The Blind Man Who Taught Himself To See

Tue, Mar 1, 2011

Cover Stories, 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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8 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]

  2. Steve Cohn Says:

    There is a great book about a man with similar capabilities:

    Crashing Through, by Robert Kurson

    http://www.robertkurson.com/crashingthrough/thebook.html

    [Reply]

  3. Daniel Kish Says:

    I appreciate that this article paints me in a warm light, and represents me tolerably well. There are two glaring misrepresentations that do require setting straight. Both of these were reviewed by the fact checker and clarified, but somehow still weren’t corrected in the final edit.

    Firstly, I never said that echolocation was particularly hard to learn, and most of our students pick it up quite well, and quite quickly. It is true that perhaps 10% take it to an extreme level, like bike riding through obstacles and such, but most are able to use it to increase their navigation abilities notably.

    The second point is that, I have no desire to become a human bat, nor
    expect the same of others. I am very passionate about our work, and
    although it is true that I look forward to handing over the reigns of
    World Access someday to others more dynamic than I, the dream I would
    pursue would not be one of science and ultimate hearing. I would hope
    that World Access would continue to fly that flag without me. My heart
    is guided more toward the arts, toward helping people reach beyond
    their limits through creativity, writing, and music. I suppose I could
    be rightly depicted to stride off into the sunset as the article
    portrays, but more as a minstrel amid children singing and dancing,
    and less as a human bat…
    Daniel

    [Reply]

    @modestgrrl Reply:

    Daniel,

    I believe you when you say it’s easy to learn. Sure enough, I can hear a difference in the way a click resonates when I have a hand four inches in front of my mouth than when the nearest thing is a wall two feet away.

    I doubt that, as a person who sees, I’d be willing to put the effort in to learn it myself. That being said, all humans (not bats!) with normal hearing should be able to pick up this skill to varying degrees of competence.

    [Reply]

    Jimmy N. Reply:

    I’m just wondering how you are able to reply to an article on the internet if you cannot see?

    [Reply]

    tudza Reply:

    Use your noodle, or Google. They’ve had screen readers for years. I expect before that they had braille writers, probably still do.

    [Reply]

    Eric Oyen Reply:

    Forgive Jimmy N. He’s only ignorant and needs to learn.

    [Reply]

    Daniel Kish Reply:

    I would say that although people don’t know about screen-readers or other such technologies, this does not by any means suggest that they must be, as one said, “forgiven”. A lack of knowledge isn’t necessarily a lack of effort to obtain knowledge.

    I do use a screen-reader, in fact I use two depending on what I’m trying to read. I also use a braille note taker for smaller, more personal matters that a laptop could be too stationary or too cumbersome to bring with me on travels.

    Essentially the computer program reads to me the digital text that is on the screen, and I utilize key commands (both out-of-the-box and some specialized ones) in order to access the information presented. Alt +Tab for instance will navigate you between windows out of the box, but Insert +F7 will not bring up your links in a list, or Insert +M toggle your talking cursor on or off. For those, you’d need a specialized speech program.

    Thanks,
    Daniel

    [Reply]

    Eric Oyen Reply:

    Dan,
    I’ve been a low partial for over 23 years. last year, I went total due to an infection in both eyes. 2 months after that, I joined with a tandem riding partner to see if I could solo ride a bike. sure enough, I could. trying to follow sound was intensely difficult. here I am 6 months later and I can solo ride easily and can also echolocate around the neighborhood. There are some situations where I still feel at a loss (noisy environments). Since I am learning these skills fairly late in life (age 46) I was wondering if you have any tips or tricks to overcome some of the pitfalls? I can be reached via e-mail at: eric.oyen@gmail.com.

    [Reply]

  4. jamie Says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLziFMF4DHA

    [Reply]

  5. Shadab Says:

    “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.”

    WOW.. HE HAS NO EYES.. AND DOING ALL THESE STUFF.. IT REALLY AMAZING.

    [Reply]

  6. Kelly Husted Says:

    Daniel and World Access for the Blind will be featured on NPR’s show All Things Considered on Sunday, March 13 (5pm in most areas, but check local listings).

    [Reply]

  7. Alison Says:

    If this article doesn’t demonstrate the best and the worst of humanity, I don’t know what does. Someone discovers that he has amazing potential and perfects it to develop an incredible skill and the world, instead of cheering and rushing to emulate him, can’t do anything but criticize and undermine the effort. It is baffling. If Mr. Kish can do this, don’t you get it – we can all do it. We could see in the dark. And we could live in a world where being born without sight, or losing sight, would be only half as debilitating as it is now. Or only 10%. Who knows? If we started learning this in infancy, loss of vision would be so much less traumatic. It offers almost unbelievable opportunity and we’re never going to act on it because someone is afraid they’ll look weird clicking? I’m sure we can make an iPhone app to do it for us.

    [Reply]

  8. J_Brisby Says:

    There’s a whiff of bullshit about this. Certainly, blind people can routinely do most of the things sighted people do, and our ears can pick up far more information than most of us realize. But I have my doubts that Kish can actually click his tongue, and build a 3-D map of his surroundings. This has the same aura of self-promotion and charlatanry that surrounds gurus who claim to teach people to levitate. I wonder whether Kish is actually as impressive in person as he is portrayed in this story. Or, for that matter, as he portrays himself. Did he really detect how far the car was from the curb through echolocation? Because I bet I could do the same merely from the sound of the engine. I worry that impressionable kids who look up to Kish as a hero, might be convincing themselves that they can do things they can’t, and putting themselves in harm’s way. That mountain-biking incident didn’t seem to turn out too well. Maybe I’m too suspicious. But it’s served me well. I’ve always been the voice of caution among my friends, and I can’t count the number of times they’ve ended up being disillusioned by something I didn’t buy into.

    [Reply]

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