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Blind leads the blind, with no room for mistake

Kavita Kishore
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Daniel Kish, inventor of the famed ‘echo location’ techniquefor the visually challenged, in Puducherry

Daniel Kish on Pondicherry University campus.Photo: T. Singaravelou
Daniel Kish on Pondicherry University campus.Photo: T. Singaravelou

“I will try not to make a fool of myself, even though this is a new bicycle and I am not sure how it works,” Daniel Kish explains as he prepares to mount a pink ladies’ cycle.

He then starts clicking very softly as he begins to pedal, wobbly at first and then with incremental confidence.

Soon, he manages to complete one round around the portico of the administrative block of the Pondicherry University. After the first round, the second round is much more effortless and when he dismounts, there is a resounding applause from the witnesses, many of whom are visually-challenged.

Mr. Kish, a visually-challenged person himself, riding the cycle marked the end of his day-long interaction with a visually-challenged audience, to teach various skills to cope with everyday life. One of those skills, which he is now famous for, is ‘echolocation’. Mr. Kish, who had his eyes removed when he was 13 months old due to retinal cancer, learnt to make palatal clicks with his tongue, and the echoes from these clicks inform him about an object’s distance, size, texture and density. This helps him navigate his surroundings easily, without the use of a cane. He now trains other blind people in the use of echolocation.

“Blind people will always have to use a cane or an assistant or something, but by teaching these life skills it is possible for blind people to stop being passive and be more active members of society,” Mr. Kish explains.

The idea of the training is to give these visually-challenged people a crash course in developing a new perspective, to get a new sense of freedom, self-direction and autonomy.

At the end of this course, there will be some people who will benefit, who will use these skills, including echolocation, to be more mobile. It will also give them a chance to retrain their thinking to get more self-direction.

At the end of the training, Mr. Kish asked the students to walk around the portico of the administrative block. He then asked them to identify the various objects they sensed in the area. He even instructed them on how to locate various positions, like the door of a bus or a plant.

Finally, he walked them over to a fence. According to one of the students, Muruganandam, “Initially, when I started walking around, I identified the fence, but I thought it was a bus because of its size. Later on, I realised that since it was not as solid as a bus it had to be something else. It will take a lot of practice, but I think it will be useful,” he said.

Another student managed to successfully use echolocation to identify a mat on the portico and plants lining the area.

The one-day workshop at Pondicherry University was for the visually-challenged students and staff of the university, and a group of students and one faculty member from the Tagore Arts College attended as well. It was organised by the Department of Library Sciences.

Daniel Kish is the founder of World Access for the Blind, which is a non-profit organisation. He has visited 30 countries to train visually-challenged people. From here, he heads to Singapore and then Australia.

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