BBC Radio 4 In Touch
|Factsheet of this programme
Transcript of this programme
Print this page
Guests: Fiona Sandford, Chief Executive, Visibility
Daniel Kish, World Access for the Blind
Using clicks and sounds to judge distance and obstacles by the echo that bounces back is something Peter White says he has used since he was 5 or 6 years old. It is called echolocation and it is being taught to a test group of schoolchildren in Scotland by a charity called Visibility.
Peter visits Scotland to find out more about the techniques, how it works and whether it really is something new.
Later in the programme he talks to Daniel Kish the man who has formalised echolocation training and inspired the project in Glasgow.
2 Queens Crescent
Tel: 0141 332 4632,
For further information on echo-location
WORLD ACCESS FOR THE BLIND
World Access for the Blind is a non-profit organization employing unique teaching strategies to help blind and sighted people throughout the world improve their quality of life, and dedicated to the conviction that blind people can learn to see without sight, and sighted people can learn to see better.
105 Judd Street
Helpline: 0845 766 9999
Tel: 0207 388 1266 (switchboard/overseas callers)
The RNIB provides information, support and advice for anyone with a serious sight problem. They not only provide Braille, Talking Books and computer training, but imaginative and practical solutions to everyday challenges. The RNIB campaigns to change society's attitudes, actions and assumptions, so that people with sight problems can enjoy the same rights, freedoms and responsibilities as fully sighted people. They also fund pioneering research into preventing and treating eye disease and promote eye health by running public health awareness campaigns.
HENSHAWS SOCIETY FOR BLIND PEOPLE (HSBP)
John Derby House
88-92 Talbot Road
Tel: 0161 872 1234
Henshaws provides a wide range of services for people who have sight difficulties. They aim to enable visually impaired people of all ages to maximise their independence and enjoy a high quality of life. They have centres in: Harrogate, Knaresborough, Liverpool, Llandudno, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Salford, Southport and Trafford.
THE GUIDE DOGS FOR THE BLIND ASSOCIATION (GDBA)
Tel: 0118 983 5555
The GDBA’s mission is to provide guide dogs, mobility and other rehabilitation services that meet the needs of blind and partially sighted people.
ACTION FOR BLIND PEOPLE
14-16 Verney Road
Tel: 0800 915 4666 (info & advice)
Registered charity with national cover that provides practical support in the areas of housing, holidays, information, employment and training, cash grants and welfare rights for blind and partially-sighted people. Leaflets and booklets are available.
NATIONAL LEAGUE OF THE BLIND AND DISABLED
324 Grays Inn Road
Tel: 020 7837 6103
Textphone: 020 7837 6103
National League of the Blind and Disabled is a registered trade union and is involved in all issues regarding the employment of blind and disabled people in the UK.
NATIONAL LIBRARY FOR THE BLIND (NLB)
RNIB Customer Services on 0845 762 6843
The NLB is a registered charity which helps visually impaired people throughout the country continue to enjoy the same access to the world of reading as people who are fully sighted.
Trustees from the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) and the National Library for the Blind (NLB) have agreed to merge the library services of both charities as of 1 January 2007, creating the new RNIB National Library Service.
EQUALITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION DISABILITY HELPLINE (England)
Stratford upon Avon
Tel: 08457 622 633
Textphone: 08457 622 644
Fax: 08457 778 878
Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri 9:00 am-5:00 pm; Wed 8:00 am-8:00 pm.
Equality and Human Rights Commission Helpline Wales
3 Callaghan Square
0845 604 8810 - Wales main number
0845 604 8820 - Wales textphone
0845 604 8830 - Wales fax
9:00 am-5:00 pm, Monday to Friday (an out-of-hours service will start running soon)
Equality and Human Rights Commission Helpline Scotland
The Optima Building
58 Robertson Street
0845 604 5510 - Scotland Main
0845 604 5520 - Scotland Textphone
0845 604 5530 - Scotland – Fax
9:00 am-5:00 pm, Monday to Friday (an out-of-hours service will start running soon)
DISABLED LIVING FOUNDATION
380-384 Harrow Road
Tel: 0845 130 9177
The Disabled Living Foundation provide information and advice on disability equipment.
The BBC is not responsible for external websites
Back to top
TX: 22.04.08 2040-2100
PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
PRODUCER: CHERYL GABRIEL
Hello. I'm at Knowetop Primary School in Motherwell and I've come to see a group of children learning echolocation. Now a lot of visually-impaired people will know about echolocation, the idea really that you receive sound waves off things, rather like a bat. And so I put my cards on the table - I'm coming with a bit of scepticism because this is now being taught with the implication that it's almost a new thing, it's certainly been described in some of the newspaper reports as "revolutionary". So I'm very keen to find out what exactly is going on and what is so new about this echolocation.
