Blind Vermonters Get Lessons in ‘seeing' Through Sound

(NECN: Jack Thurston, South Burlington, Vt.) - For Brian Bushway, sounds are a form of vision.

"I can relate to my environment in a very comfortable, competent manner," the Los Angeles resident said.

Bushway is completely blind, and has been since he was a teenager, he told New England Cable News. He uses a technique called "active echolocation" to help him navigate the world.

"It is not the same as vision, but it's close enough that I can preview my environment," he explained.

Bushway demonstrated for NECN how he clicks his tongue to perceive differences in the way the sound reverberates back to him. When he clicks toward the empty air, it sounds and feels one way, but when he does it by a car, wall, or other object, the waves bounce off the dense material differently, helping Bushway sense the edges of whatever is in his path.

"The object right about here starts angling down, and then finishes," he said, as he used sound to help him trace the approximate outline of an SUV parked next to an empty parking space.

The Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, or VABVI, brought Bushway and a leader in this emerging field, Daniel Kish, to the Green Mountains for three days of seminars with blind adults, children, and their sighted mobility teachers. Bushway and Kish are advocates for and educators of the practice through the group World Access for the Blind.

The participants were curious to learn more about this idea of "human sonar."

"I think it's certainly something we can use," said Eric Shaw, an orientation and mobility educator for VABVI. "Anything that gets [young students’] attention that ultimately leads to their safe travel, their confidence, their parents seeing they are able to travel like anyone else is what we're looking for."

Steve Smith, the director of animal care for the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center on Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vt., said many species use echolocation for successful lives. Those include whales and dolphins, but most famously, bats, Smith said. Bats can tell the distance between themselves and prey or objects based on how long it takes the sound waves they emit to return to them.

"It's great," Smith said of the use of echolocation by some people. "This development is wonderful, that it can be adapted to use to help humans."

But even backers of the practice, including Bushway and Kish, will admit echolocation is not commonplace, not necessarily for everyone, and not fully accepted by all in the field of educating the blind. However, they insist that, for them, "seeing" through sound is one tool that helped them lead more liberated lives.

"Our bodies will adapt," Bushway said of the way his brain seems to have embraced the interpretation of sound waves as a way to sense his surroundings.

For more information on the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, visit this website.

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