New Way of “Seeing”: Specialists hope to bring echolocation to Armenia

Kish is a vivid example of how echolocation can assist the blind.
New technology can't give sight but can help to make best use of the other senses.
Daniel Kish, who is totally blind, walks freely along Yerevan’s bumpy and unfamiliar streets, feeling the sidewalks full of holes with his walking stick and occasionally clattering with his mouth to get the sense of what is surrounding him, to measure the distance of trees and columns from him, to understand whether he is surrounded by buildings or an open space.

He has developed a new method of sound signals due to which, as he himself says, he can see with his ears, understand through sound and its echo what is there in the place, just like bats do.

“Echolocation is a technique that gives an opportunity to imagine mentally the surrounding space with the aid of sound and to map it, thus replacing eyesight with hearing,” Kish says.

Kish, 41, of the United States, who was nicknamed Batman, came to Yerevan to show opportunities for the local blind to move freely and live independently.

“World Access for the Blind” (www.worldaccessfortheblind.org) NGO Executive Director Daniel Kish had come to Armenia through the Armenian Eye Care Project, which will later organize trainings in Kish’s echolocation in Armenia.

The method is based on the idea that a blind person has more sensitive hearing and touch, but Kish emphasizes that these organs of sense cannot develop independently if the blind person always moves with somebody else’s assistance. Not only a clearly developed method, but also an independent mode of life contribute to the development of these senses.

“If a blind person always gets assistance from someone, if someone leads him by his hand this way or that way, his organs of senses will never develop, they will remain the same as with an ordinary person, but when a blind person has to rely only on himself for a long period of time every bit of the sound will have its meaning and he will be able to find his bearings in space unassisted,” Kish says.

He says that his parents have raised him as an ordinary child since he lost the ability to see the world around him at the age of one. They did not prohibit him from doing anything, leaving it up to him to find the safest ways of moving about.

Another member of the organization, 25-year-old American Brian Bushway is convinced that a blind person is not limited, as he can have any specialty, be engaged in anything.

“For example, I like mountain biking very much. Yes, it seemed next to impossible, but everything depends on your desire. We have a special sound device attached on the wheels of our bikes and hearing the tapping we understand where there is a hole, a tree or a wall,” he says. Bushway, who lost his eyesight at the age of 14, says he feels totally free and normal due to the method of echolocation.

Brian’s stories of biking tours make 18-year-old Sipan Asatryan laugh skeptically. The young man finds it difficult even to cross the street alone and moves only with his mother’s guidance.

“It seems a bit impossible, but everything indeed depends on our desire. Daniel Kish and Brian inspired hope in us and opened up many horizons of opportunities before us. Now I have a great hope that one day I’ll go out alone and will go about my business,” Sipan, a student at Yerevan State University, says.

According to the State Statistical Service, there are about 36,000 blind people in Armenia. A considerable number of them are not employed. A blind person walking in the street alone is a rare sight in Armenia.

“This method will create broad opportunities for the blind to live their own lives, not to rely on other people, to be independent. I look at Kish and Brian and their examples inspire me, that they are able to overcome all problems and live the way they want. But for the stick, perhaps you won’t even understand that they are blind. Those in Armenia should also be given an opportunity to learn this method,” Armenian Eye Care Project founder, American-Armenian eye surgeon Roger Ohanesian says.

Ohanesian founded the Armenian Eye Care Project in 1992 in the United States, and its mobile eye hospital was brought to Armenia in 2003. Some 15,000 people in different areas of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have been examined and 6,500 have been operated on or received laser therapy in the 26-meter trailer hospital with two surgery and examination rooms and opportunities for laser treatment.

Ohanesian says a fundraising will be held for the purpose of organizing the training in the method of echolocation. He hopes that Armenians will be able to apply it in a few months’ time.

Lena Khostikyan, a teacher at special school N14 for children with visual impairments, says it will take more than making streets and sidewalks more blind-friendly. Also, the attitude of society not used to seeing many blind people in the streets must change.

“It is not easy for the blind and generally for any person with a physical problem in Armenia, nothing is adjusted for them. Even our school, which is considered the best among such schools in the whole republic, does not have many Braille books, and those we have are worn-out remnants from the Soviet times. No new Braille books are printed,” Khostikyan says.

Kish acknowledges that it is difficult in Yerevan, but not impossible, even if nothing changes it will be possible to learn to move alone using the method of echolocation.

“It will be difficult to cross the street, Armenians are very polite, but it’s the opposite when they are driving. We are going to have meetings at the Ministry of Transport, to organize several meetings with nongovernmental organizations through which it will be possible to change something,” Kish says.

This method aimed at revealing and developing human resources is highly appreciated by 25-year-old Armine Ghazaryan.

“It’s a very important program and if it is realized it will completely change our lives. It is true, we learn to move by ourselves, but no doubt we fall down to the ground, hit our heads, but that is the method that will help get independence as easily as possible,” Armine says.