Seeing Sounds: In the land of the blind, this one-eyed lady is queen

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WORDS || Regina Featherstone

“It’s a little car.”

I watch Cathy as she continues to click with her tongue. She hovers her hand a few centimetres above my beloved Barina. I know she’s good, but there’s no way she’s about to tell me any more details.

“A little hatchback, is it?”

Amazed, I reply, “Yep, a two-door Holden.”

“Shit, really?”

When she smiles Cathy’s cheeks push her big, dark glasses up from her nose. I’d be pretty proud too if I were blind and could tell with total accuracy the size, shape, density and proximity of objects around me. It’s a technique called ‘echolocation’ or ‘flash sonar’. It allows the vision impaired to navigate the world around them by making sounds that echo off their surroundings. Just as the visual cortex in the brain can be stimulated by sight, it can also be stimulated by sound when the brain realises one sense isn’t providing the necessary information.

As we keep walking down the street of suburban Homebush, Cathy clicks. Her cane scans the ground in front, the only obvious sign that Cathy is blind. “I still need the cane to know obstacles on the ground, but everything from the waist up is done by clicking.” Cathy moves with complete confidence pointing out bins and letterboxes as we pass by.

Cathy was born with congenital cataracts. Her months-old, and granted her limited vision for a stint of her life. Growing up in 1960s suburban Sydney, the middle child of five, Cathy felt different.

Schooling became increasingly difficult. While there were schools for the blind, Cathy didn’t meet the criteria because she had some vision. Her father insisted she learn at regular schools. Her education fell behind because she couldn’t keep up with her reading, having to use a magnifying glass for all classwork. At age fourteen, Cathy’s reading level was that of a person in the second grade. She “failed Year Eleven beautifully” at Kincoppel-Rose Bay.

Cathy graduated a mature aged HSC course at age twenty. Her father read out the marks in hospital after an operation on glaucoma in here eye. “I cried. I didn’t care what the marks were but that I did it.” With the operation successful, Cathy then started a career as a nurse’s assistant that was often interrupted by surgeries and recovery.

 

Her cane scans the ground in front, the only obvious sign that Cathy is blind.

 

“I lost count of my operations.” Cathy had her right eye removed at twenty-seven because it was shrinking away from the socket and sitting too low. It caused seizures and migraines that would last weeks. “You can live without an eye but you can’t live with fitting” Cathy says. The rest of her vision in her remaining eye started to worsen and she had to re-familiarise herself with using the cane. It meant that her fourteen years at Royal North Shore Hospital would soon come to an end.

“I was terrified, I thought what am I going to do? I need to see what is around me. Are there units? Is that a cottage? I need to know my surroundings.” After several sessions with her mobility instructor named Marta, Cathy was becoming exceptionally frustrated with her looming blindness. When someone is blind, everything has to be planned out and pre-determined. Autonomy is limited and the simplest act of catching a bus can be too overwhelming. “At times [before echolocation] I was in tears, ill from anxiety of having to do different things.”

A few years ago, “Marta planted the seed of echolocation, the act of clicking to see. I looked it up. I didn’t sleep…I was obsessed. I thought, how the hell have I got through life not knowing about this?” All Cathy’s research kept leading her back to “this Daniel guy and his amazing abilities”.

Daniel Kish became blind at thirteen-months-old, but naturally learnt to see his surroundings by making sounds that would echo back to form images. It’s similar to how bats see with sonar. He likens it to what we see when a camera flashes in the darkness. He calls his technique ‘flash sonar’ and with his organisation, ‘World Access for the Blind’ based in the USA, he teaches other vision impaired and blind people to see. With Marta’s help, Cathy started the process of learning how to echolocate. Beginning with simple household objects to echo with she then progressed to navigating outside. “I treated it like it was a degree. A class can only get you so far, you have to do the homework.” Cathy’s long term goal was to be walking around and having a scenic view.

Cathy contacted Daniel and in 2012 he came to Australia and stayed with her for several days where they worked on her skills. She recalls being in a park and being able to put her head in between two bars without touching them. Her echolocation was so precise, the space left between her head and the bars on each side was the width of her finger. “The first time it worked I was out at the field and I just burst into tears and screamed. It was awesome.” Cathy can now see up to one-hundred-and-fifty metres around her by clapping, which causes a larger frequency for an echo.

Cathy ran through an early echolocation lesson with me. She held a bowl up to my ear and I clicked, then again with a flat plate. I could hear the difference in sounds between hollow and flat. That essentially is the start; being able to identify the way different shapes and sizes sound.

As we sit in Cathy’s meticulously tidy apartment, I look across at a happy woman dressed all in pink with a giant smile. In her free time, Cathy volunteers and is a part of surfing, theatre and walking groups for the blind. Last year, Cathy took a trip to Hawaii where she could click through and see lava tunnels.

Cathy’s zest for life has been facilitated by her independence, a product of her echolocation. Cathy sums up her drive, “I don’t want second rate. I want to experience life. This technique is free, no batteries and it’s natural.”

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