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Boys learn sensory technique to gain ability to navigate

POSTED: January 3, 2014 11:31 p.m.

3 area boys with vision impairment learn to trust their sense of hearing


Reece Wright, 5, holds a ball in a plastic bag listening to the sound it makes as he moves it around during an echolocation class for the blind Friday at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Gainesville. Wright joined Myles Irwin, 6, and Christopher Morgan, 6, right, in the class that teaches youths how to use their ears to help them detect objects in their environment by sensing echoes from those objects.

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It’s easy to see why Aubrey Whitaker says her son is “wild-hearted.”

Myles Irwin, 6, is a student at Mount Vernon Elementary School and has been visually impaired since he was born. But it would be difficult to notice his impairment just from watching him play.

He and two friends he met at the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta — Reece Wright, 5, of Bethlehem, and Christopher Morgan, 6, of Atlanta — laughed loudly as they ran down the hall Friday morning at St. Paul United Methodist Church in downtown Gainesville. The boys, all visually impaired, jumped up and down excitedly.

“We’re going to learn echolocation,” Myles said with a smile.

“It’s where you make things echo,” Christopher explained, shouting the word echo and listening for its return.

The boys were learning the technique from Brian Bushway an orientation and mobility coach with the nonprofit organization World Access for the Blind.

The nonprofit has developed a teaching curriculum with a series of exercises and activities to help refine the sense of hearing.

Bushway has been visually impaired since he was 14, but through the use of echolocation, he’s able to ride a mountain bike and a skateboard. He currently lives in Los Angeles, and travels around the world training other visually impaired people in the technique.

“Echolocation is a natural human perception. It’s essentially human sonar,” Bushway said. “And the human ear with an active tongue click can hear sounds reflecting off of objects. We can interpret what objects are and where they are. It really helps bring freedom of travel to a visually-impaired person.”

Bushway said with practice and determination, a person can learn how to navigate his or her surroundings and tell how far away an object is, its dimensions and its density.

The practice allows visually-impaired people to tell the difference between a solid wall and a less-dense shrub, for example.

“If a person can perceive and hear what’s out in front of them, other than what their cane can reach, they have more freedom of choice about how to decide what direction they want to move,” Bushway said.

Bushway said it typically takes about two days of workshops for the brain to “go ah-ha” and realize how echolocation works.

To help the boys start understanding the process, they learned how to track sounds by wrapping a ball in a plastic bag. The sound of the crinkled plastic allowed the boys to track where the ball was rolling and catch it.

As Whitaker watched with obvious pride as her son laughed and rolled the ball along the floor.

Whitaker said she hopes learning this technique will help nurture her son’s natural curiosity by giving him the confidence to go out into the world.

She said visually-impaired children often feel afraid to step out into the unknown because there’s a risk of being hurt or embarrassed by not seeing their surroundings. She hopes her son will be a positive influence on other children.

“I think if we start teaching him the confidence at a young age to not be afraid of everything, then as an adult he’ll be able to go far,” Whitaker said.


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