The Blind Man Who Goes Mountain Biking

By Gregory Myers on Wednesday, January 15, 2014
“What dreams would he have, not seeing? Life a dream for him. Where is the justice being born that way?” —James Joyce, Ulysses

In A Nutshell

Going blind or being blind from birth is a difficult situation to be in. We live in a world where sight is considered one of our most important senses and most things are built with that in mind. However, some blind people have figured out how to use echolocation in a manner similar to bats to navigate. Recently, a technological tool to aid in the use of this ability was successfully tested.

The Whole Bushel

As you know, bats use echolocation to aid in their hunting. This ability projects sounds off surfaces and the echoes are then used to figure out the size, shape, density, and relative distance of nearby objects. Some blind people have taken to learning this ability as a means to make up for their lack of eyesight. Interestingly, some blind people have learned the skill independent of each other without knowing that anyone else had yet discovered it, which shows the incredible adaptability of the human mind and body.

One blind man named Daniel Kish has spent his time perfecting the technique and has just about got it down to a science. He started a foundation called World Access for the Blind whose mission is to help blind people get around more effectively. With his flash sonar techniques he and students have been able to do things like mountain biking that would normally be considered completely impossible for a blind person. To use the technique without any special tools, the blind person will make small clicks with their mouth and then gauge the echo to make a sort of mental map of their surroundings. It may sound difficult to learn, but for a blind person it is absolutely worth it to take the time. Some people suggest using that blind people should use their canes to make louder echoes, so it will be easier to interpret the sounds at a lower skill level.

To make it easier for blind people to use these techniques without necessarily learning them first, some enterprising people have come up with something called an ultracane. This device is essentially a blind persons cane with electronic echolocation technology inside it to help a blind person navigate. Some may not be the biggest fans of the device as it may encourage over-reliance on the device instead of on learning important skills. However, there is no doubt that it is effective. A college student affected by Lieber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, a rare genetic disorder that affects the optic nerve, tried a modified version on a mountain bike. While skeptical at first, he was quickly won over to the idea after testing it, finding it to work far better than he had expected. While it may be a long time before we are capable of restoring eyesight in most people, especially those with nerve damage, new technology and understanding will continue to make things easier for those with disabilities.

Show Me The Proof

World Access for the Blind
NBC News: Bat-inspired tech lets blind man ride mountain bike
California Blind Man Uses Echolocation to Navigate Around on His Bike