A Light to Guide You in Dark Places

This article will conclude the series detailing my three-day intensive to learn echolocation. By making a tongue click, a blind person can learn to retrain their brain to activate the visual center through reflected sound. This gives the equivalent of long-range vision. If you haven’t already, you should read about the beginning of what we called Echolocation Woodstock, and what happened the next day. That will bring you up to speed. The last article ended with me lying in my bed, seeing the ceiling above me without even clicking and realizing that I had unlocked something much greater.

Before I continue I wanted to answer some questions. People ask exactly what I mean by seeing objects. I do not mean just hearing a sound, though it starts from that point. I do not mean visualizing something in the mind’s eye, though no doubt it plays a part. When I see something with echolocation, I actually see a dark form like a mannequin positioned around me in space. Echolocation shows an object’s size, mass, material, spacial position, everything sight gives minus color and finer detail. It feels like the most amazing thing to actually see the world around me in this new way. These articles have taken longer to write because I have had to come up with ways of explaining this amazing ability.

Some people have wanted to know how to start learning echolocation. This includes some curious sighted people. In fact, they might have an easier time in some ways, because their brains already have the pathways to process visual information. Start as I did, with the panel exercises I talked about in the first part. Get a plate and hold it in front of your face. Make a “shsh” sound while moving your head around as though looking at the object. Listen for the center and edges. Trace the edges. Find the object’s position in space. Reach out and touch it. Build on that. Then move on to other objects, comparing and contrasting them. At the same time, work on developing your click, and gradually transition from the constant sound to the click. That will give you a good sample. As I wrote before though, you can learn how to look, but you need an intensive to learn how to see. Everyone has unique challenges, and you need the real-time feedback.

Now back to the action. We woke up the next day and had almond croissants and Goddess Cups. We also had our super foods, of course. We discussed what we wanted to do for the day. By chance I mentioned that this building has an awesome roof deck. That seemed like a good idea, so we decided to do some object identification there. After that Justin wanted to go to a department store. I didn’t know how that would go down, but figured we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.

We headed up to the roof deck and started clicking at objects. I suddenly realized that I had done the click slightly incorrectly all this time. First, make a “chch” sound. Keep the tip of your tongue in that exact place. Now quickly bring the center of your tongue down, making a sharp clicking sound. A higher frequency gives more resolution, and this proper tongue position allows for a louder click which broadcasts over a longer distance. In a flash I realized that this complimented my meditation. An energy circuit runs up the spine and down the front of the body, and touching the tip of your tongue to this spot completes that circuit. It all clicked together, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Something else happened in this flash. Justin had me click across the street at a church. He could identify it by its shape. I tried, and had the realization I just described. When I clicked properly, I distinctly heard a longer echo come back from farther away. My brain translated it and flipped! I physically felt my brain reel. When it recovered sure enough I could see something farther away. I couldn’t identify it as well as Justin, but I definitely saw a building-like object across the street with a tree in front of it. I went nuts! I had just seen an object at a distance. Hearing that longer echo did something.

After I recovered myself, we walked around the roof deck finding other things to click at. I liked how Justin never considered any of my guesses as wrong. Rather, he would say “No, but I understand why you’d think that.” This understanding really helped. The brain perceives things correctly, you just have to learn how to interpret the perceptions correctly. We found a power box, and other random things. While looking across the wide railing, Justin told me that when sighted people want to see along something, they have to look up. What? Look up? This didn’t make sense to me, but I tried it and it worked, I could see along the railing. Eventually I found a table and some chairs and we sat down. I needed tobacco. We talked about the next step, and decided to get a cab to Macy’s, a nearby department store. I had no idea what to expect, but I put my faith in Justin and of course in Goddess.

This building started out as a department store called Wanamaker’s, the first department store in Philadelphia and one of the first in America. Anyone who has lived in this area for a long time remembers Wanamaker’s. Unfortunately it no longer exists. Now it has become a Macy’s. I had some idea of the intensity to expect, but had never actually gone there. Justin felt impressed and maybe even a little overwhelmed. Sighted people feel this way too. Nevertheless, we plunged forward.

The whole thing felt like a fun adventure. I learned how to use echolocation to maneuver through paths. This skill comes in handy all the time. We went around all kinds of crazy paths. I also learned how to find my way through paths to a goal, such as an entrance.

The main lobby tripped us out. It has a very high ceiling, large stone columns, and balconies. This provided all kinds of cool sounds and images. We really had fun figuring this out. I could appreciate this in a whole new way.

