For Brian Bushway, that world is a reality. In seventh grade — after realizing that he couldn’t read the board at the front of the classroom — Bushway covered his right eye with his hand and discovered that he didn’t have any light perception out of his left eye. From there, his vision deteriorated quickly. By the beginning of eighth grade, he was completely blind.
“I woke up one morning and just couldn’t see anything anymore,” he explains. “I experienced the whole field of vision loss — I was low vision before I became totally blind.” Bushway, once able to see, had to learn a new method for making his way in the world.
He’s come a long way since eighth grade. With the help of his mentor and friend Daniel Kish, Bushway learned the skill of echolocation, and now teaches it to others as a lead instructor at the nonprofit World Access for the Blind. We had a chance to chat with Bushway about echolocation, and the social obstacle of being visually impaired.
How did you discover echolocation?
I had experienced the phenomenon passively, but I didn’t understand it, and no one could explain it to me. And then I ended up meeting Daniel Kish, at age 14, and he became my mentor. He taught me how to really refine the skill for orientation purposes — for getting around.
What is echolocation, exactly?
There’s really two types of echolocation. There’s what we call “passive echolocation” and “active echolocation.” Active echolocation is the use of a tongue click, and passive echolocation uses any of the ambient sounds already out in the environment — they’re still bouncing and reflecting off of things. Pretty much all blind people are using passive echolocation at some level. We just don’t know it, or aren’t consciously using it in a sophisticated way.
But the active echolocation signal with the tongue click really is superior and has a lot of advantages to it.
How long did it take you to refine that technique?
I only had about 18 hours of training over the six-month period of time. But I was highly motivated in between those training sessions. It wasn’t like 18 training sessions all at once — Daniel would come down for a Sunday afternoon for like, three hours, and we’d work on exercises and activities. And then he’d give me exercises to practice. Then as soon as he would leave, I would be practicing for that month until he came back again. I’d jump on my skateboard with my cane, I’d be going up and down curbs and clicking and paying attention to where things were.
But I’m still getting better, and learning things today. It’s not like I’m done learning.
How did your parents adjust to giving you that greater sense of freedom?
My parents did a great job at establishing normalcy, but the best thing they did was they said ‘yes’ before they ever said ‘no’. Like, if there was something I wanted to go do, they were, “Yes, but how are you going to do this?” Right? The first time I said, “I want to jump on a bike for the first time.” “Okay, yes, but how is this going to work?” So I explain the process. “Well, I can click, use my echolocation and I can hear where things are and then you just got to go out and try.”
Did Daniel invent the technique of echolocation himself?
He developed the first teaching curriculum. But there’s a lot of history here. Blind people have been using echolocation forever, but they’ve always been thought of as the exception to the rule. Echolocation is a natural human perception, but nobody knows about it, so it’s been misunderstood.
Daniel was the first person to say, “This is a skill that every person can learn. Everybody should have the great fortune to learn how to see with sound.” He was using echolocation as a toddler. He was clicking, basically, from birth. And he had the good idea that we could teach this to other people. So in 2001, our organization, World Access for the Blind, was founded. That was the first time that this became a teachable skill… What we ultimately end up teaching is how a blind person can walk into a place they’ve never been and orient themselves.
How did losing your vision affect you emotionally?
There was really this feeling of uncertainty. I still felt like the same person, but now all of a sudden everybody treated me completely differently. It threw me into an identity crisis — where do I fit in in life? Was the new way everyone treated me a reflection on who I was? It really brought up the question of what it means to be a whole person.
The biggest challenge was that society just didn’t expect anything of me anymore. You’re blind. That’s the perfect excuse not to do anything. If I wanted to, I could just say, “I’m done. I’m blind. I can’t do anything,” and people would say, “Yeah, it makes sense. Wow. How would anybody live if they live in this world of darkness?”
I even remember my friends coming around, and nobody knew how to interact with me. I was still the same person, but now they’d either see a white cane or the label of blindness, and everybody was sort of approaching me in an awkward, weird way, like somehow I was put in a box.
I’m still a human being first, with all the same life needs and desires as everybody else. But when you’re blind, people seem to forget that and they put you over in this other box. Really, it’s this box of low expectations. My journey was learning how to get out of the box of low expectations.
How can the sighted interact with blind people without overstepping boundaries and interfering too much?
In my experience, there’s a social obstacle for a person who is visually impaired. Everybody has a low expectation about what blind people can do. Blind people — or any person with a disability, for that matter — we find ourselves stuck in this social dynamic between caregiver and care receiver. Every sighted person assumes that the blind person fits into the role of the care receiver. And if you treat a person like that their whole life, they never get much opportunity to learn how to contribute, and to offer things to other people. So, because society doesn’t really expect anything from blind people, they’re okay with a bunch of blind people sitting on the couch and not moving around.
If I get up to move around a room, it usually causes social chaos. All the sighted people are wondering, “What’s going on? How’s the blind person gonna move around? Who’s gonna help the blind guy?” People don’t know what to do. Usually it comes down to the fact that people don’t know that the sense of hearing, and the sense of touch can really be powerful tools for navigating around a room.
What would be nice is if everybody sat back and observed, and then would just simply ask questions at a certain point. The worst is when they jump in there and assume too much.
It’s a sort of weird double-edged sword. Which comes first, right? Blind people need to have adequate preparation to move around in the world freely. But at the same level, we need the correct social freedom and space to allow these skills to develop.
Right now, I’m training students in visual perception. And they can learn that — but now, their lifestyle has to change. The support system around them now has to actually expect more from the student learning. The whole family dynamic has to shift to open up the social space to allow them to practice.
Everyone has to learn how to use their vision. But it happens when you’re a toddler. Society is open, and designed to allow you to use all of your senses together. Most blind people don’t have that same social openness to allow their other senses to adapt and to become more profound. Blind people aren’t really encouraged or allowed to move freely, but that’s when the brain really starts to learn how to do it on its own.
So there’s two sides. Society needs to be more open — to observe, and ask questions and be curious, because the blind person’s brain is learning how to see in a different way. But at the same time, we have to prepare these blind or low-vision individuals to be able to take full advantage of the tools they’re given — good cane technique, perceptive skills, hearing, echolocation. Never in my life could I have imagined that human beings could learn to see with sound, like bats and dolphins.
If human beings can see with sound, what else is possible?