About six months ago I started learning about echolocation. With a simple tongue click, a blind person can see their surroundings. The brain learns to interpret the echoes caused by a sound close to its center. This activates the very same visual pathways a sighted person uses to see, but instead of using reflected light it uses reflected sound. Recently, retinal implants have allowed some people to gain limited vision. We can do all of that and more with our own natural abilities.
To many this sounds just too far out. As usual, the establishment has ignored this most profound development. In fact, only one organization, World Access for the Blind, teaches this illuminating procedure. As soon as I watched some of their videos and reviewed some of their course material I knew I had to meet these people.
I sent in an email and struck up a dialog. A guy named Justin got back to me and we started chatting. He suggested we go on Skype to have a relatively high quality chat. He showed me some basics and we became fast friends.
He first had me make a “shsh” sound while holding a plate in front of me. He then suggested working on my tongue click and gradually move to doing that instead. Once I got this most rudimentary understanding I just started doing it everywhere, especially around my awesome condo. We had some more Skype chats and he suggested comparing items, a plate and a pillow for example. This started making sense and I began to get a few images.
I knew I wanted to do an intensive session as soon as I learned they offered them. Now that I had a small taste I knew I had to do it for real. We scheduled a three-day session. It just felt like the right thing to do. I had always felt my mobility skills lacked some key component, but I could never articulate exactly what. You can’t express something if you’ve never had it. Now I knew that echolocation provided that missing skill. Some people felt skeptical, but I had already experienced something and could sense the potential.
Justin arrived on Monday night. My Mom and her husband offered to go to the airport. Good thing, because they delayed the flight, then we couldn’t find each other. Everything worked out and we headed back to my condo. My first paradigm shift would come quickly.
“Do you use sighted guide for the comfort, or because you always do?” All blind kids learn the correct sighted guide technique, gripping the upper arm of a sighted person to have them guide you. “I don’t know, I just do it.” I said. I had never even thought to question such a piece of blind orthodoxy. Not needing sighted guide? And yet the way seemed clear through echolocation. Of course! If you could see your guide you wouldn’t need to touch them. I realized that echolocation totally shifts the whole paradigm of current orientation and mobility instruction.
I want to make something else clear. When we had this discussion I never felt criticized. A lot of blind people have had a lot of bad experiences with mobility teachers. This did not feel that way. Haven’t you always wanted a cool mobility instructor?
Once we got settled in we got down to business. We went over the different types of clicks. The volume of the click controls its distance and the frequency controls its resolution. A louder click will let you bounce sound off of distant objects, while a quieter click will let you get more detail about a closer object. Once we went over the basics we could start our first panel exercise.
He asked me to get a plate. I got him a nice thick plate with apple blossoms on it to groove on, while I fetched some cacao and tobacco. He stood behind me on the stairs and held the plate in different angles and locations. Having someone else doing it as opposed to me holding it changed the experience. Now I really had to test my echolocation. And I did it! I quickly identified the nice big cool glassy plate!
He quickly graduated to something harder. My practicing had paid off. He took out his wallet and did the same thing. I could identify it, and knew it had a smaller rectangular or square shape and made of a softer material. Once I had done that he took a credit card out of his wallet, and sure enough I could do that too! I had already made good progress.
We walked around my loft and clicked at different places. I could hear the different walls. I could tell the difference between a cinderblock wall, a regular wall, and a window which goes from floor to ceiling like a wall. I could tell the difference between a wooden cabinet and the glass panel of the microwave which I never use. I then tried clicking to hear my loft, which extends above the main floor. That really took some effort, but I did begin to hear and see something. I could actually see the loft above me in three dimensions. I started to feel really amazed, but then I got a real shocker!
He told me to stand in front of the bottom of my stairs and look up them. I started to hear the hard material. I kept clicking. Gradually they began to come into focus, and I could actually see a three dimensional image of them extending upward and moving away from me. You have to understand I became blind at birth. I had never seen this kind of 3D view of things. Then while standing there and making clicking noises, my beautiful calico cat suddenly sprinted up them. I just happened to click at the right moment and I actually caught a glimpse of a puffy round thing moving up a flight of stairs! That did it!
i had enough for the night. My brain would not let me do more. Justin warned me it would screw up my sleep schedule, because it would put my brain in a hyperactive state. I told him not to worry about it. Indeed, I do feel a rise in serotonin. It feels, for lack of a better word, trippy. It reminds me of when I first used a color identifier. This feels even more profound, since it comes from within.
Echolocation represents much more than a mobility technique or a way to ride bikes. It changes neural pathways and neurotransmitter levels. It uplifts one’s emotional attitude. It completely overhauls the current paradigm. It causes a spiritual change, a crystallization of something new and wonderful, the finding of a lost light.
We’ve only just begun this echolocation Woodstock. Justin said that spontaneously and it makes a good title for this first entry. Now continue reading to find out what happened on our first day.