How to see through sound with Philadelphia’s Austin Seraphin

     Austin Seraphin uses echolocation, or a series of tongue clicks, to navigate through Philadelphia via sound. (Kimberly Paynter/for The Pulse)

    Austin Seraphin uses echolocation, or a series of tongue clicks, to navigate through Philadelphia via sound. (Kimberly Paynter/for The Pulse)

    A look at echolocation and how some people in the blind community are navigating through life on sounds alone.

    Austin Seraphin has been blind since birth — but now he can “see.”

    “By making a simple tongue click — *click, click* — I can actually see visual forms around me,” Seraphin said. “Seeing through sound, instead of seeing through light.”

    It’s a technique known as echolocation. “You can actually train your brain to decode the binaural echoes coming back from [the tongue clicks] as visual inputs,” he explained.

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    The result? Visual forms, “like mannequins,” Seraphin says — no color, sparse detail, the sensation of blood rushing to the visual cortex of the brain. Seraphin has been using echolocation for a year-and-a-half.

    “My teacher’s been doing it for 10 years, so he’s really good,” he said. “They go mountain biking and crazy things like that.” 

    Austin Seraphin, 36, is a Philadelphia-based accessibility consultant, a volunteer museum docent and a computer programmer who’s been coding since he was seven. 

    He uses a screen reader that talks to him very quickly. 

    “And it always makes me laugh when sighted people ask if I can really understand it that fast,” Seraphin said, acknowledging that, yes, he can actually understand it that fast. 

    I first met Austin last month, after he performed a “lightning talk” at Ignite Philly. He got onstage and asked people in the crowd to close their eyes. He had an audio tour for them. It was five minutes of being blind in Philly. 

    The above audio is that talk, recreated in a WHYY studio. After we put it to tape, I got the chance to ask Seraphin about “seeing through sound.” It still kind of baffles me.

    “For me, being blind from birth, I had to actually learn to think like a sighted person,” Seraphin said. “[Echolocation] changes the way you’re doing everything. It makes it easier — little things, like making eye contact with someone, because you’ll see them there.”

    Echolocation is not yet widely used in the blind community. There’s only one group, World Access for the Blind, that teaches the technique.

    Seraphin hopes it spreads in popularity. He says it has revolutionized how he interacts with the outside world.

    Click on the yellow audio icon above for a fusion of Seraphin’s Ignite Philly talk and our conversation in studio. 

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