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Opening Our Eyes to Different Kinds of Sight

A recent best-selling book has forged an unlikely link between a man born in England more than 200 years ago and the groundbreaking work being done today by California-based World Access for the Blind.

"A Sense of the World," by Jason Roberts, tells the story of James Holman, who was born in 1786, went permanently blind at age 25 and lived another 45 years in complete darkness. Yet despite his handicap and the stigma blindness carried in those days, Holman became one of the greatest travelers the world has ever seen and certainly the greatest of his age.

He accomplished this partly through developing a sense of his surroundings with the help of echolocation, a skill that enabled him to ride horses and journey alone from England as far afield as Australia, Africa, China, Siberia and South America.

He even invented a writing machine on which he recorded his amazing adventures for publication in several successful books. "I see things better with my feet," he said while climbing to the rim of Italy's Mount Vesuvius during a major eruption in 1821.

Toward the end of his book, Roberts pays tribute to the work of Daniel Kish, executive director of World Access for the Blind, based in Huntington Beach, Calif. Roberts refers to Kish as Holman's "spiritual successor."

Kish has pioneered the use of echolocation, "seeing with sound," as a means of teaching blind people, especially children, perceptual development and thus helping them toward more fully independent lives.

Just how independent can be judged from Team Bat, a group of blind mountain bikers, led by Kish and others, who use clickers attached to their wheels to help navigate by echolocation.

However, the analogy with bats can only be taken so far. Bats are superbly designed for echolocation, which allows them to catch tiny insects on the wing; with humans, the skill works best for locating and identifying larger objects.

"A human, no matter how good, would not, for example, use echolocation to reach for a salt shaker or drinking glass at the table or examine food on a plate," Kish told

Blind since infancy, Kish developed his own form of echolocation as a child. Making clicking noises with his tongue and interpreting the sounds that bounced back helped him navigate his surroundings and keep up with his sighted siblings.
Today he's an internationally recognized expert who travels the world lecturing on echolocation and its place in the wider context of perceptual development and helping blind people find other ways of seeing.

Reached during a visit to India, Kish said it's possible to teach the basics of echolocation in a couple of days. However, it's a skill that has to be continually refined over time. "Motivation is the main factor, plus regular practice and a supportive environment."