A technique called "echolocation," by which a person uses sound to position themselves in their physical environment, is significantly improving the abilities of some blind children and adults to maneuver in a more independent way. NBC News reports on a pioneering echolocation program, led by World Access for the Blind and serving approximately 1,000 people from over 30 countries, about half of whom are from the US:
At a recent class in Burlington, Vermont, [47-year-old echolocation teacher and blind man Daniel Kish] taught the basics to two teenagers. They began by learning how to position themselves in the center of a room. Then Kish had them find the corners in an open hotel lobby.
"Corners are cool because they're easy to find and you can hear them in very big places, or when very they're far away," he says.
Within two hours, Kish and his students were walking down Church Street, a busy restaurant arcade in the center of the city. For 14 year-old Alek Wolfe, it was the first time he could walk around unaccompanied by his mother. Though his mom wasn't far behind, Alek walked unescorted, and the young teenager was ecstatic with what felt like independence.
"I love it!" he said while walking with traffic less than ten feet away.
The class is part of a program by the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Dan Norris, one of the supervisors who organized the event, explains that, "a lot of teenagers in our school get mobility training instead of driver's ed."
Kish says that echolocation is unique from traditional mobility training, especially for blind teenagers, because it encourages people to move around under their own direction.
"I didn't have formal mobility training when I was younger," he says. "If I had I probably wouldn't be who I am because formal mobility training back in those days -- and it still is to some extent today – is highly structured, highly regimented."
Kish, who taught himself how to echolocate as a child, argues that mobility training overemphasizes the "mechanics of skills rather than activation of the brain. My brain was activated in the same way that the brains of sighted children are activated."
If Kish has his way, blind children would learn echolocation much earlier in their lives, and it's become his mission to teach echolocation to as many people as possible.