The Blind Man Who Taught Himself To See

Tue, Mar 1, 2011

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At his high school graduation in 1984, Kish was voted "most likely to succeed." Photo courtesy Daniel Kish

Kish can hardly remember a time when he didn’t click. He came to it on his own, intuitively, at age two, about a year after his second eye was removed. Many blind children make noises in order to get feedback — foot stomping, finger snapping, hand clapping, tongue clicking. These behaviors are the beginnings of echolocation, but they’re almost invariably deemed asocial by parents or caretakers and swiftly extinguished. Kish was fortunate that his mother never tried to dissuade him from clicking. “That tongue click was everything to me,” he says.

He has a vivid recollection of sneaking out his bedroom window in the middle of the night, at age two and a half, and climbing over a fence into his neighbor’s yard. “I was in the habit of exploring whatever I sensed around me,” he writes in his journal. He soon wondered what was in the yard of the next house. And the one after that. “I was on the other side of the block before someone discovered me prowling around their backyard and had the police return me home to completely flummoxed parents.”

Kish was born in Montebello, California, into a difficult family situation. His younger brother, Keith, was also born with retinoblastoma — it’s genetic, though neither of Kish’s parents had the disease. Doctors managed to save enough of Keith’s eyesight so that he doesn’t need echolocation. He’s now a middle school English teacher. Kish’s father, who worked as an automobile mechanic, was a physically abusive alcoholic, and his mother left him when Kish was six.

“I was a violent kid,” says Kish. He frequently got into fistfights. “I rarely lost. My strategy consisted of immobilizing opponents before they could hit me too often.” He went to mainstream schools and relied almost exclusively on echolocation to orient himself, though at the time neither he nor his mom had any concept of what he was doing. “There was no one to explain it, there was no one to help me enhance it, and we all just kind of took it for granted,” he says. “My family and friends were like, ‘Yeah, he does this funny click thing and he gets around.’ ” They called it his radar. Navigating new places, he says, was like solving a puzzle.

He rode his bike with wild abandon. “I used to go to the top of a hill and scream ‘Dive bomb!’ and ride down as fast as I could,” he says. This is when he was eight. The neighborhood kids would scatter. “One day I lost control of the bicycle, crashed through these trash cans, and smashed into a metal light pole. It was a violent collision. I had blood all over my face. I picked myself up and went home.”

He was raised with almost no dispensation for his blindness. “My upbringing was all about total self-reliance,” he writes, “of being able to go after anything I desired.” His career interests, as a boy, included policeman, fireman, pilot, and doctor. He was a celebrated singer and voracious consumer of braille books. He could take anything apart and put it back together — a skill he retains. Once, when I was driving Kish to an appointment with a student, the GPS unit in my car stopped working. Kish examined the unit with his hands, instructed me from the passenger seat how to get to the nearest Radio Shack, and told me which part to buy (the jack on the power cord was faulty). He was named “best brain” in middle school and graduated high school with a GPA close to 4.0. He was voted “most likely to succeed.”

He attended the University of California Riverside, then earned two master’s degrees — one in developmental psychology, one in special education. He wrote a thesis on the history and science of human echolocation, and as part of that devised one of the first echolocation training programs. The ability of some blind individuals to perceive objects well before they could touch them was noted as early as 1749 by French philosopher Denis Diderot. He theorized it had something to do with vibrations against the skin of the face. In the early 1800s, a blind man from England named James Holman journeyed around the world — he may have been the most prolific traveler in history up to that point, Magellan and Marco Polo included — relying on the echoes from the click of his cane. Not until the 1940s, in Karl Dallenbach’s lab at Cornell University, was it irrefutably proven that humans could echolocate.

The thesis was the first time Kish really studied what he’d been doing all his life; it was the beginning, as he put it, of “unlocking my own brain.” He then became the first totally blind person in the United States (and likely the world) to be fully certified as an orientation and mobility specialist — that is, someone hired by the visually impaired to learn how to get around.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. The Pope?... From TV? Says:

    This is amazing stuff. I’ve read about it previously but never read about somebody using it so extensively. Very well-written article and very informative.

    [Reply]

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