Saturday, April 27, 2013

Meet Tim Johnson, Author and Engineer

Tim Johnson is the author of Beginner's Guide to Echolocation, a book (also available in audio format) which teaches blind and visually impaired people to see using sound instead of sight. Tim is not visually impaired myself but has taken on the challenge of learning echolocation because he is astounded that the skill is so easy to learn but yet goes unused by the majority of the blind community. He also aims to raise awareness of echolocation within the sighted community so that blind individuals do not feel as uncomfortable using it in public.

1. What is echolocation, and how/why did you first come to learn it?

I've always wondered why we can hear parked cars or telephone poles when driving past them. These objects don't make any noise of their own, yet they clearly "woosh" by. This is clear evidence of echolocation.

I was amazed and humbled when I first saw echolocation explained and demonstrated by a boy named Ben Underwood in a TV special. He had the remarkable ability to hear, and determine the size, shape, and location of objects such as fire hydrants, a basketball backboard, even a coffee mug on a table.  To know that a human being can perceive the world to that level of detail with no eyes is profound.  

As a martial artist, I've always been interested in the workings of the human body and mind, so I knew that echolocation was a facet of human perception I had to explore further.

As an engineer by trade, I took a very methodical approach to learning, gathered the facts, analyzed the data, analyzed the sound waves, and put together hypotheses and tested them on a daily basis. I also spoke with blind professionals who use and teach echolocation or flash sonar around the world. 

Echolocation was incredibly easier to learn than I had ever imagined. There are a few things you have to know to get started, and there is a certain open-mindedness that you must harbor in order to keep progressing, but after that it all starts making sense. Objects slowly begin to come into focus and the clarity is absolutely astounding.

2. Why do you think that echolocation is mostly unused within the blind community?

There are a couple reasons that I have found for this... There is a certain comfort level that people like to keep in their daily lives. Once we find something that works for us, it is easy to continue using it even if there are other things that do the job much better. This is especially true when these new things make us leave our comfort zone and try things that we don't entirely understand. Echolocation is a strange concept to many that requires new ways of thinking, and that can be encouragement enough to many people to shy away from learning something new.

After that, of course, there is the aspect of social awkwardness. Most people associate active echolocation with a loud clicking noise made by the tongue and mouth. This can be embarrassing to many people when performed in public. This is mostly because it is misunderstood within the sighted community. I believe that by bringing awareness of echolocation to the general public that we can eliminate some of these stigmas preventing people from practicing echolocation.

Additionally, when you start training in echolocation, you will realize that there are many ways to disguise your click or use a click that is quiet enough to be appropriate to your setting.

3. Can echolocation be used in conjunction with walking with a cane or using a service dog?

Certainly. In fact, most visually impaired persons learn these more traditional methods of orientation first. A dog will give you a good level of comfort, and a cane will give you a good level of visibility over objects that are less than four feet away from you. However, for visibility of objects outside the reach of a cane, I strongly suggest the development of echolocation. You will easily be able to recognize objects several yards away, and larger objects, such as buildings trees and fences, from much farther away.

Echolocation makes a wonderfully poetic supplement to all other forms of orientation.

4. Is there a certain age that visually impaired person should start learning echolocation?

You are never too old to start learning. As long as you have an open mind, it is worth the effort to learn. However, excellent results have been recognized in very young children, as young as age three. This is due to the pliability of their mind, and their receptiveness to new senses.

5. What has been the response to your book from people who are blind or partially sighted?

The book has received incredible reviews from within the community, and has been heralded as the first and only resource for learning active human echolocation. It delves into the science and even the philosophy of the skill while remaining lighthearted and easy to read for those who do not have a scientific background.

The Beginner's Guide to Echolocation is available in print, large print, accessible ebook, Kindle, iTunes, and audiobook. Print editions are available on Amazon, and accessible versions are available at

Thanks, Tim!

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