Mending Misconceptions #3: Do Blind People have/use EchoLocation?

This was originally posted on December 3, 2016, at 8:00 PM on Blogger.

***

Last week, I was hanging out with one of my friends, ostensibly doing homework. But every now and then I’d check on his progress, and he’d have gotten distracted by social media. So I’d jokingly reprimand him. So, there was one point when I asked, and he told me yes, he was working to which I responded “no you’re not.”

“How do you know that?” He asked, not even trying to deny it.

“Your head is ducked and your looking at your phone right now.”

“That’s exactly what I’m doing!” He seemed shocked, but fascinated. “How did you know that?”

“Well,” I told him. “Your voice was lower, so I figured you were either looking away from me or down. But your voice was also a little muffled as a result of having the phone in front of your face.”

“Oh my God, you have like, echolocation (or maybe he said sonar)”

…I’m pretty sure he was joking—at least we laughed about it afterward—but it’s what prompted me to write this post.

***

According       to Wikipedia—an undoubtedly trustworthy source—there are two types of echolocation: animal and human. For the purposes of this post, I’m only going to include the definition of human echolocation, but there’s a link to the animal one, in case you want to compare.

—Note: I feel it’s wrong to differentiate animal from human, it perpetuates the mistaken idea that humans are not animals. We are.,

• Human echolocation is the ability of humans to detect objects in their environment by sensing echoes from those objects, by actively creating sounds – for example, by tapping their canes, lightly stomping their foot, snapping their fingers, or making clicking noises with their mouths – people trained to orient by echolocation can interpret the sound waves reflected by nearby objects, accurately identifying their location and size. This ability is used by some blind people for acoustic wayfinding, or navigating within their environment using auditory rather than visual cues. It is similar in principle to active sonar and to animal echolocation, which is employed by bats,, dolphins and toothed whales to find prey.

***

I do not use echolocation. And I do not know of anybody who does. For me, personally, I can see. And though my vision has worsened this year, I still have enough to get around some (certainly not all) objects. But thinking about my fully blind friends, none of them echolocat either. Now, there are instances wherein I (or a blind person) is in an open area, like a parking lot, and because of how your cane or voice echoes, you can tell. But it isn’t echolocation as described above. It’s just going off of experience and sounds/information that anyone might gather.

Sighted readers, think about it. You expect sound to echo more in an abandoned lot. Or the wind to sound/feel differently, right?

But I don’t want you to go away feeling like an a-hole for asking your blind friend if they have sonar.. There’s this  famous man, Daniel Kish,  who taught himself how to  navigate using tongue clicks. He claims that it was because his parents raised him like a sighted child, i.e.,,, not imposing on him their ideas of blind appropriate activities. I believe he uses a cane sometimes, but he relies a great deal on his clicks.

So he started an organization where he would teach other people how to use their clicks. And honestly, it does seem like a pretty good system; he rides  bikes, climbs trees (well, I’ve done that without the aid of echolocation),  and other activities that are typically viewed as, if not impossible, than nearly so, for blind people to perform. But people in the US aren’t very receptive to his method. And I’m pretty sure it’s for the same reason I hesitate, it’s “weird”.

It would add to so many blind stereotypes; people already think there’s a couple thousand (or more) Dare Devils strolling around. That’s sounds very self-conscious doesn’t it? And you might say that if it helps, why not do it? To that question I ask how would you feel in my place? Imagine yourself walking down a city street clicking. It’s not supposed to be very loud but, now imagine yourself as an observer. You would steer clear of that undoubtedly crazy person. Or if any of you have taken voice lessons. Some vocal exercises are so silly that, even with your instructor you initially feel hesitant repeating them. Or you don’t do it with confidence. Not until your comfortable, anyway.

So now you might say that I, or the other stubborn Americans just need to try it out and, like those silly vocal exercises, we’ll get used to it. But let’s be real here. I’m not overly self-conscious yet I don’t necessarily have a “F the world” attitude. And it pains me to think about clicking down the street. All the things people would say. If they just stared, well, who cares, I can’t see ’em anyway. But others can be very vocal with their opinions… Just imagine.

But maybe the reason people are resistant isn’t because of public opinion. Maybe it’s because there’s already a system that I, and others feel work for us. In the article I linked above, Kish seems to believe that most blind people have the “it if ain’t broke, don’t fix it mentality”, and while that may be the case for some. Others may genuinely like their techniques. Or maybe we’re such creatures of habit that to go so completely out of our comfort zones is terrifying. Relying on, and trying to learn a new technique.

I’ve said that I think this method is cool. And I don’t think I would be opposed to trying to learn it (preferably with not a lot of people around, at least initially), but I have a few issues with some of the arguments he’s made.

Kish feels that his method will lessen blind people’s dependence for sighted aid. I can agree with that. He also seems to feel that blind people are trained to expect assistance. And that is where I disagree. He talks about his free childhood that lead him to develop. his echolocation skills.

My family treated me like a “normal’ child (you can find evidence of this in the scar above my left eye from a game of tag when I was 8); I also used to ride my bike. And I climbed trees too. Okay, it was two trees in fourth grade but still.

The echolocation technique may have come in handy during that game of tag (I got distracted by the sun) but I wasn’t really coddled, or I don’t feel I was when it came to playing and just being a kid. Of course I know some people whose parents are super strict and don’t seem to realize that blind isn’t the end of the world. But some parents grow out of that; it’s what mobility instructors, vision teachers, and any other type of instructor are there for.

I’m aware that there are some places wherein this is not the case. That there a mobility teachers who don’t teach effective travel skills. And people who aren’t assigned vision teachers, and so have no real support system in school; no one to make sure they have the proper materials in the appropriate format. And that sucks. And we certainly have a long way to go in terms of widespread support and awareness, but I feel, in the US anyway, things aren’t so bad.

But maybe I’m wrong. I try to be unbiased, and not filter the world through a NYC lens. Because this is a pretty awesome city. And even we have our problems. I’ve even been screwed over by “the system”…

And yes, I’m fully aware that I could also just be being overly sensitive.

Ah well.

In short, there are blind people who utilize echolocation. But it’s not an inborn skill. It has to be taught. And it involves, in the case of Daniel Kish, tongue clicks. But I do know of people (well, I’ve been told stories by teachers) about people who sometimes tap their canes to get a feel for how much is around them. It has something to do with how the sound echoes.

But I also know people who are fully blind and just naturally have amazing spacial awareness. I suppose it’s akin to some sighted people being natural athletes and others who can barely keep their balance.

Before I go, I want to share a few links with you all. First,

this is the piece I wrote for blindnewworld.org. They have a section on their site called #MyBlindStory and both blind and sighted people are welcome to contribute. Well, the latter only if they have had interactions with a blind or visually impaired person.

After you finish my piece, I encourage you to look around the site. Their mission is creating a new world for sighted and blind people by making the former more comfortable with the latter, and helping the latter have their voices heard. Or at least, that’s my interpretation.

The next link is to a podcast episode featuring Daniel Kish  (first shown to me by my sister).

Note:Kish is not the first story.

And finally here’s a link to the most recently mended  Misconception.

So, what do you all think of this human echolocation?

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