We started on the first floor by some dresses and handbags. No doubt we looked very weird clicking and tromping around but definitely focused on something. We found our way to the amazing lobby and went upstairs. We saw more stuff and walked around aisles. We ended up on the third floor by beds and cookware. Justin mentioned that Mother’s Day would come up on Sunday, and I had the idea to buy my Mom a gift. We hailed a woman and she helped me pick out a white all-purpose baking dish.

We found our way outside and I called for a cab. They could not come for an hour. We wondered what to do. I eventually decided to go back in to the madness and buy a new wallet. Everything went wonderfully and I felt glad I did it. I would have never just travelled to a department store by myself. Echolocation opens doors.

We finally got a cab home. We had a cabby named Victor who wanted to know more about echolocation. “Are you bullshitting me?” “No we’re serious!” “He’s teaching me how to do it.” We blew his mind. This has happened a number of times since.

I have to tell a quick aside. Every once in a while one or both of my parents would freak out and want me to get a guide dog. I’ve never had any interest. I just can’t turn my will over to an animal. Justin pointed out that you really can’t compare cane and guide dog users, because a guide dog user still has a sighted guide, no criticism intended.

Anyway, people would go on and on about how independent guide dog users look. They would also tell me that a guide dog makes a good conversation starter. “And you know, girls love dogs.” I considered that totally vain. I would not just get a guide dog for that. Now I felt glad that I had found an even better conversation starter!

While walking back to my apartment, something else interesting happened. When walking I would usually hold one arm up a little, as a natural defense. Most blind people do, and with good reason. “Hey, are you holding your arm up?” asked Justin. I said yes, starting to realize something. “Um, yeah, you don’t need to do that anymore.” And I saw what he meant. Now that I had echolocation I could easily tell if an obstacle lay in front of me. As promised, it had improved my pose.

We got home and ate some pizza my mom picked up for us from a local shop. We had talked about the Lord of the Rings, and Justin said that he had never seen the Return of the King. As any fan knows, the extended version rules! If we wanted to watch it we would have to on this last night. I put it on, but Justin quickly fell asleep next to a big salt lamp. I watched it anyway, and as usual had some powerful insights.

Watching that amazing scene with Gandalf and Saruman made me think back to earlier to the roof deck. While walking around, Justin told me to take Gandalf steps. I asked what he meant. “If I were training a six-year-old, I would tell them to walk like a seven-year-old. How do you think Gandalf walks?” We had a quick discussion and decided on stately, with purpose. Walking in this way helps maintain orientation. I had experienced that on the previous day and wrote about it then, how walking quickly helped keep me oriented.

Then the scene with Frodo and Shelob came on. Frodo holds up the Phial of Galadriel and it flashes back to the Fellowship of the Ring. Galadriel says: “May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” It all hit me at once. Echolocation does exactly that! A light to guide you in dark places! And now I finally understood the name World Access for the Blind, the only organization teaching this technique. Before I thought it just meant that they train blind people around the world. Now I knew that it really meant that they give blind people access to the world. I felt illuminated.

The next day I had to rest a little. We wanted to start earlier since we didn’t have much time, but my poor brain just wouldn’t allow it. I pulled myself together and prepared myself for my final ordeal so to speak. Once again we walked to Whole Foods. The route felt more familiar, but I need to work on my street crossings. Justin explained that those blind from Retinopathy of Prematurity tend to not do well at street crossings, because they can often become easily disoriented by loud sounds and sound tracking. True enough. He helped me clean up my cane technique a little and showed me how to get better oriented using echolocation. We made six crossings and I did four of them well. I still have work to do, but feel a lot better off. Justin assured me that things would make more sense once my brain had time to put it all together, and sure enough a few hours later it started to. He left right after that and I felt changed forever.

When we first started chatting I felt amazed that someone could learn this in three days. I asked him multiple times and he promised me that he could teach me the basics, enough to get me on my way. I got more than I could have ever hoped for. I thought I would just learn something cool to help my mobility skills. Instead I learned how to see.

To find out more about echolocation, contact World Access for the Blind. They work on a donation basis. Amounts generally range from $500 to $1500 per day of training. You can pay in one or several sums, or with a monthly subscription. Not a bad deal, considering what you get. I believe every blind person should learn this skill. Don’t wait fifty years for the establishment to catch up. Do it now!