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SAFE TODDLES:   A Wearable Cane Designed to Assist Visually Impaired Toddlers in Learning to Walk

By Amanda Salazar

Imagine being asked to walk through a setting without using your vision at all, unable to tell if there are obstacles in front of you or turns up ahead or drops in the path. Now imagine that this is the first time you’ve ever walked; in addition to learning the landscape, you’re learning the physical mechanics of the motion. 
   That is the experience for toddlers with blindness as they’re learning how to crawl and walk. Each step or crawl forward is a mystery for their safety, never knowing what they’re heading into. 
  Adults and teens with vision impairment or blindness use a white cane — a long cane used to identify obstacles and to alert surrounding people to the user’s blindness. The user sweeps it back and forth over the ground so they can feel if the cane bumps into anything. Toddlers, however, can’t successfully use these canes since they usually drop them or struggle to hold them correctly. 
  Without a cane to inform them about their surroundings, blind toddlers have difficulty physically exploring their surroundings, resulting in frustration, developmental delays, 
and reduced socialization with other kids. 

To tackle this problem, one non-profit organization based in New York, Safe Toddles,  has developed a medical device to assist blind youngsters with walking: the wearable belt cane. 
  The belt cane takes the traditional white cane and recreates it into a wearable form.  It’s made of a lightweight rectangular cane attached to a belt and worn around the waist. The rectangular shape replaces the back-and-forth sweeping motion that a user would have to do with an adult cane. Users can walk and run confidently, knowing the cane will alert them of things coming their way. 
  “There’s a lot of maturity that’s required to use a long cane, and there are no research studies demonstrating its proficiency other than in adults at this time, so there is a rush to look for more innovation and more designs to really look at the void that exists in safe mobility for children,” Safe Toddles CEO Grace Ambrose-Zaken told Preferred Health Magazine. 

According to Ambrose-Zaken, toddlers should begin attempting to walk around 10 months old and should be walking on their own for about five to six hours a day by 18 months.  If they aren’t walking by then, physical therapists get involved. 
  Without the belt cane, blind toddlers spend an average of 60% of their day sitting or lying down. Once they’re given the belt cane, the number flips to about 65% of their day spent moving around independently. 
  “They are going out into the world and, compared to where the expectations were before, it’s sort of an off-the-charts performance, but it’s where the expectations should be if you only give these kids the tools that they need,” Marom Bikson, Safe Toddles’ chief engineer, said. 
  But it’s not just about walking. The belt cane reduces stress and increases confidence and security for the children using it. After all, walking is a child’s way to explore and learn the world around them. 

Safe Toddles is the only place where families can get a free belt cane by submitting videos to be included in a study. Otherwise, it can be purchased on the company's website. The organization donates belt canes to schools for the blind. Every $300 donated to Safe Toddles supports another child with a belt cane and related services. 
   “Safe Toddles is a non-profit. Things are always very resource-limited because each one of these canes is built custom, like a prosthetic that’s built for specific needs - and so that has associated costs with it,” Bikson said. “We often think as much about the kids we haven’t reached yet, as the ones we have, and there’s so many kids that we have not reached.” 

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