Meet The Blind Birder Reimagining Accessibility In The Outdoors

12:18 minutes

La versión en español de este articulo está disponible en nuestro sitio web. 

Two people walking forward, holding onto a rope on the side of a small bridge in a thick forest.
On Juan Pablo Culasso’s hikes, blind or low vision guests trace a rope with their right hand through the forest. The rope has different textures that can warn them to watch their step, or lead them to a QR code with an audio bird guide. Credit: Juan Pablo Culasso

For many blind and low vision people, accessing outdoor spaces like parks can be challenging. Trails are often unsafe or difficult to navigate, signs don’t usually have Braille, guides generally aren’t trained to help disabled visitors, and so on. 

A man, Juan Pablo Culasso, holds a large metal dish towards the tops of trees, listening carefully to bird sounds.

But nature recordist Juan Pablo Culasso, based in Bogata, Colombia, is changing that. He’s designed a system of fully accessible trails in the cloud forests of southwest Colombia that are specifically tailored to help visually disabled people connect with nature. The trails are the first of their kind in the Americas, and Culasso drew on his own experiences as a blind person and a professional birder to design the system. 

He talks with Maddie Sofia about how he designed the trail system and takes listeners on an adventure through the cloud forest he works in. 

Identifying Bird Calls In Our Segment

  • Clip 1: The chatter of Amazona mercenarius, the scaly-naped amazon. This bird is a large green parrot that has a splash of red and yellow on the underside of its short tail.

  • Clip 2: The short, quippy calls of Myiothlypis coronata, known as the Russet-crowned warbler. It’s a tiny, pudgy songbird that has an olive green body, a light blue head, and a stripe of orange on the top of its head.

  • Clip 3: This call belongs to Pachyramphus polychopterus, the White-winged Becard. They’re medium sized birds that resemble flycatchers. Their color can change dependent on sex, but all of them have black and white stripes on their wings.

To listen to more bird calls, visit Culasso’s Spotify.

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Segment Transcript

KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday. I’m Kathleen Davis.

MADDIE SOFIA: And I’m Maddie Sofia.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Later in the hour, you’ve heard the line about eight eight-ounce glasses of water a day, but how much water does your body actually use? It turns out there’s a lot of variation.

MADDIE SOFIA: But first, we’re headed into the cloud forests of Southwest Colombia, way high up in the Andes, to visit a set of trails that are the first of their kind in the Americas. They are designed specifically with blind and low-vision visitors in mind.

For many visually disabled people, accessing outdoor spaces like parks can be challenging. Trails are often unsafe or difficult to navigate. Signs don’t usually have Braille. And guides generally aren’t trained to help disabled visitors.

My next guest, Juan Pablo Culasso, is working to change that. He’s drawn on his own experiences as a blind person and expert birder to develop a system of accessible trails. He’s also an audio nerd after our own hearts, recording hours and hours of natural sound. Juan is joining us today from Bogota, Colombia.

Juan Pablo, welcome to Science Friday.

JUAN PABLO CULASSO: Thank you, Maddie.

MADDIE SOFIA: Juan Pablo, I’ve heard that you can identify more than 1,000 species of birds by sound. And my first question is how, Juan? How does one learn to differentiate?

JUAN PABLO CULASSO: OK. Well, usually blind people, we need to develop some memory techniques. We need to do mental maps everyday to locate objects, to locate everything. And our world is built by sounds. Everything of my images are sounds.

Well, the birds, I believe that wasn’t really a coincidence. Because when I was a child, make games to a child– today you put a PlayStation or whatever. But for a blind person, for a blind child, it’s so hard. And with my father and an encyclopedia that had different bird sounds– basically, European and North American birds– he began to play randomly a sound and I need to say the answer.

And then I receive a cassette tape, in the ’90s, 1998 maybe, with birds of Argentina. And my country, Uruguay, and Argentina shares 100% of the birds. So after that cassette, when we traveled to the field, I began to recognize, wow, this is the bird number one in the side B. Or this is the bird, yeah, bird 25 or 26 or whatever.

And then the jump to the professional path was, when I was 16 years old, I was invited to an expedition with biologists. And one of them give me a recorder and a microphone. And when you listen to the sound louder into the headphones, just hit the REC button. And listening to a bird, that kingfisher really changed my mind. Well, after 20 years, I’m so grateful for the biologists that give me the equipment, the recorder. Yeah.

MADDIE SOFIA: I love that it’s a kingfisher. Belted kingfisher, that’s my favorite bird.

JUAN PABLO CULASSO: Oh, really. Wow. It’s so beautiful.

MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah. Wow. Like a celebrity bird. So I’m wondering, you become a professional in this space. You spent your childhood falling in love and listening to these birds and making games out of it. When did you get the idea to design accessible trails?

JUAN PABLO CULASSO: Maddie, this is a beautiful question. Because I did myself the same question. Juan Pablo, what can I do for the other blind people that can’t go outside to nature? Because I’m a privileged person– because I could travel mostly in the Americas, but in other parts of the world as well, recording sounds and making workshops and making conferences to sighted people– but what can I do for the other blind people?

So in 2020, in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic situation– I moved to Bogota two weeks after the world closes, with my girlfriend– appear an application of a grant to develop– or grant projects– regarding reactivating tourism Post-COVID-19. And we applied to that project with the first AV tourist route for blind people in South America.

