[AI] Responding to the Sunday Times

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Sun Jun 29 01:57:38 EDT 2008

I have pasted this article from Braille Monitor, July 2008.

                       Responding to the Sunday Times
                              by Avraham Rabby
      From the Editor: On February 10, 2008, the Sunday Times of London
carried a story about plans to teach echolocation to blind students in
Scotland and other places in the United Kingdom. The reporter clearly
bought into the notion that producing sounds to help determine one's
location was a wonderful new concept. Longtime Federationist Rami Rabby had
no intention of ignoring the opportunity to educate the reporter even if
the newspaper chose not to publish his response. The reporter did reply,
though it is fair to comment that he has not yet recognized his lack of
understanding. Here is the story followed by Rami Rabby's response:
                       Blind Taught to See like a Bat
                              by Mark Macaskill
      Blind British children are to be taught a pioneering bat-style
echolocation technique to visualize their surroundings. The children are
learning how to build up detailed images of the world around them by
clicking their tongue and interpreting the sound as it echoes back.
      The technique is used by animals such as bats, dolphins, and whales
to navigate and hunt in the dark. Bats are able to maneuver around caves
and catch tiny insects on the wing by emitting short bursts of high-pitched
noise and reading the sound waves as they bounce back to their highly
evolved ears. There is emerging evidence that blind people can harness
their sense of hearing-which is often more acute-to interpret reflected
sound and create detailed mental images of their surroundings, including
the distance, size, and density of objects.
      The technique is being piloted in Glasgow, where ten children aged
five to seventeen are being taught by staff from Visibility, one of the
city's oldest charities for the blind. The children are learning how to
make the clicking sound and how to use the technique even in noisy urban
areas, including the underground system.
      Blind people in America, where human echolocation was pioneered, have
learnt to differentiate between people, trees, buildings, and parked cars
by interpreting the pitch and timbre of the echo they produce.
Practitioners say they can determine the height, density, and shape of
objects up to one hundred feet away. People using echolocation can
determine the distance they are from an object by the length of time it
takes for the sound to travel back. Its position can be established by
whether the echo hits the left or right ear first. The size of an object
can be determined by the intensity of the echo. A smaller object reflects
less of the sound wave. The object's direction of movement can be
established by the pitch of the echo, which is lower if it is moving away
from the source.
      Echolocation has been endorsed by Professor Gordon Dutton, one of
Britain's leading pediatric ophthalmologists, who wants the technique to be
taught to blind and visually impaired people across the country. There are
about 385,000 registered blind and partially sighted people in Britain.
"It's very exciting," said Dutton, of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children
in Glasgow. "I have seen echolocation being used-it's quite stunning. It
has been demonstrated to me that it absolutely works. Of course there will
be skepticism and doubt, but the benefits are without question. It will
make a massive difference to the lives of blind and visually impaired
      The project in Glasgow follows a visit last year by Dan Kish, a forty-
one-year-old blind man from California, who pioneered the technique. Kish,
who runs the not-for-profit organization World Access for the Blind, has
also been commissioned by the charity Common Sense to present his method to
the families of blind people in Poole, Dorset.
      His command of the technique is such that he can ride a bicycle on
public roads and distinguish between different types of fruit on trees
merely by clicking his tongue. A video on the Website YouTube shows Kish
and a number of his friends demonstrating their skills. Ben Underwood, a
teenager who lost his sight when he was three, has also become a celebrity
in America because of his ability to use echolocation to ride a bike and to
go skateboarding.
      Although there have been no scientific studies of echolocation,
supporters say it can hugely improve the lives of blind and partially
sighted children. While using a cane allows blind people to identify
obstacles in their path, echolocation is said to provide 360-degree
"vision" and can give them far greater freedom.
      "It's a type of seeing in its own right, which probably uses similar
brain imaging mechanisms to eyesight," Kish said. "Students almost
invariably become more confident, move faster, and participate in more
activities," he continued. "They show improved posture and regard
themselves as more able to direct themselves through their environment with
less need for others. They are freer, and better able to choose the quality
of life they wish to achieve, rather than have this chosen for them."
      Fiona Sandford, chief executive of Visibility, added: "This is a
pioneering technique that will transform the lives of young blind children.
We have trained four visually impaired adults, and they are now using their
skills to train children. We hope to roll this out to adults. I have seen
it being used, and it works."
      Belgium's federal police use a unit of blind officers specifically
for their acute sense of hearing in analyzing phone taps and bugged
conversations in investigations of terrorism, drug trafficking, and
organized crime. The detectives can separate the voices of different
speakers and pick up sonic clues such as whether a suspect is in a railway
station or a restaurant or whether the caller is using a landline or mobile
phone. Some officers have even identified the make of car suspects are
      A detective in Antwerp, Sacha van Loo, thirty-six, who is trained in
echolocation, correctly identified a drug smuggler as Albanian from his
accent when sighted colleagues thought the man was Moroccan. Hollywood has
also depicted the heightened senses of the blind. In the 2003 film
Daredevil, Ben Affleck plays a New York lawyer, blinded in childhood, who
transforms himself into a masked crime-busting superhero by night, using
his acute hearing as a radar sense to see through the dark.
      In his article, "Blind Taught to See like a Bat" (Sunday Times,
February 10), Mark Macaskill unfortunately created some serious
misimpressions as to how blind people typically orient themselves in their
surroundings. In the process he also promoted a false notion of what the
central problem facing the blind is in today's society. Echolocation is not
a "pioneering" technique; it is the method blind people have always
employed to negotiate the environment around them. Some blind people do use
tongue-clicking to generate the echo that helps them locate and identify
objects in their immediate vicinity. Other blind people clap their hands or
click their thumbs. However, most commonly and most effectively, blind
people use the simple tapping of their canes to achieve the same result, as
well as other ambient sounds, such as the noise of a passing car or the
hawking of a street vendor. Blind people's hearing is not innately more
acute than that of the sighted. We tend to listen for sounds and pay
attention to them more than most sighted persons do, but that is a skill we
develop with practice, each one of us to a greater or lesser degree.
Finally, it is high time professional caregivers and the general public
ceased trying to make us "see," in the belief that the crux of our problem
is our blindness. We will only achieve true freedom when they accept us as
we are, recognize that we individually have as wide a range of capabilities
and shortcomings as any sighted person, and grant us equal employment
opportunities and full participation in society.
Avraham Rabby, Tel-Aviv Israel 

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