The Blind Man Who Taught Himself To See

Tue, Mar 1, 2011

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If you happen to be blind and want to live a bold, stereotype-smashing life, there will be blood. I witness this firsthand when I spend a day mountain biking with Bushway and Ruiz. (Kish, acceding to the realities of near–middle age, stays home.) We ride on a roller-coastery ridgetop trail in the Santa Ana Mountains, above the town of Mission Viejo. Clipped to the rear fork of each of our bikes is a plastic zip tie, attached so that the end flicks through our spokes, creating a constant snapping sound that lets Bushway and Ruiz know where the other bikes are. But to determine where the trail is going, and where the bushes and rocks and fence posts and trees are, the boys rely on echolocation.

Bushway is a fearless biker. He often flies down the dirt trail in aerodynamic form, hands off the brakes, clicking as fast and as loud as he can. “Your brain is on overload,” he says to me during a water break. “You feel like you can hear every bush, every tree. Your body is hyperaware.” I try and warn them when the trail presents a serious consequence, like a long drop-off on one side or a cactus jutting out. But mostly I’m just along for the ride. It’s difficult to believe, even though it’s happening right in front of me. It’s incredible.

And then, suddenly, it’s not. When I look behind me and see that Ruiz has drifted back, I stop and wait for him. I’m just standing there, silently, and before I realize what’s happening, he is bearing down on me. I shout, and he pulls the brakes, but it’s too late. He smashes into me and crushes his left hand between his handlebar and the back of my seat post. He falls off his bike and rolls about in pain, clutching his hand. There’s a trickle of blood, though nothing seems broken. I feel terrible, but Ruiz says it’s his fault — he should have echolocated my bike, even if I wasn’t moving. We finish the ride, with Ruiz using only one hand.

The next day I join Kish and Bushway as they teach Sebastian Mancipe, who is 15 and has been working with World Access for three years. When he started, he rarely came out of his bedroom. He had little interaction with the outside world. He developed infant glaucoma and was blind by age three months. His parents moved from Colombia to the United States to give him a chance at a better life. His mother, Viviana, saw a brief appearance by Kish on the Ripley’s Believe It or Not television show, and soon hired World Access to work with Sebastian.

He now rides a skateboard. He ice-skates. He’s popular at school, stocked with friends and a busy social life. I follow as Kish and Bushway stroll around Sebastian’s neighborhood, in a busy section of Burbank. He’d obviously mastered the echolocation basics — the pot lid, the pillow, general shapes. Kish and Bushway encourage him to push his skills further. “A tree,” says Kish, clicking a couple of times, “is like a bush on a pole.” They walk on. “A tree without a bush on top is probably a telephone pole.” They pass a parking lot. “A large object that starts out low at one end, rises in the middle, and drops off again at the other end — that’s a parked car.”

Back at home, I ask Sebastian’s mother about the impact World Access has had on her son. “It was an awakening,” she says. “He believes he can do anything. To see Sebastian as a normal child…” She can’t complete the sentence before the tears come.

—-

The longer the waiting list for his services grows, the more conflicted Kish feels. He knows what he’s doing is important. But what he really wants, as more people clamor for his time, as the frequent-flier miles add up, is to hand over the reins of World Access and run away from it all.

He’s essentially a loner. “My constitution,” he says, “is that of Grizzly Adams.” In 2003 he purchased a 12-foot by 12-foot cabin deep in the Angeles National Forest. It was built in 1916; he paid $10,000 for it. To get there he’d take a taxi to the end of the road and hike in. “My only company,” he wrote in his journal at the time, “is a small family of mice.” He explored the wilderness. “I taught myself how to negotiate tricky, winding trails with sharp switchbacks, how to cross rushing streams on slippery stones. I’ve gone for miles and days without meeting another soul.”

He was once asked by a colleague what he thought the biggest problem was with being blind. “My biggest barrier is people,” he answered. “Especially sighted people.” He has never once in his life had a girlfriend or, for that matter, a boyfriend. When I ask him, via e-mail, to explain why, his response is three words: “Lack of interest.”