My idea is not make a thing only for blind people or partial-sighted people. Because in my opinion, this is not inclusion. It’s exclusion. My idea is all people together getting an experience in the forest. Because I know that it’s possible to blind people go to nature.

MADDIE SOFIA: Wow. OK. So walk me through some of the features that make it accessible. Like, there’s audio guides associated with them. Like, take me for a walk.

JUAN PABLO CULASSO: OK. OK. OK, Maddie, you are at the beginning of the trail. On your right hand, there is a rope. And I invite you to close your eyes and walk slowly using that rope. You’re going to encounter some signals in the rope, like different textures, that are advising you that a couple of steps in front of you there is a QR code.

You’re going to get your phone, you’re going to scan that QR code. And that QR code will have the description of the place that you are, what trees are, what kind of birds, the description of the path, for example.

Be careful. On the next steps, there are a climb down. So walk slowly.


JUAN PABLO CULASSO: Right. You continue walking. And then another QR code. So drop the rope. Extend your right hand. And you are going to touch a tree. That tree is called whatever. This tree is so important to this forest regarding they get a lot of water inside. OK. You return to the rope and continue walking.

And in the end of the trail, there is a platform, fenced platform, that we are going to meet all together and share the experience.

MADDIE SOFIA: Wow. I love this. It’s so immersive.

JUAN PABLO CULASSO: Yes, absolutely.

MADDIE SOFIA: The other thing, Juan Pablo, is there are people there to help, right? There are guides that are specially trained.


MADDIE SOFIA: What do they do differently than conventionally trained guides?

JUAN PABLO CULASSO: Believe me that all the trainings that I do, 80% I need to train the people to train their common sense, basically. When you break the ice with blind people, so many people get scary. What I’m going to say to them? What words can I use, right? So yeah, the guides are trained to really don’t be scary about the blind person. Don’t be scary to say something.

The techniques, I need to train the persons to really be descriptive, but at the same time really use the appropriate words to describe something. For example, the colors. The colors, because so many people thinks that blind people doesn’t know nothing about colors, but it’s not true. But you can use associations. For example, I don’t know, that tree is red, red like the fire, or whatever. Blue like the sky. Specific techniques to really– for example, 99% of the people, when try to guide me in a place, take my hand. And this is a mistake. Because my hands are my eyes.


JUAN PABLO CULASSO: You need to take my arm to be my hands free to really navigate and understand. But you never take a blind person from their hands. So that’s the idea.

MADDIE SOFIA: Well, let’s do it. Let’s pretend you’re my guide. I have some audio that you graciously gave us. I’m going to close my eyes. You describe to me where we are, what we’re hearing. Just take me on a little tour, Juan Pablo.


JUAN PABLO CULASSO: OK. You, Maddie, are in a forest. It’s after raining. The drops that you are listening are the water that are in the trees that are falling gently onto the floor. No rain. The rain already passes. And now you are listening a beautiful couple of Myiothlypis coronata. That birds are very, very small birds of the family of warblers. They are so common in the cloud forest in Colombia.

MADDIE SOFIA: Wow. OK. I love that. Juan Pablo, how hard would this be for other parks to adopt some of these changes? Because it doesn’t seem tremendously difficult to me.

JUAN PABLO CULASSO: All the people ask me, Juan Pablo, how many money I need to invest? It’s not too much. The money, in my opinion, is the easiest part. The hardest part is the change of the mental thing. That most people said, no, I don’t receive blind people. And they said that because it’s so hard to think, it’s so hard to think, how can I do or how many things I need to adapt, or how many people I need to train?

The first thing is really find people with an open mind. And they need to believe that nature is a human right. Nature is a human right. And even more for blind people. Even more for blind people.

We want to travel a lot. We want to enjoy different things. But it’s really, really hard because most people that is in that places, they prefer to say, no, this place is unsafe. You are going to fall. You can’t do that. It’s easy, Maddie. It’s easy. So the change of the attitude of the person is the key.

MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah, that’s the hard part.


MADDIE SOFIA: I mean, what has been the reaction from people who visit these trails? What are you hearing from people?

JUAN PABLO CULASSO: Well, the first pilot that we did was with children with deaf and blind disability. And for 90% of that, even living 40 minutes away from that beautiful place, so many of them really cry a lot after the experience. Because not before they could do that. For me, really, emotionally, it was so strong. So I remember that I talked to my guide. I said for him, Luis Carlos, please, take me away from here to cry a little bit. Because it’s a dream come true.

So finally, people with my same disability, in the case of blind, are enjoying the same thing that I really enjoyed for the last 20 years.

MADDIE SOFIA: Juan Pablo, that is beautiful. Thank you so much for joining me and taking me on a journey. I had so much fun.

JUAN PABLO CULASSO: I’m so happy to be here. And if I’m allowed to, please, find me on Spotify to listen more beautiful nature sounds in South America.

MADDIE SOFIA: We do have a link to your recordings on our website if the audience wants to hear more. Juan Pablo Culasso is a nature recordist and birder based in Bogota, Colombia.

After the break, how much water do you actually need? Let’s get into it. Stay with us. This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.

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About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

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Maddie Sofia is a scientist and journalist. They previously hosted NPR’s daily science podcast Short Wave and the video series Maddie About Science.

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