Radio

The blind boy who learnt to see with sound

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

The deadline for Radio 2’s 500 Words competition falls next Thursday. Children between the ages of five and 13 are invited to send in a story, no more than 500 words, to compete for the prize, the chance to have their story read on air, live to ten million listeners on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show. Evans, the irrepressibly enthusiastic Radio 2 DJ, came up with the idea in 2011 (mainly because as a child he was not at all interested in books or reading but belatedly began to realise what he had missed out on), and from the beginning it has been a huge hit, gathering more than 120,000 entries in 2014. It’s also a clever way for Radio 2 to fulfil its outreach remit, using the organising power of Broadcasting House to sort through and judge the extraordinary number of entries.

In Thursday night’s celebratory programme on Radio 2, presented by Sheila Hancock, 500 Words: The (Short) Story So Far, we heard from some of the winners. Angus was just nine when he entered, with a story so scary he still finds it terrifying to read. Isabel was seven when she won, encouraged to enter by her grandfather. Spelling, grammar are not deemed important; it’s the originality of the storytelling that the judges are looking for, in the hope that children previously not interested in fiction, words and writing will discover that inventing stories is fun, and listening to them being read on radio is even better.

Meanwhile, for those children for whom writing will always be a chore, the controller of Radio Five Live, Jonathan Wall, is planning to reintroduce the Young Sports Commentator competition for 11- to 15-year-olds. He entered it as a 13-year-old and even though he just lost out on the prize the experience led him into a career in radio. The winners will get the chance to commentate on a sporting event live on air. All they have to do is send in a recording of themselves, talking about sport. ‘Maybe we’ll uncover the next Jonathan Agnew or Jacqui Oatley,’ says the enterprising Wall. Maybe, too, the chance to get themselves heard on radio will encourage more young people to use their smartphones to listen instead of watch?


Young Ethan had to learn how to listen, not in the conventional sense but how to interpret the sounds around him. He was born blind and now aged ten he’s just about to go to St Mary’s, a specialist music school in Edinburgh. How, though, will he cope with the journey, by train and across several main roads, when he can’t see the edge of the pavement? In Batman and Ethan (Radio 4, Sunday) we heard from Daniel Kish, also blind, who has taught himself to ‘see with sound’ by clicking against the roof of his mouth and learning to make a mental picture from the way the sound echoes back at him, bouncing off surfaces. Neuroscientists have studied his brain and have discovered that when clicking Daniel actually activates the visual part of his brain, allowing him to create a picture in his mind of the world around him. By the age of six he was able to ride a bicycle without bumping into things. His task was to teach Ethan how to do the same.

At first Ethan found it hard to concentrate, to focus on the echoes he might be hearing when he clicked. But gradually he began to understand that by shutting out all the other sounds around him and just listening out for the sounds that reverberated back at him whenever he clicked he could learn to navigate the streets outside his home. After ten weeks he was ready to travel to school by himself. But as his mother explained to Helena Merriman, who presented and produced, Ethan did not just gain this vital independence he also no longer feels so cut off. He’s been freed by this extraordinary new skill to ‘leap out of his inner world’ and move into the real world. He’s no longer ‘walking around blind’.

In her new series of Ramblings (Radio 4, Thursday) Clare Balding is focusing on walking with a purpose — not miles or destination but something more intangible. In her first programme on Thursday she walked with Jenni and Eve and their dog Scout in the Surrey Hills on a route that Jenni takes every day, an opportunity to replenish and restore. Because Jenni has to make sure each time she goes out with Eve that she has with her the emergency drugs. Eve was not only born with a rare chromosome deficiency she has also developed severe epilepsy and could at any time have a potentially life-threatening seizure.

Jenni was remarkably frank about her feelings on discovering why, at three weeks, Eve still had not opened her eyes. ‘Horrific,’ she said. But now after much heart-searching, and many walks, she has learnt to focus on Eve as an individual, not on what she might or might not become. ‘I struggle to use the term severely disabled about Eve,’ she says. ‘It just doesn’t seem to fit her. She’s so happy, so determined.’

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