Navigating Through Darkness
By Blake Lindsay
People often ask me which of my four senses is the most valuable. With no reservation, I always reply that my hearing is the most important because of the superior expanded sense of echo, which helps me avoid running into people or things. I assume that this is the type of mechanism bats use to hear. I am able to use the echoes to guide me on when to make a turn in a building and when I need to walk around something in my direct path. I cannot hear when there is a flight of stairs going down, but I can usually feel a draft.
The only downside is that an object needs to be at least waist high before my ears can pick up an echo. At times this has caused me pain—literally. Take for example, a dog’s favorite thing to mark his spot on . . . yes, a fire hydrant. Fire hydrants hurt. I can’t for the life of me figure out why dogs like them so much. I don’t particularly care for their height or lack thereof.
Being around sighted people all my life, I think that one of the questions that I am asked most often is how I am able to navigate into unfamiliar areas. I have had quite the journey of navigating, which all started with my mobility instructor, Pat Soja. Pat Soja taught me the importance of using hearing to assist in my independence. Part of the training I received involved complete concentration on my keen sense of hearing in order to line up with traffic and confidently cross busy intersections with stoplights.
The summer following my freshman year in high school, it was time to experience self-navigation. At the time my family lived in the small suburb of Westfield, just north of Indianapolis. Mr. Soja patiently and effectively guided me through town.
He first taught me how to get to my favorite hot spots, otherwise known as places to eat. The bakery was the first place we journeyed. After the bakery we strolled to other restaurants. Besides restaurants, I was also shown how to get to the post office and a few other key businesses. There were occasional mishaps, forgetting where to make a turn or going too far or not far enough. But when I had it down, being able to walk about freely throughout my hometown gave me a great sense of independence. I could tell people were impressed watching me without a guide. Prior to learning self-navigation, I would often find myself with nothing to do. At times I was restless. Suddenly, everything had changed.
The Christmas break following my working with Mr. Soja, I decided to take a walk. The only difference about this walk as to previous walks was the fact that there was eight inches of snow on the ground. Snow is a bit of a hindrance for blind people who rely on sound to help them navigate. Snow resembles carpet, which is known for muting sound waves. For me and others who are blind, snow causes the surroundings to be silenced. If an inch of snow can mute sound, can you imagine what snowdrifts do? Snowdrifts create significant barriers, as I found out one cold winter day.
As I was coming home from a solo walk, I became disoriented and missed my turn. Luckily my mother knew my expected arrival time and when I did not make it home, she went out to search for her aggressively independent son. She found me, took me home and thawed me out! I definitely learned a great lesson about navigating after a snowstorm.
Today, I do not have to worry too much about navigating in the snow. Dallas, Texas, does not get wintry weather like Indiana. I am grateful for southern weather patterns. I occasionally get disoriented, but if I learn the route I am taking with the help of a good traveler, I am able to memorize poles, shrubs and other markings, which helps me to get back on track. When it comes to navigation, a number of my blind friends have chosen to use seeing-eye dogs. I have never felt a true need to have one, but I enjoy being around them. For me, using a cane was the way to go. I just tell people that I have a stick dog that requires no food or water. I was introduced to the cane at age 11, when I took a mini-mobility course at the Indiana School for the Blind. At age 15, I understood the importance of using the cane for my independence and began to train quite intensely on mobility movements.
One of the most phenomenal things I have learned about blind people is their ability to develop and sharpen their hearing rather quickly. Through working with mobility instructors and by being around people who have recently lost their sight, I have witnessed first hand the development of this “radar hearing” in only a few days. I believe all people, including sighted people, can further develop any one of their senses and use the development to their advantage.
People are always in amazement when they observe me turning at all the right places by hearing the sounds change around me. I can hear a turn coming and very accurately make the turn, just as if I could see. Mobility instructors are required to perform while being blindfolded several times before they get their certificate or license to teach. In just a few short attempts, they develop the same radar sense that guides them in the same situations. It has always made me wonder what additional senses we can develop when we are required to use them for survival. I think we would all be very surprised.
Blake Lindsay lives in Texas, with his wife Jennifer. He is the host for Zig Ziglar’s weekly Inspire Podcast on ziglar.com. In addition, Blake produces voice-overs, audio productions for corporate websites, commercials, and station branding through his company Blazin’ Blake Productions. He is also available for speaking engagements in churches, schools, service organizations, and conferences. www.blazinblake.com