Little Love can see by sound

Aditya Shah

Like any other five-year-old, Aditya Shah loves running and hopping around the house and playing with his toys.

A happy and bubbly child, Aditya makes spiral taps on the ground with a cane, occasionally skyward as he moves around. A visitor may not notice that this little boy, who is in pre-school in Nairobi, is blind.

The lack of sight has never put a damper on Aditya’s nature and especially his curiosity. He likes to know every visitor at their home. He is very friendly.

“What’s your name?” he asked as he shook our hands when we visited them recently. He then crawled under the table to fetch his toys. Minutes later he left for the main house and returned with a packet of milk and a straw.

“I can do this on my own. See?” he told his grandmother as he proceeded to poke a hole in the packet of milk using the straw and drank calmly.

Fondly referred to as Love by his family, Aditya was born blind. But, thanks to a scientific method known as echolocation, he can navigate his environment with ease.

But he is still being trained Juan Ruiz, from a US-based organisation called World Access for the Blind, who has helped many people to move around freely.

Mr Ruiz, 30, arrived in Kenya last week to train children like Love, and adults alike, using this technology that makes use of tongue movements.

Mr Ruiz clicks his tongue to visualise objects by listening to the way the sound echoes off the surroundings.

“Through this, Love will become a more independent child and later an adult who can live alone, have a job and even a family just like his sighted peers,” Mr Ruiz explained during one of the training sessions last week.

Echolocation is the ability to navigate an environment using auditory rather than visual cues. This technique is the same that is used by bats and dolphins to detect objects in their environments by emitting a sound, receiving the echo and correctly identifying the location, size and structure of the object.

Using this skill, bats and dolphins find out the distances of prey or obstacles in their environment. Dolphins use echolocation to navigate and even hunt as the visibility in the depths of the ocean is inadequate.

In the case of a human being, the sounds are made using the tongue, and the sounds that bounce enable the individual to sense the surroundings.

“We normally use a palatial tongue click, though a powerful click is required in a larger environment,” Mr Ruiz explained.

“We see using sound,” he added. This technique, also known as flash sonar, enables children to be more mobile even in unfamiliar environments and also enhances their social skills because they are able to play with their peers.

The tongue clicks and the walking cane complement each other as they give the nature of the environment and distance of the obstacles respectively.

Aditya is the only blind pupil at Braeburn School, Garden Estate, and his parents, Mr and Mrs Biren Shah, say the decision to enrol him son in an integrated system is one of the ways to towards helping him conquer his disability.

“This September he will go to Year One and we hope he will make use of the skill to get around,” Mr Shah said.

He was rewarded by Ms Juliana Kivasu, executive director Kenya Society for the Blind as the youngest participant in an awareness walk held last weekend.

“The walk, which  began at the Supreme Courts and ended at the South C estate, was aimed at engaging the public on how they should treat blind persons walking on the streets,” Mr Shah, Love’s father, said. The sighted participants were blind-folded and guided.

Love also has a twin, Aryaman, who is also blind but is not being trained on echolocation because he is undergoing physiotherapy due to cerebral palsy.

Conquer new territories

Mr Ruiz recommends the use of a long, light cane to navigate uneven terrain, as human echolocation is unable to detect drop offs.

He said training a blind person to gather information about their surrounding takes at least a week though family members, friends and workmates in the case of adults are required to provide the necessary support.

He said the training should be done in an unfamiliar environment so that the trainee can gain confidence to conquer new territories.

Using echolocation, Mr Ruiz, who was born blind has hikes mountains and rides his bicycles to the amazement of many.

“As I ride the bike I make the clicking sound to tell whether there are any obstacles like persons or vehicles, even trees and buildings, along my path,” he told Lifestyle.

Some of his exploits include snow hiking and even climbing the Table Mountains in South Africa. He says his life is much the same, if not more interesting than that of a sighted person.

While he trained the playful Love Mr Ruiz placed obstacles such as plates and other solid objects within an arm’s reach and made him click his tongue. The he asked the boy to identify the direction of the obstacle.

The training varies according to the abilities of the learner. Mr Ruiz pointed out that the trainee can recognise the nature of the echoes that return to their ears depending on the nature and distance of the obstacles when they click their tongue.

Mr Ruiz has travelled to 15 countries in three years to train blind people on echolocation. Aside from Kenya, the only other African country he has toured is South Africa.

Are people surprised that he is able to freely navigate even new territories just by clicking his tongue and with the aid of his walking cane?

“In many instances people even offer to hold my hand and lead me but I decline and I assure them that I will be fine and find my way around,” he said.

Blind bicycling

But occasionally he bumps into obstacles but he puts an interesting view to it. Mr Ruiz holds the Guinness World Record for blind bicycling through 10 random obstacles, a task which he accomplished in 48 seconds in April last year in Milan, Italy.

“This technique enhances confidence in blind persons and encourages them to lead normal limitless lives,” he said. In May last year researchers at the University of Western in Ontario, Canada, attributed the independence amongst the blind to echolocation.

“It is clear echolocation enables blind people to do things otherwise thought to be impossible without vision and can provide blind and visually-impaired people with a high degree of independence,” said senior author Mel Goodale in a paper published in the scientific journal, PLoS ONE.

Mr Goodale and his team first made recordings of the clicks and their very faint echoes using tiny microphones in the ears of the blind echolocators as they stood outside and tried to identify different objects such as a car, a flagpole and a tree.

The researchers then played the recorded sounds back to the echolocators while their brain activity was being measured in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanner.

Remarkably, when the echolocation recordings were played back to the blind experts, not only did they perceive the objects based on the echoes, but they also showed activity in those areas of their brain that normally process visual information in sighted people.

Asked about the challenges of echolocation said: “My only limitation is that I cannot drive.”

With ease, the father of two boys aged two and five years also uses an iPhone and a laptop, thanks to a screen reading software installed in both devices.

Though echolocation training has not been available in Kenya, the World Access for the blind plans to introduce it after establishing the need for it amongst blind persons.

Mr Ruiz was accompanied by Dewald Van-Deventer, a 27-year-old South African piano teacher who was trained by World Access for the blind two years ago and is currently teaching the technique in Johannesburg.

Mr Manoj Pattni, who lost his sight 10 years ago, is among six Kenyans who benefited from the training. Mr Ruiz said his is not a profit organisation but those who require training pay airfare, training and accommodation costs.