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