Navigating Blind: Eight Days That Changed My Life

13/10/2015 5:21 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Catching a bus to the shops to grab a coffee at your favourite coffee shop is a humble pursuit practised by people all over the country. You can even do it if you're blind. You grab your white cane or you harness up your trusty guide dog and off you go.

You can find your way to the bus stop, negotiate the steps to the bus, get off at the right place and find the café and get that much needed caffeine boost. But what if, even with all the appropriate training and all the mobility aids in the world, that simple act seems beyond you? What if the anxiety surrounding this journey is so great that it prevents you from even trying because you are so afraid of getting lost or getting hurt?

I am congenitally blind. I have no vision at all, not even light perception. I'm married with two teenaged children, I run my own business, I volunteer in my local community, I have loads of friends and I lead a full and rich life. However, until a few years ago, travelling independently caused me untold levels of anxiety. At times I would describe it as paralysing.

In December of 2010, I happened upon a documentary about a boy who had lost his eyes due to retinoblastoma, who used the click of his tongue to navigate around his neighbourhood. He would use the echoes created by the click to avoid cars in the street, to play video games and even to play basketball. I thought that this was fascinating but I didn't really see anything that related to me.

Enter Daniel Kish, blind mobility specialist and president of World Access For The Blind. Daniel came to work with Ben (the boy in the documentary) to refine his echolocation, or 'flash sonar', skills.

Flash sonar allows the user to generate a sound from which an echo is created. It is this "flash" of an echo that gives the user a world of information about the environment in which they are travelling. The echo sounds quite different depending on the object off of which it bounces. A wall sounds quite dense, whereas a hedge sounds quite sparse. It seems so complex and yet it's really very simple.

Daniel made me sit up and take notice. He presented as an articulate, educated man who could travel anywhere he wanted by himself. I had to know more. I got in touch with Daniel and so began a journey that would eventually lead to him coming to Australia to give me eight days of training. Eight days that would, quite literally, change my life.

My desire to go to a coffee shop and grab a coffee by myself was realised in the first three days of training. We went to unfamiliar places and found our way around. Remember, Daniel had come to Brisbane from LA. He didn't know the shops, train stations, and parks we visited either but we were able to navigate these places with no assistance from sighted people.

Daniel gave me permission to trust myself and to use my senses to find out what I needed to know about my environment. He didn't focus on the rote learning of a route from point A to point B. Rather, he taught me to use flash sonar to locate the landmarks I needed to find my way to my destination.

If you learn a particular route and you deviate from that route you are often unable to find your way back because you've focussed so much on the route that you don't have an understanding of the greater environment. Flash sonar encourages you to interrogate the environment to find the answers you need to reach your target.

I now use flash sonar every day. I do it the same way I breathe, all the time and without too much conscious thought. While I still experience a small amount of anxiety at times, I can travel anywhere I need to or want to without assistance. I still take a guide at times and I still get assistance if I feel like it. However, it's my choice now. I'm truly free to navigate the world in my own way.

I'm now working with Daniel's team and hoping to bring them to Australia to give others the gift of flash sonar. We have already seen lives changed and even saved by this revolutionary technique. I want to be able to give blind people the freedom to live as they choose, to navigate the world and their lives in whatever manner suits them.

Why shouldn't every blind person be able to go out and get that cup of coffee or anything else they desire? It doesn't seem like too much to ask.


Julee-Anne Bell appears on tonight's episode of Insight at 8.30 pm on SBS.

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