When I began Orientation and Mobility lessons a few months after going blind, I was amazed to learn that using a white cane involved so much more than just interpreting sensations in the hand holding the cane. My instructor, Dave, taught me to begin paying attention to sounds outside my apartment. Hear that traffic? If you ever get turned around, listen for the traffic and use the sound to point yourself in the direction of your apartment. Years later I would use this skill after arriving home with my guide dog while he was learning the lay of the land.
Dave also taught me how to listen for buildings and hear the difference between a flat building front and an alcove or covered area. I used this a lot while learning my home area since those sounds became landmarks. Instead of the mailbox on the corner letting me know I was close to my destination, the different sound the cane made as I passed by an aluminum overhang became my landmark.
Dave taught me how to tell which lane a car was in as we stood next to a three lane road. He would stand me near a bend in a busy street and have me point to where I thought the intersection was. In buildings and stores he would have me stop and listen for the sounds of a cash register or talking. When I expressed fear of entering a public bathroom alone, he found a blind female coworker who told me to listen for the sounds of the sinks, the hand dryers, the paper towel dispensers, the flushing toilets. Remember those sounds in relation to the door and you’ll be fine.
As I learned all these skills I couldn’t help but remember a television documentary I had watched with B back when I was blind in just one eye. This documentary was about a boy who lost his eyes as a baby. B and I watched in amazement as this boy road his bike, skateboarded, shot basketballs and didn’t miss, all by clicking his tongue. When the program ended I turned to B and said, “I should learn that in case my other eye goes blind.” I clicked my tongue a few times but the thought of losing my other eye never seemed like a reality. Who knew a year later I would begin to learn the basics of echolocation without even knowing it.
When I read “Beginner’s Guide to Echolocation for the Blind and Visually Impaired: Learning to See With Your Ears” by Tim Johnson, I found myself remembering those early days of O & M Lessons with Dave and smiling. While learning to navigate the world without sight was frustrating and terrifying, there were also some really fun times. This book was a refresher for me in many ways but it also introduced new skills and concepts. It can be exhausting moving around the world with your ears. Johnson gives examples of relaxing exercises and techniques to practice to assist with honing your hearing, decipher sounds and open your mind. I think this is invaluable to help with energy conservation. I have found myself focusing on these things in the days since I read this book.
Johnson makes it clear that this book is not a replacement for O & M lessons with a qualified instructor. He also gives information about centers where one can go to specifically learn echolocation. I would love to be able to attend this kind of training! I remember when I was first blind, navigating around my apartment and stopping just before I hit a wall. I remember telling people, “I heard the freaking wall!” I really enjoyed reading this book and finding out in detail just how it worked that day I heard the wall.
Johnson explains sound waves and why certain objects sound the way they do when a click or clap bounces off of them and back to the ears. He explains how the visual cortex in the brains of the blind still function, allowing us to build images in our minds from the things we feel and hear. I ate this information up since I love brain science. When I finished this book I felt brain tired, just like I do when I read books about science. I love it! I also had an aching tongue from all the clicking I did as the book described different techniques. Johnson flawlessly uses descriptions to teach you all the different ways you can click.
I recommend this book for anyone, blind or sighted. Even if you are not interested in learning echolocation, it is still a fascinating read for anyone who enjoys learning something new. “The Beginner’s Guide to Echolocation” is available in print from Amazon with large print available and audio coming soon. You can also download the book in MS Word format to read with your screen reader.
We don’t think about the kinds of echolocation we use every day. Whether using a white cane or a guide dog, if we can hear, we can see our surroundings as we move through the world with our mobility aids. There are even some days I can tell when it’s cloudy, just based on how different the traffic sounds. I don’t know about you, but I am grateful to be able to sharpen all my tools as I continue trudging along on this sightless journey. My thanks to Tim Johnson, for devoting his time and skills to this book!
*Addendum* Exciting news! I heard from Tim Johnson and the audio book is now available for download here, and will soon be available on Amazon, Audible and iTunes!