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By Bibhudutta Sahu

SHILLONG | Aug 31, 2019:

Picture this scenario: You’re about to begin your descent to Living Roots bridge at Nohwet village, all pumped up and ready to make the journey down, mindful of the unevenness of the terrain and the descent. You look around and the weather is pleasant, the warmth of the sun beating down on your head and a light breeze blowing across the hills. Your eyes scan the area, clearly identifying the tree-line, the width of the path, the ridges and the oncoming tourists, all the while telling you exactly where you need to traverse to make it down to the bridge in the safest and most efficient manner. It is peak season for tourism and you should expect a lot of tourists to pass you by as they marvel at the wonder of the Living Roots Bridge.

And then you come across three persons with visual impairment (blind) ready to embark on what many would probably testify to, as the first unassisted navigation of the landscape in the Living Roots by persons with visual impairment, their determination to reach the bridge as well as climb the treehouse. Unbelievable, right? It’s not as crazy as it sounds. On the 20th of July 2019, three such individuals namely Benister Kharpor, Hawkilara Axelsen and Thomas Tajo decided to take a plunge into the deep end of navigation to draw in as much of the experience of traveling to the tourist destinations first hand with a sense of independence. Amazing, isn’t it? Although their world is plunged into darkness, that has not impeded their mobility or their independence.  How did they manage all this? Just with the sharp click of their tongues. Yes! Just a click with their tongues, which is part of the method of Echolocation, a skill that enables them to move around obstacles in their path while identifying the density, distance and dimensions of the objects around them.

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Mr. Thomas Tajo, currently residing in Belgium, is a blind Echolocation Flash Sonar and Perceptual Navigational instructor for the Visioneers which is an organization based in California.  Echolocation is the same technique used by bats, dolphins and whales and as a form of biomimicry has been adopted by humans for navigational purposes. Mr. Thomas Tajo was in Shillong to conduct a workshop on Navigational Perception and Echolocation for persons with visual impairment from the 23rd -26th of July 2019 that was organized by Organization for Inclusive Development (OFID). His dream is to equip all persons with visual impairment with the skills of echolocation for independent mobility in the north east of India.

The Three Adventurers (L-R):
Mr. Benister Kharpor, Ms. Hawkilara Axelsen & Mr. Thomas Tajo

We have become accustomed and conditioned to the negative connotations of having a disability and the restrictions it places on the individual and the family. Even the metaphors infer that the blind leading the blind will lead to an imminent downfall. The mere mention of disability evokes a sympathetic approach to the individual. But within the span of a tete-a-tete with Thomas, one is compelled to revisit that reference with new eyes and a fresh perspective. Not only did he lead the team single-handedly but provided in-depth training in a learn-by-doing methodology. He refuses any form of assistance, assertively insistent on this, in traversing through his immediate environment. It is worth mentioning that no one was hurt during the trek.  It is about time that we change the narrative of disability. We have also become over-reliant on the use of our eyes for an understanding of our environment and placing undue stress on them. Echolocation alleviates some of the stress by heightening and training our other senses to receive information from the environment around us that was undecipherable.

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Most of us are accustomed to watching persons with visual impairment walk around with a short white cane. This development in navigation through echolocation complements the use of the short white cane while raising the need to provide persons with visual impairment with longer white canes.  Echolocation identifies objects much before the white cane can do so and can alert the individual well in advance. Echolocation has the potential of increasing the productivity of each and every person with visual impairment as they are free to move about independently as well as freeing the guide (sighted person) to pursue their interests as well.

Benister Kharpor, a resident of Laitkor never imagined that that he would enjoy a trip to the living roots during his lifetime, let alone unassisted. The sense of empowerment that engulfed him was overwhelming as well as the challenge to his own state of mind. He is the President of OFID, Meghalaya unit. There was hardly any time to breathe as they took on the challenge of gathering as much information as possible during their visits to Phan Nonglait (Lady Hydari Park), Living Root Bridge and his village in the span of three days. These were planned visits to unfamiliar territory where one is forced to engage the skills of echolocation and enhance them. Benister was confronted with the new and undiscovered reality that existed in his own backyard (his village).

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Hawkilara, a resident of Norway, came over for a three-day exposure visit on Echolocation prior to the workshop and advocated the need to make tourism accessible for persons with disability. Enjoying the sights and sounds of tourist spots should not be restricted to persons without disability but be accessible for all humans. She drew our attention for the need to standardize the sanitary facilities for persons with disabilities as it can be very disorienting for tourists with disability. Her positive experience of Shillong included the kind and hospitable people of Meghalaya, the low levels of noise and the lovely food.

Conquering the Living Root Bridge, Nohwet

Innovative methods backed by science and based on evidence should be adopted and adapted by institutions and individuals who are working on issues of inclusion. The world of disability is constantly improvising and adding value to the lives of persons with disability through biomimicry, experiential learning and innovation. Government institutions and Civil Society Organizations must wake up and embrace the potential of these techniques to encourage greater productivity and independent minded individuals thus breaking centuries of dependence. The joy of exploring one’s own environment independently and discovering the beauty of the world around us is a form of re-birth in itself, building confidence in one’s abilities and breaking the culture of silence.

There is an endearing and empowering image of Thomas Tajo running up a sharp incline of the hill while deftly avoiding any rocks or impediments in his path in the living roots. For today, the blind shall lead the blind and they shall scale the mountain indeed.

(The writer is the Managing Trustee of Barefoot Trust. He can be reached at barefoot.trust@gmail.com)

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