The Blind Man Who Taught Himself To See

Tue, Mar 1, 2011

Features

Daniel Kish has been sightless since he was a year old. Yet he can mountain bike. And navigate the wilderness alone. And recognize a building as far away as 1,000 feet. How? The same way bats can see in the dark.

by Michael Finkel
photograph by Steve Pyke

The first thing Daniel Kish does, when I pull up to his tidy gray bungalow in Long Beach, California, is make fun of my driving. “You’re going to leave it that far from the curb?” he asks. He’s standing on his stoop, a good 10 paces from my car. I glance behind me as I walk up to him. I am, indeed, parked about a foot and a half from the curb.

The second thing Kish does, in his living room a few minutes later, is remove his prosthetic eyeballs. He does this casually, like a person taking off a smudged pair of glasses. The prosthetics are thin convex shells, made of acrylic plastic, with light brown irises. A couple of times a day they need to be cleaned. “They get gummy,” he explains. Behind them is mostly scar tissue. He wipes them gently with a white cloth and places them back in.

Kish was born with an aggressive form of cancer called retinoblastoma, which attacks the retinas. To save his life, both of his eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. Since his infancy — Kish is now 44 — he has been adapting to his blindness in such remarkable ways that some people have wondered if he’s playing a grand practical joke. But Kish, I can confirm, is completely blind.

He knew my car was poorly parked because he produced a brief, sharp click with his tongue. The sound waves he created traveled at a speed of more than 1,000 feet per second, bounced off every object around him, and returned to his ears at the same rate, though vastly decreased in volume.

But not silent. Kish has trained himself to hear these slight echoes and to interpret their meaning. Standing on his front stoop, he could visualize, with an extraordinary degree of precision, the two pine trees on his front lawn, the curb at the edge of his street, and finally, a bit too far from that curb, my rental car. Kish has given a name to what he does — he calls it “FlashSonar” — but it’s more commonly known by its scientific term, echolocation.

Bats, of course, use echolocation. Beluga whales too. Dolphins. And Daniel Kish. He is so accomplished at echolocation that he’s able to pedal his mountain bike through streets heavy with traffic and on precipitous dirt trails. He climbs trees. He camps out, by himself, deep in the wilderness. He’s lived for weeks at a time in a tiny cabin a two-mile hike from the nearest road. He travels around the globe. He’s a skilled cook, an avid swimmer, a fluid dance partner. Essentially, though in a way that is unfamiliar to nearly any other human being, Kish can see.

This is not enough for him. Kish is seeking — despite a lack of support from every mainstream blind organization in America — nothing less than a profound reordering of the way the world views blind people, and the way blind people view the world. He’s tired of being told that the blind are best served by staying close to home, sticking only to memorized routes, and depending on the unreliable benevolence of the sighted to do anything beyond the most routine of tasks.

Kish preaches complete and unfettered independence, even if the result produces the occasional bloody gash or broken bone. (He once fractured the heel of his left foot after leaping from a rock and has broken a couple of teeth.) He’s regarded by some in the blind community with deep veneration. Others, like a commenter on the National Federation of the Blind’s listserv, consider him “disgraceful” for promoting behavior such as tongue clicking that could be seen as off-putting and abnormal.

Kish and a handful of coworkers run a nonprofit organization called World Access for the Blind, headquartered in Kish’s home. World Access offers training on how to gracefully interact with one’s environment, using echolocation as a primary tool. So far, in the decade it has existed, the organization has introduced more than 500 students to echolocation. Kish is not the first blind person to use echolocation, but he’s the only one to meticulously document it, to break it down into its component parts, and to figure out how to teach it. His dream is to help all sight-impaired people see the world as clearly as he does.

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