Non-profit training blind to use flash sonar

August 2, 2012 10:23:34 PM PDT
A Southern California non-profit is training blind people to use sound as a method of seeing. The technique takes practice, but instructors say it can give blind people a powerful tool to help understand their world.

For most people, taking a sunny stroll is relaxing. For Kyra Sweeney it can be intimidating.

The 18-year-old has been blind since birth and relies on a cane to navigate. But for several months, she's been learning a new system to see.

"It's basically seeing with your ears," Sweeney said.

Her instructor, Juan Ruiz, is also blind.

The technique is called flash sonar. It's a form of echolocation, the same way bats see in the dark, dolphins see in the water and submarines spot other subs.

Ruiz makes a clicking noise with his mouth and then listens for the sound bouncing off objects around him.

"You're able to determine where the distances are at; how wide, tall or solid the object is," Ruiz said.

Daniel Kish is the president of World Access for the Blind, which provides the training.

"You can tell thedifferent shapes and surface structure of trees, bushes, benches, planter boxes," Kish said.

Ruiz demonstrated the technique for ABC7 News. After several seconds of clicking from different angles, an image appears in his mind.

"These are plants here and over here we have something that's more creative, it's not natural," he said.

He's the first to admit it's not vision, but for Sweeney, who's going off to college, it's a life changing skill.

"I thought, 'Oh god, there's no way I could do this independently,' but ever since I started using echolocation it's going to be no problem," she said.

World Access for the Blind is located in Encino.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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