So we've just started, you'll hear David and Alex working with the kids in the background, so you might like to just [indistinct words]...
What we call this is tickling your brain because it's getting you to think about echolocating and what you're listening to. I want you to click to your left, to your right and straight ahead of you and by doing that you have to tell me where the panel is. Okay?
Right. One's to the right and one's straight ahead.
So what exactly is going on here? Well the trainers - Alex and David - are holding up wooden panels in front of or to the side of the children testing whether they can locate where the panels are by the sounds reflected from their clicking tongues or flicking fingers. Sounds a bit bizarre I know but as I said many visually-impaired people are familiar with the phenomenon that much of the information we get about where we are comes from using such techniques.
But what's being claimed here is that there's much more to echolocation than that, it's not just about finding and avoiding obstacles but, at its most sophisticated, telling you more about your immediate environment, even down to the kind of bush you're just about to walk into.
The training is being offered by Visibility, a West of Scotland charity committed to helping visually-impaired people, and based on a course designed by an American, Dan Kish, who we'll be talking to at the end of the programme.
What we're going to do probably is go outside because it's a wee bit sunny just now and we'll make the most of the good weather. And we'll see if we can find some corners in the playground. Okay?
My name's Kerry Brown. I lost my sight just before the age of two to a retinal blastoma. I can remember from early childhood saying to my mum I can hear that car or I can hear that gateway, I could hear things, I could hear if there was something to my left hand side or if there was an opening beside me and my mum would test me and say okay tell me what you're passing now and I would be able to say well it's an opening or it's a car because it's quite long, it's a lamppost because their sound isn't lasting for so long. I didn't click at all until I was taught to do it just a few months ago but I found if I had an umbrella up or if I had a hood up I just couldn't walk around as well basically.
So tell me about the effect of actually formally learning echolocation.
I probably click maybe about every 15 seconds or something when I'm walking along and if it's a less familiar environment then maybe slightly more often. It gives me information all the time about obstacles that I might be about to hit, so that's probably what I use it for primarily at the moment.
Having not clicked and flicked your fingers do you feel self-conscious doing that now?
I thought I was going to do and I just concluded well I'm holding a five foot white cane in my hand, I think that's probably - attracts slightly more attention than a small click, so I don't feel self-conscious now about doing it at all.
Come into the school playground and there's going to be some training here. I'm just actually using what is echolocation to get a sense of my own background and I can hear that there's a wall over there, probably about - I don't know - 10 yards, perhaps a bit less, to my right. Anyway we'll eavesdrop on what they're doing.
It's a bin, that's right, it's a pencil shaped bin isn't it.
Well that's a hard one to find.
Hi Jake, have you used this kind of thing before, did you realise that if you flick your fingers or click your tongue that you get echoes?
No, no. I didn't realise that.
Do you get around on your own outside very much because you're not all that old yet - what are 10?
Do you walk about at all on your own outside?
No. Mainly I'm walking about school with my class and going downstairs and things. I only really go about on my own in the playground when there's nobody out like now.
But for this to be useful I guess what you'd really like is to be able to go in the playground with the other children isn't it?
Do you think you'll get to that point?
Yes I think I will.
That's great. David Logan, you've been training Jake, can you explain what point at the training you are?
We're still quite early stages with Jake, this is really about the fourth or fifth session that we've had with him and the area we're in just now is a small enclosed area, an alcove off the playground, Jake was aware that there were two doors and also one thing which he thought was a door but was actually a notice board, it's quite difficult to make that fine judgement at this stage. Now some of this is probably because he knows the playground very well, that's why we try to confuse him a little bit by spinning him round and not telling him where ...
Spinning him round?
Spinning him round and not telling him where he is in the playground. I think like all training - like all education - you can actually make this fun and if you make it fun then the children enjoy what they're doing and they learn the lesson.
You'll be aware that some people - I mean I know obviously a lot of other blind people and they're saying to me and I'm saying look I've been doing this kind of thing since I was a kid, you know, and no I wasn't taught it.
Yes, I think what we can do here is we can train people to do it more effectively.
I suppose that's what worries people that in some of the coverage are phrases like "revolutionary new technique" and so forth but it isn't is it?
Human beings have probably been doing this for tens of thousands of years.
Do you think you could teach me anything new?
I don't know how good your echolocation skills are Peter at the moment, I would hope that I could at least tweak it a little and improve it a little, yes.
Well we might try that out before the end of the morning.
What are you experiencing?
In the left it's [indistinct word], on the right it's more echoey.
Do you think there's an obstacle in front of you?
It's a chap from the radio with a microphone in front of you. Can you tell the difference between the wall and the person?
There's a wee bit of difference but I don't know how to describe it.
