"Echolocation and Mobility,

“Echolocation and Mobility,” a speech delivered by Mr. Daniel Kish, M.A., M.A.,COMS, NOMC, Executive Director, World Access for the Blind, to the National Federation of the Blind Rehabilitation Conference:  The Rehabilitation Revolution:  Our History, Current Challenges, and the Future July 2, 2005


I want to say that I feel incredibly privileged and very honored to be here.  I have been invited to just literally dozens of workshops and presentations throughout the Americas and Europe on echo location, on professional training, in Mexico and Cologne, in Europe, in Germany, and Canada, and other countries, and throughout the U.S.  I feel particularly honored to be here, especially given the background of the blindness field and my reception actually initially into the blindness field which has had a bit of a question mark over it.  So, thanks for having me very much.


I’m used to giving two and three day workshops, so twenty minutes is a bit of a push for me.  I look at the movement and navigation process as a perceptual process.  I don’t look at it as a skills process.  I look at it as getting into human perception and enhancing our ability not only to perceive our environment as much as possible, but also to act upon what we perceive.  The perceptual system basically is a system that includes within it how we act upon what we perceive; how we use what we perceive to interact with our environment.  That really is my background.  I’m a developmental psychologist as well as a special educator, and my study as a developmental psychologist was on the perceptual development of children, which, for me, the emphasis was blind children.  Within that, my focus was spatial audition and echo location.

Without going into all the history of that, what I can say is that many in this room understand, either first hand or, you know, closely second hand, the importance and utility of echo location.  In my graduate research I decided to study the thing to death.  I pretty much turned over every stone and uncovered virtually every piece of literature written on the subject since 1930.  My intent at that time was to figure out how this really works, how can it be refined, and how can it be incorporated in an effective manner into any movement and navigation curriculum.  In other words, how can mobility be deliberately and systematically enhanced by the application of echo location.  In general, I’d have to say this isn’t done.  In general, I’d have to say that in my review of the literature, which is quite extensive, I found no systematic programs; I found no systematic curriculum, to do this.  I had to start more or less from scratch, to develop a curriculum and test the whole thing and figure out what worked and what didn’t, and come up with instructional strategies, and try to make it work.  Basically, what ended up happening is I had 24 subjects; I lost almost half of them through attrition, and I had developed some ideas and it was all really pretty much out of my head.  I videotaped a lot of what I did.  I was asked to present at the California Orientation and Mobility Specialists Regional Conference in California in 1994.


My background is a bit sorted in that I’m mostly self taught.  I really didn’t start receiving regular professional training until I was 12.  I had by that time taught myself about 80 to 90% of what I know.  I didn’t really have ties with professional training, conventional or otherwise, and didn’t really have ties to consumer organizations either.  I did not even really come to be aware of the consumer organizations until I was in college.  So, I was really kind of a loner, you know in my development. I began doing this research, and I was asked to present at the mobility conference.  I really had no idea, what to tell them, except for what I found.  I brought the videotapes and it was a 90 minute presentation and I talked about it.  The reaction was just incredible.  It ranged from just blatant skepticism to rolling in the aisles you know with enthusiasm, to, people calling me afterward requesting information.  I was approached after my talk, and I was asked if I’d ever considered entering one of the O&M training programs.  I said no.  I hated orientation and mobility when I was a kid.  The last thing I wanted to do to anyone was actually become an instructor and instruct them, so I wasn’t interested.  Anyway, one thing led to another and I went ahead and did it anyway.  I began teaching it, and I began developing techniques.


And now, to make a very long story very short, I now do two things.  Well, I teach students directly of course.  I do private trainings.  I incorporate echo location in a curriculum which is perception based.  The echo location portion is sort of a subset of a larger perception based curriculum that I’ve developed and used.  I also do a lot in the way of professional training.  The use of echo location is fairly intuitive.  Even if you’re using it at a more basic level or whether you’re using it at an advanced level, you have some intuitive understanding of it.  Most of the professionals with whom I worked, just don’t.  They haven’t had exposure to it.  They’ve had all of one class period, or maybe half a class period of mention of it in their training, and so they don’t have a sense of it.  But many, many people want to learn.  I use these conferences as a forum to talk about this topic, and my presentations vary in length.  One time I gave a whole day talk, and I really didn’t feel like people were walking away with the ability to really put it into practice.  That was the feedback that I was getting.  They loved it.  They loved it.  They wanted more, but they weren’t sure how to put it into practice.


