Blind Aussie woman ‘sees’ through walls using echolocation

By @vitthernandez on
Blind
A blind man types out a ballot paper using a Braille typewriter in Guatemala City, August 28, 2015. On September 6, the Guatemalan people vote in the first round of presidential elections, and according to the authorities of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, 30,000 Braille ballots have already been printed for this electoral process. Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez

A 42-year-old congenitally blind Australian woman is able to “see” through walls using echolocation, a technique she picked up from American expert Daniel Kish.

Julee-Anne Bell now teaches what she learnt to about 150 blind Australians through her organisation, the World Access For The Blind Australia.

Echolocation uses palatal or dental clicks which blind people like Julee-Anne use to listen to variations and sounds, and build a sonic image of what they are looking at. It is likened to hearing layers of sound that are behind dense walls or sparse trees, which she uses to tell the shape of an object such as a vehicle -- if it is moving, high or low, long or short and even if it is a four-wheel drive.

In 2010, Julee-Anne heard about Kish in a documentary, according to a report by News Corp. Kish had invented FlashSonar, a form of echolocation. She invited him to come to Australia in 2012 and spent $6,000 to have him teach and train her and 25 blind children FlashSonar for eight days.

She says that even people with vision use echolocation. “When you walk into a room, you can tell of it’s large or small by the sound, but this is an active form. As you activate your perceptional skills, you start to hear light and shade and build a picture of your environment, your brain becomes more attune,” Julie-Anne explains.

Julee-Anne and Helen Cameron, another blind woman, shared their experience on Tuesday on the show “Insight: Sensation”, which was broadcast on SBS at 8:30 pm. Helen, 29, “sees” words, letters and days of the week as colours. She also “sees” smells, tastes and sounds.

She shares that she sees red with pink, which has defined edges and yellow bits on top, when she hears a high-pitched piano note. It’s brownish with blurred, rough edges if the note is lower. Helen, who coordinates with scientists at Macquarie University, says the colour doubles as a memory aid for her.

Kish, from Long Beach, California, did not have any restriction as a blind child in the late 1960s. He was encouraged by his parents to play outside and could even ride a bike, reports Dailybreeze.

Echolocation, also used by bats, utilises sounds to mark out a landscape. It is employed by blind people who rapidly move their tongue onto the roof of their mouths to create a clicking sound. Kish recalls he was 15 or 16 months old when he started clicking, although he does not know how he developed that skill.

Kish studied it more after he, Brian Bushway – who became blind at 14 and is now an instructor of World Access – and several friends went mountain biking when he realised specific sounds helped him identify the route. Echolocation eventually became the topic of Kish’s thesis when he studied a master’s degree in development psychology at Cal State San Bernardino.

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