Well what I would get would be very hard sharp echo, that's how I would describe it, coming off a person it's kind of soft and spongy. That was very good, you picked that up, will we head back alone? And we'll turn you round again.
Well we've come inside for a coffee because it is getting more and more blustery. But I'm with Daniel. When you were outside can you just explain what you were doing?
I was like using my echolocation click to go along walls and find corners and what direction to turn in.
You know this environment pretty well?
Have you tried using it yet somewhere you didn't know well?
I went to [indistinct word] Park School a couple of weeks ago and I used it a couple of times in there to see what the area was like.
Do you think this is something you will use as time goes on?
Well I'm with Fiona Sandford who's the chief executive of Visibility. Just explain how this whole connection with echolocation came about.
One of our members of staff, Kerry Brown, knew someone who had been trained by Dan Kish. We did a bit of research, looked at echolocation, and we thought this is something that would fit quite well with a lot of the work that we do. So we funded him to come from California to work with our guys for a week. What we're doing is honing down a skill and a technique that's already there.
So what do you say to people like me and it's not just me, I've talked to quite a lot of people about this, who say yeah echolocation, always done that, so what, why do you need to teach it?
Well there's always cynics out there but what I would say is that's fantastic that you're doing that but sometimes some people need their skills to be a bit more honed and just a bit of expertise and often people need the language to be able to describe what they're already doing.
How will you judge whether this is worthwhile or not?
It's really not for us to judge whether it's working or not, it's up to the people who use it and who are trained and who are the trainers and they can tell us whether it works or not.
Is this a good use of money, I mean you won't need me to tell you how much demand there is for funds in visual-impairment, we know there are a lot of older blind people not getting the help they need when they first lose their sight, is this a good use for funds?
Yeah, obviously it's always difficult as a charity to know what is the best use of your charitable income. Echolocation is one aspect of our work, Visibility delivers a wide, wide range of services.
Do you now do things that you didn't do before? I'm just trying to get a sense of how this has changed Kerry Brown's life.
I think the main concept that it's introduced for me is the ability to explore. So now instead of - traditionally I would say, as a blind person, I've been taught routes, so it's a prescribed route from A to B and then you reverse it and come back. But now I feel that I can actually quite easily go off the path that I've been taught and go and have a little explore round about and use my orientation and my echolocation skills to come back on track after that. So I feel like it's much more freeing.
Specifically what do you think about it being taught formally as a separate skill, wouldn't you actually incorporate this into mobility training anyway?
Absolutely, I would say yes but currently I don't think that happens. I think that generally rehab and mobility professionals are not particularly aware of how to train echolocation, they may be aware that it exists but actually developing a training package is something that's fairly unique and I'm really pleased to be part of that.
That's not quite how Susan Hartley sees it. Susan's been a mobility trainer in South Yorkshire for over 25 years and she believes that this has always been part of her stock in trade.
I use it as part of the tool bag of teaching mobility and orientation, I certainly know it isn't anything new. The bible, if you like, of mobility, which is Foundations of Orientation and Mobility by Blash, Weiner and Welsh, which was available in the '80s when I was training and there's a new version now, there's a whole section on echolocation. So I just assumed that everybody else is doing the same as me.
Just finally, where do you think it comes in the armoury, as it were, of things that blind people can make use of?
I think it's a good tool to use and should be encouraged. I do think you have to be taught to recognise what you are hearing but as the whole, as you say, armoury, if you like, the tool bag of mobility and orientation it's an important part but it isn't everything and you certainly couldn't do without whatever your primary tool of mobility would be - a long cane or a guide dog.
Well earlier on I challenged David Logan to teach me something I didn't know already about echolocation, so David the moment has come.
Let's hear your click. Soft click, medium and a fairly loud click.
Oh that was a bit pathetic.
What we'll do is we'll use this panel exercise to detect whether the panel is to one side or other. Sit comfortably. I'm going to drop the panel down in front of you. Now can you hear that sound coming back at you?
I can but I tell you what else - I think echolocation is partly facial, it's not just ears, so I think I can detect that facially as well as ...
Actually the heat of your breath reflected from the tray, even the noise of your breath is enough to detect. So that's a useful skill to know and understand if you're walking up towards a wall.
It can be enough to detect a lamppost.
It can be yeah. So I'm going to remove the tray. Click. Again. These trays are quite hard and quite reflective but if you're walking up to a bush, for example, we would be looking for people to be able to tell the difference between a bush and a tree. But if you think about it perhaps - a juniper bush has very fine needles and a holly bush has larger leaves which are harder and more reflective, so actually different bushes sound different. So what echolocation is about is teaching people to understand ...
Because this is something I have never done - I've never gone up to bushes thinking what kind of bush are you, if I wanted to do that I'd feel it, I must admit.
