Echo location–the Tongue substitutes for Eyes

The NPR program, “This American Life,” aired an interesting segment from a program called “Invisibilia.” It featured a congenitally blind man named Daniel who was fiercely independent from birth. He rode a bike and climbed trees, always employing echo location. He felt that his tongue was the instrument substituting for eyes. He clicked, and the sound echoed from his surroundings. He grew to distinguish the sounds of the echoes to identify the objects/obstacles in his path.
Daniel is now 49 and has grown over the years to criticize the agencies and workers, genuinely trying to help the blind toward independence. Because the workers are almost unanimously sighted, they unconsciously instill a fear of big risk that seeps into their client’s psyche and, in the end, prevents the blind person from full achievement. I think that’s his view, anyway. I have to say that the rehab agency I attended actually enlarged my view of possibility.
As someone sighted until the age of 26, I’ve felt that realistically blindness posed limitations. I couldn’t drive cabs or buses, for instance. Today I’m the first to say that the disability stretched and taught and transformed me. So the balance is far more toward achievement than I’d ever have had without the disability.
At first, echo location was my marvelous friend, though I never could perfect it the way the congenitally blind had. I could detect overhead awnings and movie marquees; I could hear an open cabinet door and could stop before I smashed into it. But those born blind hear doorways that are recessed a mere inch from the wall. They hear curbs and skinny parking meters. I never mastered their level of skill. Then I developed hearing loss, so echo location is no longer a skill I possess.
But even when my hearing was 20/20, I resisted clicking and snapping my fingers and making noise to navigate the world. I thought it would seem strange and alienate me from the sighted public. My training and my wish were to integrate, to assimilate into the sighted world, to be accepted. As one blind man explained on the NPr show yesterday, (not a verbatim account, but my memory of what he said) “my disability separated me enough and seemed strange enough. I didn’t want to add attention-getting clicks to my behavior and risk total rejection.”
But what if the sighted world would benefit from our echo locating techniques? What if we blind people were willing to demonstrate this skill, clicking like crazy, leading sighted people wearing blindfolds close to dangerous traffic, showing how remarkably sound can substitute for lost sight?
Researchers actually have proven that Daniel has images in the visual parts of his brain. They aren’t empty.
The program made clear that Daniel enjoyed a rich world of sound and smell and feel and that he was remarkably independent. There are disabled people who have climbed Everest, demonstrating an attraction to risk that I do not possess.
Still his story sets me to pondering. Should I have been as enamored of blending in? To be honest, I feel pretty content at the moment, looking back over my life. But Daniel has certainly enriched his life with his “I’ll do it my way” mentality.
But what has Daniel done for others? I’d say quite a lot, showing incredible accomplishments on four senses. And just as various immigrants bring their food and music and art to their new country, people with disabilities could share their strange and yet wondrous skills for navigating the world to the country of the sighted.

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About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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