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Sunday, June 20, 2021

Explained: How blind people can navigate better using echolocation

The Durham research, published on Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, focuses on how easily visually impaired people can learn echolocation, and whether age influences learning.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 5, 2021 8:17:07 am
A blind person walks up the stairs (Express Photo/File)

A technique used by animals such as dolphins, whales and bats to navigate their surroundings can also be used by blind people to get around better and have greater independence and well-being, researchers at Durham University in the UK have shown.

Using the method, called ‘echolocation’, animals emit sounds that bounce off objects and come back to them, providing information about what is around them. The same technique helps blind people locate still objects by producing clicking sounds from their mouth and hands.

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While the concept itself is not novel, the Durham research – published on Wednesday in the journal PLOS One – focuses on how easily visually impaired people can learn echolocation, and whether age influences learning.

What the Durham study found

The researchers organised a 10-week training programme, in which 12 blind and 14 sighted volunteers aged between 21 and 79 were taught click-based echolocation, as per BBC Science Focus. The volunteers were trained in distinguishing between the size of objects, orientation perception and virtual navigation.

At the end of the training, the participants had been able to improve their ability to navigate using clicking noises either from one’s mouth, walking cane taps or footsteps. Some individuals were able to pick up skills that were comparable with expert echolocators who had been using mouth clicks on a daily basis for 10 years, the report said. The researchers also found that neither age nor blindness hindered the participants from picking up echolocation.

Additionally, 83 per cent of people surveyed after the training said that their independence and well-being had improved significantly thanks to skills they had acquired, and all blind participants said their mobility had improved.

The encouraging results mean that click-based echolocation training could be promoted among those who are in the early stages of vision loss, thus equipping them while still having a good functional vision.

According to the study, such training is currently not provided as part of mobility training and rehabilitation for blind people, partly due to the possibility that some people are reluctant to use click-based echolocation due to a perceived stigma around making the required clicks in social environments.

The results of the study show that blind people who use echolocation and people new to echolocation are confident to use it in social situations. The potential barriers relating to perceived stigma are perhaps much smaller than previously thought, the Durham University report said.

Lead study author Dr Lore Thaler, in the Department of Psychology at Durham University, said in a statement, “I cannot think of any other work with blind participants that has had such enthusiastic feedback.”

“People who took part in our study reported that the training in click-based echolocation had a positive effect on their mobility, independence and wellbeing, attesting that the improvements we observed in the lab transcended into positive life benefits outside the lab.”

“We are very excited about this and feel that it would make sense to provide information and training in click-based echolocation to people who may still have good functional vision, but who are expected to lose vision later in life because of progressive degenerative eye conditions.”

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