Yeah, there we go Peter, that's you've learned something you didn't know before. The object of the exercise completed.
You're not getting away with it as easily as that.
Now click to your right then click ahead, then click to your left and tell me where it is.
It's there on my right.
Are you quite sure about that?
There's one on both sides.
Yes there's one on both sides.
You cheat, you cheat. Do you know I thought there was, I thought he wouldn't do that not this early in the game he wouldn't.
Absolutely, we do it to the children from very early on as well.
No I knew there was one there but I was - no, no well you got me there.
David Logan ending that report compiled for us by Joe Kent.
Well Daniel Kish is a name which has appeared a couple of times in that report. Daniel is an exponent of echolocation himself and through World Access for the Blind he was invited over to Britain to set up the Glasgow experiment. He's joining us on the line from Anaheim in California.
First of all Daniel, I mean can we clear this up once and for all, echolocation is not new is it?
Echolocation is not at all new, David is correct that humans have been doing this for many, many, many thousands of years.
But it has been quite hyped, I mean words like "revolutionary" have been used, "pioneering", whereas you know you hear people like Susan Hartley, a regular mobility officer, saying it's in the bible, it's in the textbooks, we've all been teaching it.
What is new is a systematic, comprehensive way of teaching it. The Foundations of Orientation and Mobility that Susan refers to devotes one third of one chapter to echolocation with a mere sprinkling of mention of echolocation throughout some of the other chapters. Many of the orientation and mobility training universities may devote less than one class session to echolocation. I'm very pleased to hear that Susan teaches echolocation as part of her curriculum and many orientation and mobility specialists struggle to introduce their clients to echolocation but without a formal systematic way of doing it because it simply isn't taught.
So when you say, as I've heard you quoted as saying, well some people practise echolocation but they practise it passively, by which I suspect you might mean someone like me, what do you mean exactly?
Well I actually heard you clicking and from what I can hear you have actually quite a nice click. Passive echolocation refers to the non-use of a deliberate actively produced signal. Active echolocation or flash sonar, as we've coined the term, uses a specific active signal and I don't have the time to go into all of the advantages of that but one of the key advantages of that is that your brain has the opportunity to tune into that signal and the amount of information that one can gather from active echolocation is a great deal more than passive echolocation.
So you're saying that some people - okay they might just hear something, almost not know whether they hear it or feel it and that's passive, as opposed to sending out a signal, as I admit I do, but you don't need a big course to teach someone to do that, do you, I mean when I learnt ...?
You don't need a big course to teach someone to play the piano either but most people benefit from it. I have worked with hundreds of students from all over the world, I've worked with thousands of instructors, I have never encountered a student, including my own self, who didn't benefit from specific attention to that skill.
And how big the claims would you make because there have been television programmes, they've shown you doing things like riding bicycles?
All of the claims that to my knowledge have been made are correct except one. The London Sunday Times stated that I could tell the difference between different kinds of fruit.
Ah I've been worrying about that.
No, that is not possible. I can tell the difference between one tree from another but I cannot tell the difference between one kind of fruit from another.
So what would you say is important about this and to what extent, in your experience, is it being taught to most blind people?
Who wouldn't improve their capacity to see? People get glasses, people get eye surgery, people don't go around saying oh yeah I see well enough, people usually work to improve their vision. There's no question that with attention to this skill students, in my experience, have improved their skills enormously, I'd say 90-95% of our students have been extremely pleased with the results of our course. And it's no accident that I'm invited routinely all the way around the world to teach this and we don't promote, we don't self promote, every single engagement that we have had has been brought to us by word of mouth and reputation.
Can I just finally ask you about the publicity because does it concern you though that perhaps words are sometimes used like "revolutionary" and "pioneering" when you yourself have admitted this is simply using something that probably we've been able to do since we came out of the caves?
It's always a risk when you allow yourself to go into the public eye. And we allowed ourselves to go into the public eye for several reasons, one of the key reasons was exposure, this skill simply is not being taught to its potential. In the orientation and mobility official handbook that is produced by the main certifying agency in the US echolocation is not mentioned once. It's taught barely as a peripheral skill and most instructors know very little about it.
And you would say it's much more than that?
I would say that it's - I don't know that I would call it a primary skill just because it doesn't detect drop off ...
You mean before you go down a kerb or a step?
Before you go down a kerb or step but it detects so much more, so much more than a cane will ever, ever give you, so much more than a guide dog will ever, ever give you. So the definition of primary skill is a bit fuzzy to me.
Daniel Kish, very interesting to talk to you and it'll be very interesting to see how people react. We will, of course, welcome your comments and experiences, you can call us on 0800 044 044, you can e-mail In Touch via the website. From me Peter White, my producer Cheryl Gabriel and the rest of the team goodbye.
Back to top