Echolocation may have real-life advantages for blind people: an analysis of survey data

Front Physiol. 2013 May 8:4:98. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2013.00098. eCollection 2013.


Some people can echolocate by making sonar emissions (e.g., mouth-clicks, finger snaps, feet shuffling, humming, cane tapping, etc.) and listening to the returning echoes. To date there are no statistics available about how many blind people use echolocation, but anecdotal reports in the literature suggest that perhaps between 20 and 30% of totally blind people may use it, suggesting that echolocation affords broad functional benefits. Consistent with the notion that blind individuals benefit from the use of echolocation, previous research conducted under controlled experimental conditions has shown that echolocation improves blind people's spatial sensing ability. The current study investigated if there is also evidence for functional benefits of echolocation in real life. To address this question the current study conducted an online survey. Thirty-seven blind people participated. Linear regression analyses of survey data revealed that, while statistically controlling for participants' gender, age, level of visual function, general health, employment status, level of education, Braille skill, and use of other mobility means, people who use echolocation have higher salary, and higher mobility in unfamiliar places, than people who do not use echolocation. The majority of our participants (34 out of 37) use the long cane, and all participants who reported to echolocate, also reported to use the long cane. This suggests that the benefit of echolocation that we found might be conditional upon the long cane being used as well. The investigation was correlational in nature, and thus cannot be used to determine causality. In addition, the sample was small (N = 37), and one should be cautious when generalizing the current results to the population. The data, however, are consistent with the idea that echolocation offers real-life advantages for blind people, and that echolocation may be involved in peoples' successful adaptation to vision loss.

Keywords: adaptation; blindness; correlation; mobility; regression; vision loss.