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Seeing with your ears

A portrait photo of Kate Giles

Walking to the bus stop with my cane and eyes closed is good practice for when I lose all my vision. But now I am trying another method. It's called echolocation and it's about using your ears to hear an echo. It's believed some dolphins and whales use this method. It is also said that during heavy fog, ancient sailors rang a bell and used the echoes to locate where they were. Some people who are blind have taught themselves to use echoes. But it is mostly ignored as a mobility aid. I've tried it but I'm not having much luck.

Posted by: Kate Giles, on 21/09/12

Whales in the ocean.

Whales use soundwaves to navigate.

Walking to the bus stop with my eyes closed is good practice for when all of my vision disappears. It also helps keep my white cane skills intact. Pinpointing exactly where I am is becoming easier. I thought I had it all worked out. Now I am finding there is another method  some other blind people use. It's called echolocation. It simply means using your ears to find your way around.

Dolphins and whales

It's common knowledge that in using soundwaves many types of dolphins and whales can detect objects, attract prey and navigate their surroundings. In other words they have what is sometimes called a sixth sense.

Seafarers

It is also said that ancient seafarers had this same sixth sense. They relied on the 'simple echo' system for their bearings. In darkness or heavy fog, they could tell their position by ringing a bell and waiting for the return echo. Hearsay also has it that a good sailor could recognise the change in the coastline by the different sounds the echoes made. However, I'm unsure if recognising such detail is fact or fiction.

Ved Mehta

Just recently I read a memoir called The Stolen Light by Ved Mehta. Set in the1950's, the story tells of Ved's struggle with blindness while being educated in a foreign country. One of his greatest desires was not to look different.

From an early age, Ved mastered the skill of echolocation and was very capable of finding his own way without assistance. Throughout the book he writes it was a constant annoyance that others would try to guide him.

Ved says of one occasion, He kept on irritatingly pointing out steps and doors, which I could recognise by myself by means of sound shadows.

Up until now, many of those who have mastered echolocation have been self-taught. And some have learnt this skill at an early age.

Tongue clicking

Several years ago American Ben Underwood amazed people with his echolocation abilities. Ben lost his eyes to cancer when he was three years old. But it didn't restrict him. He could still play football, basketball and ride a bike with the rest of the neighbourhood kids. He said he could detect where object were by making clicking noises with his tongue.

Daniel Kish lost both his eyes as a baby. At a very young age he taught himself to locate objects by also clicking his tongue and waiting for the resound. He is now teaching others the same skill.

Ignored

Despite a study proving that human echolocation is possible, it has been mostly ignored as a mobility aid. Kish has his own ideas on why.

In a recent report in the magazine Men's Journal Kish says, The blindness field is firmly based in tradition and dogma and is very slow to evolve.

In the meantime, I have a new challenge in trying to develop my own sixth sense. And I'm just not getting it. But I have come to realise how close my computer is to me by swearing at it. Currently, that's the extent of my echolocation skills.

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Readers comments (1)

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Posted by: Dominique, Bentleigh Australia 26/10/2012 at 12:10pm

Hey Kate, I'm Dominique and I just wanted to comment and tell you how much I appreciate this article. I myself don't have a disability but I currently learning about different ones at school. Visual impairments have interested me in particular as I wear glasses and my eyes continue to worsen. I can't handle not wearing my glasses so I admire people who have a visual impairment and how they deal with the disability. I've never heard of echolocation before and always believed guide dogs and white canes were how the visually impaired coped with their condition. I find it an extremely interesting topic as it seems a useful skill for everyone. It would be a good idea to study how dolphins and whales can locate objects by the echoes of sound. Having a better understanding of how these animals naturally know echolocation may help humans learn the skill quicker. The theory can help in practice, even if practice is the most important part of teaching yourself the skill. If echolocation became more of a mobility aid to the blind then they would be able to participate more fully in sports and other activities where guides dogs and white canes are of no help. The section of the article concerning Ved Mehta and his early mastery of echolocation made me laugh as I, too, would find it an annoyance to get constantly told where something was if I already knew. I have actually seen someone with a visual impairment get annoyed at someone trying to help him on the train. At the time I thought it was pride but this article has changed my mind. I really hope you continue your practise and develop this skill to the best of your ability. I wish you the best of luck and hope that other visually impaired people learn of echolocation and that it is recognised as a mobility aid by all.

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