Hearing is Believing

Robert Feinstein

Sometimes my sleep patterns are irregular.
Not long ago I woke up at 1a.m. Harley, my guide dog, stood and shook himself in response. "Okay, Harl, I'll take you out," I said softly. I got dressed, put on his harness and leash, and we wended our way to the elevator, out the front door, and about a half block away, to Harley's favorite place to "park" (blind jargon for when a guide dog relieves himself).

Back at our apartment building I decided to stand outside, my back to the door, just to breathe the crisp winter air. Suddenly, I turned my head to the left. I had a feeling there was something there. I stamped my foot, and yes, there was something to my left, but what was it? I clicked softly, turned my head toward the left again and clicked once more. A person. Standing there. I was sure of it, but there was absolutely no sound. I listened intently, but heard nothing, not even breathing. I clicked again, again heard the slight change of sound, cleared my throat and said, "It's a nice night."

"Yes it is," said a man I figured was standing about four feet to my left. "I saw you in the elevator two weeks ago," he continued. "I had my Labrador with me. My name's Bruce. My mother spoke highly of you. Do you remember her? Mrs. Schreiber?" "Yes, I do," I said, "she was a very nice person; she's been dead for some time." "Yes," he said, "and now I think my father's died. I drove down from Connecticut, but there's no answer in his apartment. I'm waiting for the police so I won't have to go in there alone."

We continued to talk and I kept him company for fifteen minutes before going upstairs. When I called the next day I learned that he'd been right, his father had died that night. During the conversation he said, "I make clicking sounds to my dog, too. They love that."

Time after time it astonishes me that sighted people expect blind people to speak first; more often than not they won't acknowledge us, and yet when we know they're there they can be friendly. Had I not been extremely skilled at echolocation, I would not have known Bruce was there. I would have missed out on a small but significant exchange with a fellow human.

Those of us who are born blind discover, as we grow up, that we can tell a great deal about our environment. Usually at about seven or eight years old we begin to put this knowledge into practice. When we tell sighted people about this skill they usually misunderstand and often think we possess some remnant of sight. When I was a small child I was guided by my mother, my aunts, and occasionally my dad, who was less comfortable with the task. Before long I began to notice that I could tell certain things. I could tell when I was passing a car, when there was an open space near me, when I was heading straight for a wall, or when there was a big obstacle like a truck in my path—and I could tell all these things without knowing how.

Soon I discovered that I could feel differences in air pressure. I could feel things closing in on me, especially walls. If I turned my head, I could often detect when I was passing trees, and I noticed that my awareness was heightened when I stamped my feet to walk (which I was discouraged from doing). All of these things I did intuitively. In third grade I became friendly with a black boy who was born blind, like me. He got around our school with ease, almost like a sighted kid. He guided me so well that my mother was convinced he could see a little. Since we who are blind from birth don't know what seeing is, Jimmy told me he could see, but what he meant was that he could locate things, just like I could.

I began to notice that as Jimmy approached walls he would make a clicking sound, which gave him more information. I began imitating him. I discovered that I could even detect a break in the wall for a water fountain, or a wardrobe. I couldn't believe how much more I was able to perceive! We both knew the school better than the other blind kids, and since we had become friends we were often sent on errands together, roaming the school building, clicking and commenting on what we could "see."

Once, while walking at breakneck speed, hand-in-hand, Jimmy ahead of me, we ran up to a door, which we both heard, opened it, and started walking straight down the hall. "The next door isn't completely open!" I warned Jimmy. "We better slow down." "It is, too!" he said. "No it isn't!" I insisted, and stopped. Jimmy raced ahead and smashed into the edge of the door, earning a nasty cut on his head. We ran back to the Braille room, where our teacher, Mrs. Klotz, yelled at us for not being more careful. She wanted us to walk with our hands near our faces, which we didn't need to do, and didn't want to do.

Although my echolocation (also known as facial vision) was good before I met Jimmy, it was by observing him that I learned to click. With that added sound source, I learned to pinpoint things in my environment, to analyze things like the size of a room, whether it was wide or narrow, even whether it was sparsely furnished. The ability to analyze surroundings from sounds and air pressure is something most people blind from birth can do to a greater or lesser degree. The most adept derive substantial information from these clues. Without wanting to brag, I would put myself at the top of the list, along with people like Jimmy and a few other classmates.

Most did not click, but enhanced what they heard by walking with loud footsteps; those who used canes tapped them vigorously. A woman I knew named Marsha walked by picking up her feet and smashing them down, without the heel-toe movement I assume sighted people use. She made what to me was a wonderful sound. We could all tell exactly what she was passing by listening to her footsteps. My mother told me that her walk was "ungainly," that she clopped like a horse. "Her mother should have taken her for walking lessons: it's undignified the way she walks, and she's a piano teacher and in the public eye!" But we thought it was marvelous. We loved the sound she made and knew exactly why she was doing it. We knew, for example, that she would stamp harder when approaching narrow passages in order to negotiate them better.

Sadly, echolocation is not talked about, nor is it taught. It's only learned intuitively or by example. I read about it only once, in a book called Follow My Leader, which claimed that an eleven-year-old boy, blinded by a firecracker explosion, had developed the skill. From all that I can tell, however, those blinded later in life almost never learn how to do it. I know a girl, blind at fourteen, who will walk smack into a wall, even though she has been blind for twenty-eight years. Once she walked straight into the closed door of my lobby. "Didn't you hear that door?" I asked incredulously. "Don't be a retard!" she countered, "you don't hear doors!" "I do!" I said, in my most condescending voice. "Yeah, right!" she said, and I supposed you hear traffic lights!" "I hate you damn sighted blind people!" I remonstrated, and changed the subject before we got into a fight.

As we grow older and learn to use canes or dogs we grow to rely less on the information gained from echolocation. The skill is there, but it can go dormant. Mobility instructors discourage echolocation, especially clicking. While training with my first dog, I forgot myself and clicked to determine if I was near a pole. The instructor told me that my dog would be taken from me if I continued to make "those sounds," that they served no purpose, that they made blind people objects of ridicule. And furthermore, I'd confuse the dog. I stopped clicking—until I returned home!

My ability to echolocate enhances my mobility greatly, though I still need lots of help in strange environments, since clicking can't pick up everything. I'll be the first to admit that you can detect only big things (I recently walked into a neighbor's shopping basket in my apartment lobby), and certainly nothing so subtle as changes in terrain, steps, cracks in the sidewalk, or those dangerous-to-the-blind chains that often border grassy areas. But a friend tells me that she knows when someone has approached her desk and is standing by and watching without speaking.

I'll continue to click and use my guide dog as well. Why should I have to give up one for the other? The blind, like any other group, can act in a stupidly doctrinaire manner. I think as I get older I'm beginning to care less if people think I'm weird for clicking. I wish that clicking could help me find and meet a special guy, but I haven't perfected it to that degree. At least not yet.

©2001 Robert Feinstein


Bob Feinstein and Harley live in Brooklyn, NY. Search BENT's Table of Contents and Archive for other articles by Bob.


BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2001