Developing the Kinesthetic Sense

The kinesthetic sense is sometimes called "muscle memory," and is the awareness of our own movement, for example when we walk, eat, write, or brush our teeth. The kinesthetic sense is based on proprioception, which is awareness of the position of our joints.

The kinesthetic / proprioceptive sense can provide non-visual information that can enable people who are blind to remain oriented as they walk through familiar surroundings. For example, kinesthetic information can be used to:
  • accurately judge (without counting steps) how far we are walking, for example when we have walked far enough to reach a hallway or door, a store, or a bus stop;
  • accurately judge how much we turn as we stand or walk;
  • recognize if we’re walking on a slope or hill (we can notice sideways slopes better than forward slopes, because we are more sensitive to changes in the angle of our ankle when the foot is tilted to the side than when it is dropped or lifted forward);
  • recognize when the guide has stepped up or down, or the cane has dropped down over an edge or a curb (see suggestions for improving proprioceptive awareness of the cane dropping over an edge).

    Like any other sense, the kinesthetic sense can be improved with practice and training. Following are some exercises that can help develop the kinesthetic sense. Those who have vision can prepare for the exercises visually, but should do the exercises with eyes closed or occluded in order to develop and be able to rely on the kinesthetic sense. These exercises are explained as if you are the student.

    Improving measurement of turns:

  • Turn in place: While standing in one place, practice turning accurately to the left and right 90 degrees and 180 degrees and any other angle desired. Use feedback from an instructor/observer who can report how accurate you were, or provide your own feedback by making your turns while standing near an inside corner wall and, after each turn, reach out to see if you are perpendicular / parallel to the wall (if you have vision, open your eyes and see how accurate you were).

  • Turn while walking: Make the same turns while walking. You can get feedback from an instructor/observer, or make your turns while walking around the outside corner of a wall and then reach out to verify the direction of your travel compared to the direction of the wall.

    Improving measurement of distance:

  • Walk a measured distance:

    This exercise can be done for short distances, such as 10-20 feet in a hallway, or long distances, such as a half-block or a block or more outside.

    1. Choose a place to walk (such as a hallway or open parking lot or sidealk) which provides as few non-visual location clues as possible (such as detectable cracks in the floor or ground, sound sources such as fans, objects which can be detected with echolocation such as poles or openings in the wall, etc).
    2. Determine a destination which cannot be identified non-visually while walking but can be confirmed either by you or the instructor/observer, and determine a starting place that is the desired distance from the destination. Some things that can make good starting / destination points that you can confirm non-visually inside are closed doors along a hallway or things hanging on the wall, and outside things such as intersecting sidewalks, and driveways if the sidewalk does not slope across it (for example you might start walking from the corner of a hallway and the goal might be to stand next to a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall, or start at the corner of the block and walk to the middle of a particular driveway).
    3. Before the exercise begins, become familiar with the distance between starting point and destination -- this can be done visually or by walking it several times. Be sure not to count steps, or you will not develop an inner sense of distance -- if you are unable to resist counting steps, take smaller or larger steps than you normally do while you are familiarizing yourself to the distance.
    4. From the starting place, with eyes closed or occluded, walk until you think you have reached the destination, and then confirm it (either the instructor/observer can report where your destination point is, or you can reach out for your landmark to find out if you are standing at your destination and, if you are not, find out whether you walked too far or not far enough).

  • Walk across measured traffic/vehicular lanes:

    In a parking lot or a quiet street that is relatively free of moving traffic, walk across marked lanes and report when you have finished one lane and are starting the next. This will require either that you have sighted assistance to report where the lane markings are compared to where you are walking, or you can set up the area with tactual markers between each lane that you can verify as you pass it. If you are skilled at echolocation, there should be no cars parked in or near the lanes you are crossing.

    Be aware that the width of lanes in parking lots is usually less than that of lanes in the street.

    Combining distance with turns:

  • Walk a distance then turn and walk along an intersecting pathway:

    Choose a place that has perpendicular intersecting pathways that cannot be easily detected with echolocation, such as intersecting sidewalks (aisles in an auditorium can be used if you cannot echolocate the seats).

    After familiarizing yourself with the distance from a starting point to the intersecting pathway, close or occlude your eyes and begin walking from the starting point until you think you are next to the middle of the intersecting pathway, turn 90 degrees and walk into it. If you find yourself walking straight along the middle of the intersecting sidewalk or aisle, you have accurately walked the correct distance AND accurately turned 90 degrees.

  • Walk around an object and return to the starting point:

    This exercise requires that you do not use a cane or guide, so make sure there are no obstacles or hazards anywhere nearby.

    Along a wall, find a place that has something that you can identify tactually, such as a lightswitch or wall trim. Place an object that you are unable to echolocate easily about 5-15 feet away from the wall, and visually or non-visually familiarize yourself to the size of the object as well as the distance between it and your starting point on the wall.

    Starting at the wall, close or occlude your eyes and square off at the tactile marker. Walk around the object as close as you can without touching it, and return to the exact same place along the wall that you started. If you bump into the obstacle or if you don't arrive back at the starting point, use that feedback to improve and try again.

  • Maintain line of travel around an obstacle:

    This skill can be useful for getting around furniture when walking across open spaces, but it is critical for being able to continue straight across a street safely after encountering a car that blocks the crosswalk.

    I normally do this excercise by placing a chair or other obstacle between me and the student. Then I ask the student to start walking straight towards me until she contacts the obstacle, walk around it and then resume the original line of travel and reach where I am standing (if they are able to echolocate where I am, I'll use a smaller destination). This is an opportunity to teach students how to safely get around obstacles as well as how to resume the line of travel.

    If the student has enough vision and/or hearing to be able to localize me, I have them look or listen for me so they can walk straight toward me and the obstacle. When they reach the obstacle, I stop making sounds or ask them to shut their eyes so they cannot see or hear me, and they must use their kinesthetic sense to get around the obstacle and then get back to their original line of travel and reach me.

    Some students will get around the obstacle and then step sideways to resume the original line of travel, but this is unsafe and inefficient. I ask them instead to shift or "drift" back to the original line of travel until they are once again walking toward me.

    Mistakes that students make include turning too much or too little when walking around the obstacle, or turning just enough but then not shifting back to the original line. With feedback about their errors, they improve.

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