Echolocation: A Case Study by Guest Blogger Marta Fonmudeh, Vision Australia

Head shot of Marta Fonmudeh

Guest blogger Marta Fonmudeh, M.Ed, is an Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist and Senior Practitioner with Vision Australia. As Senior Practitioner, Marta oversees the professional development and clinical supervision of all O&M staff within Vision Australia. Marta is also a VisionAware Peer Advisor.

Last week on the VisionAware blog, we examined the process of echolocation, or Using Your Ears to Help You “See”. Echolocation is the ability to detect objects in the environment by sensing the echoes that emanate from those objects, which is a skill used by some blind persons to navigate independently.

By actively creating sounds (tapping canes and/or making clicking sounds with the tongue and mouth) and interpreting the sound waves reflected by objects in the environment, a person trained to navigate by echolocation can identify, with great accuracy, the location and size of nearby objects and use this information to travel safely and independently.

This week, Marta writes about teaching echolocation techniques to “Annie,” a 50-year-old woman who experienced “a new way of seeing” after embracing echolocation, via Marta’s innovative teaching methods.

Meeting Annie

I met Annie in late 2012 at her workplace to determine whether she was safe performing her duties as a hospital porter in a neurology ward. (As you can imagine, it’s not always the best way to start out on good footing with a client and create meaningful rapport when I represent the employer.)

Annie has congenital glaucoma and learned early on that “faking it” visually could get her through most situations in school and the workplace. She had several surgeries, managed to save the vision in one eye, and refused to have her peripheral fields tested out of fear that she would lose all of her vision.

Denial as a Coping Strategy

Annie used denial as a type of coping strategy for a very long time, until several things began to happen:

  • After 16 years, her employer decided that the hospital could no longer support her in her current position or find other employment options in her busy hospital environment.
  • Annie had a few “near misses” and realised she could no longer afford to use her long cane “from time to time”; instead, she needed to commit to it full time.
  • Annie was struggling with public perception. She could no longer “fake it” and give the impression to the public that she was fully sighted.

Introducing Daniel Kish and Echolocation

Photo of Daniel Kish, President of World Access for the Blind, leading a group of blind hikers along a steep mountain trail. Photo credit: Volker Correll for World Access for the Blind

It was at this point that I connected with Annie and first suggested echolocation. During our O&M session, I asked, “Have you heard of Daniel Kish (pictured at left) and echolocation? Please have a look at his website when you have time.”

To be honest, I was not very hopeful when I made this suggestion, since Annie usually dismissed anything that would be too obvious and draw attention to herself.

To my great surprise, Annie contacted me the next day, saying that she had read everything on Daniel’s website, watched all of his videos, and could not believe she had struggled most of her life without ever having been introduced to this concept! She saved Daniel’s training manual on her computer, created a training kit with the materials he recommended, and wanted to start our training sessions right away.

We began with simple exercises indoors, starting with the “shhhh” sound and progressing to “clicks.” Annie very quickly discovered that she could detect walls, corridors, and doorways when producing these sounds, known as “active echolocation.” She also noticed she was more alert and receptive outdoors when using “passive echolocation,” seeking more feedback from her cane and listening carefully to environmental sounds.

A Shift in Self-Image

With that came a shift in Annie’s confidence and self-image:

  • “Believe me, Marta, you are somehow getting through to me and making a huge difference in my confidence and ability to do things for myself, such as my mobility and discovering echolocation.”
  • “The other thing that I have noticed is that you are somehow changing the way I think of things – not in a negative way any longer, but in a positive way instead.”
  • “You make me think of ways to get around things and to look beyond the difficulties. It’s really interesting what’s happening to me. I think that’s because you seem to look at a person from an overall perspective and so does Daniel Kish’s method.”

Perfecting Perceptual Mobility

At this stage of instruction, we have gone beyond echolocation and have started to think about travel experiences as a whole. Annie read a lot about Daniel’s work as a Perceptual Mobility Specialist and thought the next step was to get a longer lightweight cane (not so commonly used in Australia) and embrace the holistic approach.

Annie started using a longer National Federation of the Blind cane with a metal tip and discovered that everything fell into place for her. After just a few months of this new approach and her use of echolocation, many other things changed, too.

Annie is now “in charge” of her mobility. She feels more relaxed and more confident asking appropriate questions to aid in her wayfinding. She is not self-conscious in public as she “clicks” away.

Annie’s Travel Skills and Confidence

Annie says this about her newfound travel skills: “I still want to be able to “sight-see” and have found a way to do it using different senses. While using a cane is paramount for safety, I still want to know what is around me and feel a part of the environment, like all sighted people do. I want to know if I’m getting close to a building, if there are trees along the pavement, and how complex the environment is that I’m travelling through.”

Annie has made a great shift in her posture, confidence level, and ability to travel independently. She states she is empowered and more in control of the process and expresses her drive to continue on that journey, to keep improving her skills and experiences.

This great inspiration for both Annie and me came from Daniel Kish, whom I had the great pleasure to meet when he visited Australia in 2012. Thank you, Daniel!