Braille Monitor July 2008
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From the Editor: On February 10, 2008, the Sunday Times of London carried a story about plans to teach echolocation to blind students in Scotland and other places in the United Kingdom. The reporter clearly bought into the notion that producing sounds to help determine one’s location was a wonderful new concept. Longtime Federationist Rami Rabby had no intention of ignoring the opportunity to educate the reporter even if the newspaper chose not to publish his response. The reporter did reply, though it is fair to comment that he has not yet recognized his lack of understanding. Here is the story followed by Rami Rabby’s response:
Blind Taught to See like a Bat
by Mark Macaskill
Blind British children are to be taught a pioneering bat-style echolocation technique to visualize their surroundings. The children are learning how to build up detailed images of the world around them by clicking their tongue and interpreting the sound as it echoes back.
The technique is used by animals such as bats, dolphins, and whales
to navigate and hunt in the dark. Bats are able to maneuver around caves and
catch tiny insects on the wing by emitting short bursts of high-pitched noise
and reading the sound waves as they bounce back to their highly evolved ears.
There is emerging evidence that blind people can harness their sense of hearing--which
is often more acute--to interpret reflected sound and create detailed mental
images of their surroundings, including the distance, size, and density of objects.
The technique is being piloted in Glasgow, where ten children aged five to seventeen are being taught by staff from Visibility, one of the city's oldest charities for the blind. The children are learning how to make the clicking sound and how to use the technique even in noisy urban areas, including the underground system.
Blind people in America, where human echolocation was pioneered, have learnt to differentiate between people, trees, buildings, and parked cars by interpreting the pitch and timbre of the echo they produce. Practitioners say they can determine the height, density, and shape of objects up to one hundred feet away. People using echolocation can determine the distance they are from an object by the length of time it takes for the sound to travel back. Its position can be established by whether the echo hits the left or right ear first. The size of an object can be determined by the intensity of the echo. A smaller object reflects less of the sound wave. The object's direction of movement can be established by the pitch of the echo, which is lower if it is moving away from the source.
Echolocation has been endorsed by Professor Gordon Dutton, one of Britain's leading pediatric ophthalmologists, who wants the technique to be taught to blind and visually impaired people across the country. There are about 385,000 registered blind and partially sighted people in Britain. "It's very exciting," said Dutton, of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow. "I have seen echolocation being used--it's quite stunning. It has been demonstrated to me that it absolutely works. Of course there will be skepticism and doubt, but the benefits are without question. It will make a massive difference to the lives of blind and visually impaired people."
The project in Glasgow follows a visit last year by Dan Kish, a forty-one-year-old blind man from California, who pioneered the technique. Kish, who runs the not-for-profit organization World Access for the Blind, has also been commissioned by the charity Common Sense to present his method to the families of blind people in Poole, Dorset.
His command of the technique is such that he can ride a bicycle on public roads and distinguish between different types of fruit on trees merely by clicking his tongue. A video on the Website YouTube shows Kish and a number of his friends demonstrating their skills. Ben Underwood, a teenager who lost his sight when he was three, has also become a celebrity in America because of his ability to use echolocation to ride a bike and to go skateboarding.
Although there have been no scientific studies of echolocation, supporters say it can hugely improve the lives of blind and partially sighted children. While using a cane allows blind people to identify obstacles in their path, echolocation is said to provide 360-degree "vision" and can give them far greater freedom.
"It's a type of seeing in its own right, which probably uses similar brain imaging mechanisms to eyesight," Kish said. "Students almost invariably become more confident, move faster, and participate in more activities," he continued. "They show improved posture and regard themselves as more able to direct themselves through their environment with less need for others. They are freer, and better able to choose the quality of life they wish to achieve, rather than have this chosen for them."
Fiona Sandford, chief executive of Visibility, added: "This is a pioneering technique that will transform the lives of young blind children. We have trained four visually impaired adults, and they are now using their skills to train children. We hope to roll this out to adults. I have seen it being used, and it works."
Belgium's federal police use a unit of blind officers specifically for their acute sense of hearing in analyzing phone taps and bugged conversations in investigations of terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. The detectives can separate the voices of different speakers and pick up sonic clues such as whether a suspect is in a railway station or a restaurant or whether the caller is using a landline or mobile phone. Some officers have even identified the make of car suspects are using.
A detective in Antwerp, Sacha van Loo, thirty-six, who is trained
in echolocation, correctly identified a drug smuggler as Albanian from his accent
when sighted colleagues thought the man was Moroccan. Hollywood has also depicted
the heightened senses of the blind. In the 2003 film Daredevil, Ben
Affleck plays a New York lawyer, blinded in childhood, who transforms himself
into a masked crime-busting superhero by night, using his acute hearing as a
radar sense to see through the dark.
In his article, “Blind Taught to See like a Bat” (Sunday Times, February 10), Mark Macaskill unfortunately created some serious misimpressions as to how blind people typically orient themselves in their surroundings. In the process he also promoted a false notion of what the central problem facing the blind is in today's society. Echolocation is not a "pioneering" technique; it is the method blind people have always employed to negotiate the environment around them. Some blind people do use tongue-clicking to generate the echo that helps them locate and identify objects in their immediate vicinity. Other blind people clap their hands or click their thumbs. However, most commonly and most effectively, blind people use the simple tapping of their canes to achieve the same result, as well as other ambient sounds, such as the noise of a passing car or the hawking of a street vendor. Blind people's hearing is not innately more acute than that of the sighted. We tend to listen for sounds and pay attention to them more than most sighted persons do, but that is a skill we develop with practice, each one of us to a greater or lesser degree. Finally, it is high time professional caregivers and the general public ceased trying to make us "see," in the belief that the crux of our problem is our blindness. We will only achieve true freedom when they accept us as we are, recognize that we individually have as wide a range of capabilities and shortcomings as any sighted person, and grant us equal employment opportunities and full participation in society.
Avraham Rabby, Tel-Aviv Israel