‘We All Face the Dark Unknown’

UPDATED: October 22, 2015
PUBLISHED: August 16, 2015

I’m standing with my eyes tightly shut, a 12-inch-square piece of cardboard in front of my face. I whisper “sssshhh” as my coach moves the square up and down and right to left, listening intently for a change in the intensity of the sound bouncing off the cardboard.

“Now!” I shout when I think the reverberation of my whisper has diminished, and then open my eyes to see that the cardboard has indeed been moved away from my mouth.

A few minutes later, I step outside to the patio. With my eyes closed again, I’m standing a couple of inches in front of a wall. I make a clicking sound with my tongue as I take small steps to the right. Here, my challenge is to identify when I’ve reached the end of the wall by sensing how the clicks reverberate in open air. I concentrate deeply, aware of the whoosh of steady traffic and the footsteps of a passerby.

“Now?” I say hesitantly. I open my eyes; I’m standing a good 6 inches past the wall’s edge. Too far.

I’m being coached in “human echolocation,” a variation of the biosonar that bats, dolphins and whales use to “see” the world by interpreting sound. Daniel Kish, founder of the nonprofit organization World Access for the Blind, has been teaching what he calls “FlashSonar” to the unsighted for nearly 15 years. Born with retinoblastoma, an aggressive cancer that attacks the retinas, Kish, 49, lost both eyes by the time he was 13 months old. He now has prosthetic eyeballs and moves with such ease that, if it weren’t for his white cane, you might be slow to realize that he’s blind.

Echolocation is his unfailing GPS. By snapping his tongue against the roof of his mouth, Kish creates bursts of sound that rebound in echoes loaded with information about his environment—the location of objects, their size, shape and density. Adjusting the volume of his clicks, he can identify trees, buildings, telephone poles, hairpin turns in hiking trails, the ebb and flow of traffic, exit doors, and the auditory signature of the mail carrier, the UPS guy, friends and co-workers. The acoustic map he creates allows him to travel internationally on his own, ride his mountain bike on narrow cliffside trails and through heavily trafficked streets, hike into the wilderness and live for weeks at a time in a remote cabin.

Kish’s keen navigational skills have earned him the nickname Batman. He doesn’t wear a cape, but he does have a crusade.

He and his team of perceptual mobility coaches have taught FlashSonar to more than 15,000 people in 40-plus countries. The ambition stretches beyond this. “We want every blind person to have access to the unprecedented freedom, dignity, self-assurance and camaraderie that our approach affords,” he says. By his definition, once people achieve that competence, they are no longer blind. “We define blindness as a lack of awareness,” he says. “Slap a blindfold on a sighted person, they become profoundly unaware and they exhibit all the characteristics that society attributes to blindness: vulnerability, neediness, helplessness, incapacity, insecurity, fear, anxiety. But when you actually adapt to blindness, you no longer exhibit those qualities; you pretty much eradicate fear from your life in a way that most sighted people haven’t.”

Take, for a success story, Brian Bushway, a former student of World Access for the Blind who is now an instructor. Bushway, 33, lost his sight to optic nerve atrophy at age 14. Once a daring in-line skater who mastered the halfpipe, he spent the first six months after he went blind “marooned on a couch listening to books on tape. I was just sort of stuck there. I was bored and missing out.” His sense of what was possible changed when he was introduced to Kish through a Braille institute in Southern California.

“He was a role model,” Bushway says. “He lived independently, rode his bike everywhere, had gone to college on his own. I said to myself, This guy does it all. If he can figure out how, I can, too.”

Bushway had already begun to notice that he was hearing the echo of obstacles as he approached them. “I  could reach out and touch them or walk around them,” he says. Training with Kish, he sharpened his ability to see through sound, and today he says his life is in some ways richer than it was when he was sighted. “When I had vision, I was living only through one sense,” he says. “Now I live my life through all the rest of my senses.”

Bushway’s apartment in West Los Angeles is filled with tokens of this rich life—photographs from his wedding and a recent trip with his wife to Hawaii, a mountain bike, and an array of guitars. Since losing his sight, he took up music and plays in a rock band. As an instructor working under Kish, he has traveled to Canada, India, Armenia, Scotland and England. Wherever he goes, he says, the most meaningful part of his work remains the same: “We get to join people as they push their thresholds past what they thought they were capable of.”

Echolocation came naturally to Kish. Soon after losing his sight, he realized he had an “ability to hear silent objects.” By the time he was 18 months old, he says, “I began clicking my tongue and listening intently to the patterns of information that returned. It became clear that I knew what was around me and where to go, as if I had somehow regained a sliver of vision.”

His parents encouraged his exploration. “They did not ‘ooh and aah’ over my abilities,” he says. “They just casually referred to it as my ‘radar,’ as if every blind kid should have one.”

Independent and fearless by nature, he climbed trees and rode his bike down hills, with only a bit more blood and bruises than the sighted kids roughhousing alongside him. From the fifth grade on, he attended neighborhood schools, taking part in choir—“I found singing to be quite natural”—and sometimes playing lead roles in musicals.

He managed on his own in college as well, going on to earn master’s degrees in psychology and special education from the University of California, Riverside. In 2001 he quit his job with the Blind Children’s Learning Center in North Tustin, Calif., to go full time at World Access for the Blind, which he had started the previous year. “Working for someone else, I would never have been granted the latitude to develop our approach to such a powerful extent, and I would never have been able to reach so many people.”

Staying the course took perseverance. As Kish was waiting for his tax-exempt status to be confirmed, 9/11 shook the economy top to bottom. “All funding dried up overnight,” he says. He lived off his personal savings and credit cards for the next year. His gas was turned off when he couldn’t afford to repair a leak; neighbors complained about his unruly front yard after he had to let his gardener go. “Without meaning to sound dramatic, my cupboards were bare,” he says. “My family badgered me incessantly about the need to get a real job.”

Finally in October 2002, the organization attracted its first client. But thousands of clients later, Kish is still operating on a budget far leaner than he’d like, in part because he never turns any student away. Instead he supplements public funding and small fees with his earnings from giving corporate keynote speeches.

Through it all he has been buoyed by the extraordinary achievements of his students. There’s David Tseng, who lost his sight at age 11 to a rare genetic eye disorder and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a double major in applied mathematics and computer science. He’s now a software engineer with Google, an avid hiker and mountain biker. Juan Ruiz set a Guinness World Record for the fastest time slaloming through a bicycle obstacle course without the use of sight; continually clicking, he pedaled around 10 columns set on a 66-foot path in under 26 seconds with no errors. It was Ruiz, now a Vienna-based instructor for World Access, who as an 8-year-old came up with the idea of putting a soccer ball inside a plastic grocery bag so that he could always hear where the ball was, an adaption Kish and his team use when teaching soccer to kids today.

In March 2015, Kish gave a TED Talk that was viewed more than 737,000 times in the three months following. “We all face challenges, and we all face the dark unknown,” said Kish, standing confidently in the center of the stage as he had when he was a performer in those high school musicals. “But we all have brains that activate to allow us to navigate the journey through these challenges.

“When blind people learn to see, sighted people seem inspired to learn to see their way better, more clearly, with less fear, because this exemplifies the immense capacity within us all to navigate any type of challenge, through any form of darkness, to discoveries unimagined when we are activated. I wish you all a most activating journey.”

Discover how Krochet Kids, another nonprofit, is empowering women to stitch together new lives in Uganda and Peru.