Two tragedies, nearly 20 years apart, have bookended his adult life. The first was the death of his dog, a black lab named Whiska. This was in 1990. She was run over by a car while Kish was walking with her. Kish has always blamed himself for the accident. “I loved Whiska with an intensity that completely distorted my better judgment,” he wrote. “I spoiled her rotten and took over her job. She forgot to watch for traffic, because I’d always done that for her.” He had nightmares for a year after the accident. “The chain’s just dangling and there’s no dog. I’ll never forget that moment.” Not long after, he got another dog, but soon started traveling and gave him away. That was his last pet.

The second tragedy occurred in January 2007 when his cabin burned down. He’d had a wood-burning stove installed, and the wrong materials were used for the chimney. The fire was fast-moving and horrific — “my last memories of my cabin are the ominous crackle and rumble of advancing flames” — and Kish had no idea if it would engulf the entire canyon, incinerating him as well. The disaster haunts him; he keeps a chunk of melted glass from the cabin in his home in Long Beach. “A piece of my own heart has gone up in flames,” he wrote. He plans to one day return to the woods, perhaps permanently. “I find people,” he says, “to be incredibly draining.”

—-

Kish has an idea. Beyond the pot lid and the pillow, beyond the mission of World Access, there is something he has been quietly working on for more than a decade. If his wish is fulfilled — if someone else takes over World Access and he’s able to escape from life’s perpetual rush hour — it may prove to be his true legacy. What Kish envisions is the next leap in human echolocation. His idea is to become more like a bat.

Bats are the best. Some can fly in complete darkness, navigating around thousands of other bats while nabbing insects one millimeter wide. Bats have evolved, over millions of years, to possess the ideal mouth shape and the perfect ear rotation for echolocation. They can perceive high-frequency sound waves, beyond the range of human hearing — waves that are densely packed together, whose echoes give precise detail.
There is evidence that humans could be that good. Bats have tiny brains. Just the auditory cortex of a human brain is many times larger than the entire brain of a bat. This means that humans can likely process more complex auditory information than bats. What we’ll require, to make up for bats’ evolutionary head start, is a little artificial boost.

Actually, two boosts. We need a way to create batlike sound waves, and we need to be able to hear those waves. In pursuit of these goals, Kish has spent time in New Zealand with Leslie Kay, who worked on underwater sonar for the British Navy during the Cold War. For nearly 50 years, Kay tinkered with ideas for helping the blind to see with sound. He eventually introduced, after many weeks of consultation with Kish, a product called the K-Sonar, a flashlight-size machine that attaches to a blind person’s cane and emits ultrasonic pulses. The pulses are then digitally translated into tones humans can hear, through earphones. “Flowers actually sound soft,” says Kish. “Stones sound hard and crisp. It pretty much represents the physical environment as music.” The problem is range: The K-Sonar can detect a postage stamp from 15 feet, but not the side of a barn from 30 feet.

If money were no object, Kish believes that blind people could essentially mimic bats within five years. A next generation of K-Sonar, using the input from a global consortium of scientists that Kish has been corresponding with, should have a nearly limitless range. Our hearing, Kish says, can be increased tenfold through surgical augmentation — basically, inner-ear microphone implants. Combine the two and it’s possible that the blind will be able to take up tennis. Kish figures it would require $15 million to prove whether or not his idea is feasible. He fears he’ll never get the opportunity.

“It’s virtually impossible to gather funding for experimental devices for the blind,” he says. “The blind population is seen as a lost cause.” Kish’s patience is running thin. He is still reaching out to scientists and studying scholarly journals and pondering ways to conjure the money. But more and more these days, he finds himself daydreaming about rebuilding his cabin and devoting himself to playing music, to writing. Let the new crop of echolocators take over the research and the networking and the panhandling. So for the foreseeable future, at least, Kish will continue to click in his usual way. And the sighted world will continue to not notice.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Men’s Journal.

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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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