So, I was in Vancouver, Canada, and I was giving a two hour presentation.  There was a boy in the audience; he was 7, he was in second grade, and I had met him prior, and so I’d had a chance to talk with him, and he was a real bright young boy.  About the last fifteen, twenty minutes maybe of the seminar, people were kind of starting to nod off, and I had apparently waxed too theoretical in my presentation, and so I had him come up.  He agreed to come up, and we went through some of the core curriculum that I used.  The feedback that I got was that people were very interested.  I thought about it and basically what I decided to do and what I have done ever since, is to do two and three day workshop formats where I actually take a local blind student or two students who have been screened for workshop presence and you know likelihood for success.  It’s really quite a rigorous undertaking to train and to be trained under thirty magnifying glasses.  I bring these people up, and I actually run them through as much of the core curriculum as we can go through while professionals observe, and ask questions and so forth.  These students become student assistants to the professional development process.  So far, that has been really tremendously successful.  The feedback I’ve gotten has been really good.


Basically, what I do is try to give everyone an actual realistic echo experience; something that they can understand in their brain.  I do that by actually doing a demonstration in front of an audience that everyone can participate in.  I just work with the students, and they see it happen, and they see it unfold.  They see students able to detect things; able to use echo cues in their environment in ways that students generally have not done before; or in ways that instructors may not have seen students doing before; or in ways that maybe they have seen it, but didn’t know that it could actually be taught; didn’t know that the process of echo location could actually be deliberately and systematically enhanced.  The feedback so far has been very good.  I guess what I’d like to do, even though I think that the exercise will be quite elementary for many of you, but maybe it won’t be elementary for everyone, is I’m going to go bounding off the stage here for just a second.  This isn’t really conducive to a microphone situation.  Actually the architecture of this room isn’t conducive to what I’m going to do, but I’m going to do it anyway.  Basically, what I do with an audience is several exercises.  I want to drive the point home that the auditory system, particularly in its spatial processing ability, is far beyond what any of us have traditionally given it credit for.  There are a variety of ways I make that point.  One way that I make that point is that I turn around and put my back to the audience, assuming I can trust the audience, and I hold up a pad of whatever I have on hand; in this case it’s the agenda for the convention, and I have everyone close their eyes.  I simply hold the thing in front of me, and make a shhh noise with something.   Now I’ll do that a couple more times in the middle of the room here, and then for the back.  Okay, now actually do a test.  I do very little training with folks, and we do a little test, and I say, okay, close your eyes.  Close your eyes, and hear me say “shh.”  Then I’m going to start moving this thing at some point.  Your job is to tell me now when you hear this thing starting to move.  (makes the noise and several people say now.)  Excellent.  One more time.  (makes the noise and voices from the audience indicate when they hear movement.)  You just had an echo location experience.  I usually show my video.  My video shows World Access for the Blind students riding their bicycles and navigating poles and using echo location.  I encourage people watching the video to hear the experience as well as seeing it.  The idea is that if a room is full of people, I usually get a room full of people who come to pretty unanimous decisions about when this thing is moving okay.  For a room full of people to learn to do this task is actually quite impressive.   If you’re able to tell from twenty feet away when an object a little larger than the size of my head moves a few inches toward me by listening, all right.  Now these people have had no training in this; certainly no systematic training in this, and yet, most of them can do it.  The idea is that you apply training in a systematic way, and then you apply more towards the practice, over months or years or decades, what is the level of achievement that you reach using this kind of skill?  That seems to get the point across.  That seems to get people to understand both the importance of the skill, but also the practicality and utility of the skill and how the skill can be monitored. 



And you said something about a study.  What did you study and what did it show?



It was Masters Thesis studies that looked at whether or not a program of echo location could improve mobility.  The tasks used were a straight line walking task and a target detection task.  My results in that study approached significance; they did not actually reach significance.  However, what I learned from the study is that the qualitative measure is absolutely tremendous, because it basically laid an incredibly solid foundation for not only developing a way of teaching the strategy, but also developing some methodologies that would be more effective than my initial pilot program. 

I’ll give you my contact information now, but I’ll be around until Monday afternoon for anyone who has questions.  My cell phone number is 562-673-9066, and our web site is www.worldaccessfortheblind.org.  Again, tremendously, tremendously honored to be here.  Thank you so much for having me.