helping you teach the skills," said Smith. "Also, I'm pretty much a map person so I know my directions very well so that helped."

Smith said, "As long as you know where you're going and you're orientation to where you are the direction you're going you can get there and you'll detect a pole, like I'm going to detect a pole before I walk into it with my cane or I'm doing something wrong."

Stafford says they are currently doing some research with an ear piece. Where the student under blindfold will wear an ear piece and Stafford will wear a headset and speak to the student when necessary. He says they're doing this research to see if the students can have a more independent experience while their learning the skills.

There are only two orientation and mobility programs in Texas, one at SFA and the other at Texas Tech. SFA has the only undergraduate program in the nation. At the handful of other universities it is a graduate program.

Stafford describes how the blindfold class works from start to finish.

"We put on the blindfold. We start in a really nice quiet environment on campus. The science building. And we learn how to travel, a technique called guide technique where you hold on to somebody else's arm, a sighted person's arm. And then as they get more confident with their skills and learning how to figure out where they are in the environment. We give them a cane and say now you can do this on  your own and so they step out a little bit more on their own. And then we take them outside. So it's kind of a simple to complex skills then they transfer to outdoor environments and then they transfer to downtown environments. We kind of end the year on a trip to Shreveport where they get to do public transportation, an escalator, an elevator, revolving doors, … they also eat a meal under blindfold so they can learn how to teach someone how to eat without vision," said Stafford.

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