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TX: 21.04.08 - Echolocation

PRESENTER: JOHN WAITE

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WAITE
Now when bats do it they squeak, dolphins on the other hand click - echolocation is how both find their way around, judging their position by calculating the distance of the returning echo. But could visually-impaired humans operate in the same way? A Channel 5 documentary last year featured a Californian man called Dan Kish, who could be seen riding a bike unaided and even identifying the type of fruit hanging from a tree simply by clicking and listening.

Now a charity in Scotland has set up its own projects teaching echolocation to visually-impaired children. Peter White went along to see it in action.

WHITE
The activity taking place in this playground in Motherwell would be a puzzling one to a passer-by. A group of children flicking their fingers and clicking their tongues as they navigate their way along the yard's perimeter wall.

ACTUALITY
Do you think there's an obstacle in front of you?

Yeah.

Is it a chap from the radio with a microphone in front of you?

WHITE
This is echolocation in action, to some it's a new thing and words like revolutionary and life changing have been banded about in the press. But as a blind child growing up amongst other blind children it was just something we all did naturally. Now it's being taught by Visibility, a charity serving visually-impaired people in the West of Scotland as a distinct skill. Fiona Sandford is Visibility's chief executive.

SANDFORD
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. Really for us the evidence speaks for itself, particularly maybe for people who have been blind from an early age they are already using echolocation and Dan describes that as using echolocation passively. What we're doing is honing down a skill and a technique that's already there.

WHITE
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 but I tend to know people who've been blind quite a long time who say yeah, you know, echolocation always done that, so what, why do you need to teach it?

SANDFORD
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. It's basically giving validity to something that's already there.

BROWN
Hello my name's Kerry Brown. I lost my sight just before the age of two. 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 or it's a lamppost because the 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 that if I had an umbrella up or if I had a hood up I just couldn't walk around as well basically.

WHITE
So tell me about the effect of actually formally learning echolocation.

BROWN
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. I could get myself out of situations where I was lost, for example, just by using my normal mobility techniques. But now I feel that I could actually go off the path that I've been taught and go and have a little explore round about and use my orientation, my echolocation, skills to come back on track after that. So I feel like it's much more freeing.

ACTUALITY
Hi Stuart, how's your click?

Not very good.

Have you been practising?

I have.

You want to give us a little couple of practices?

Okay. [Click, click, click ....]

You know the usual routine, I'd like to just click into the ball, hold it straight up there....

WHITE
Stuart had had a busy morning, he'd already taken a maths exam, but he was still enthusiastic about his echolocation class.

ACTUALITY
When it's that close to me it's bouncing straight back because it's nearer, when it's farther away it takes more time to bounce back to me.

Excellent, excellent, you're going to be a scientist, do you know that?

No. I don't even want to be a scientist.

What do you want to be?

A rugby player.

Fancy going outside and playing some games? Remember the game we played last time?

WHITE
And as Stuart and his trainer went out to continue their session in the playground I asked Fiona Sandford to explain the thinking behind the teaching.

SANDFORD
What my understanding of it is, it's using sonar, it's using sonar to locate objects and to find out more about your surroundings and environment.

WHITE
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?

SANDFORD
Yeah, obviously it's always difficult as a charity to know what is the best use of your charitable income. I think people speak for themselves and they will tell you whether or not they want to support a particular cause. Echolocation is one aspect of our work. Visibility delivers a wide, wide range of services.

WHITE
Is this a pilot scheme, has it got a time limit on it?

SANDFORD
This is a pilot scheme up until the end of April, yeah.

WHITE
No matter how experienced you are as a blind person echolocation when it's blowing half a gale isn't easy but I navigated my way across the playground where I found another lesson in progress.

I see you've come in here and sheltered from the wind a little bit have you?

JAKE
Yes.

WHITE
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?

JAKE
No, no I didn't realise that.

WHITE
Right, so you've not been using it at all?

JAKE
Not until I was taught to use it.

WHITE
Do you walk about at all on your own outside?

JAKE
I walk 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.

WHITE
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?

JAKE
Yes.

WHITE
Can we talk to your trainer? David Logan you've been training Jake, can you explain what point at the training you are?

LOGAN
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 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 why ....

WHITE
Spinning him round?

LOGAN
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're learning the lesson.

WHITE
Because the real test will come, as you were saying really, when he's on his own, perhaps when he's out in the playground or maybe as he gets older out in the street.

LOGAN
Absolutely, Jake's also learning to use his long cane just now, so he's using the two things together and I think that's opening new avenues for him.

WHITE
That is the point that interests me - is it perhaps being turned maybe into a specialism when actually it's quite a natural thing for a blind child to do?

LOGAN
Yes it is a natural thing and many children do that, adults do it as well and many sighted people use echolocation, if you're lying in bed at night with your eyes shut you can hear what's around you. I think what we can do here is we can train people to do it more effectively.

WHITE
Do you think you could teach me anything new?

LOGAN
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.

WAITE
And if you want to hear the result of that challenge you can tune into In Touch with Peter at 8.40 tomorrow evening and when you'll also be able to hear from that project's American pioneer Dan Kish.

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