Daniel Kish was born during 1966 in Montebello, California with an aggressive form of cancer called retinoblastoma, which attacks the retinas. He lost vision in one eye when he was seven months old, and in the other when 13 months old to Retinoblastoma.
Kish was born, 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.
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.
If you saw Kish walking down the street you’d hear him make repeated clicking sounds with his tongue — click! click! click! — as he weaves through traffic or ducks to miss tree branches. The clicks usually aren’t terribly loud, but they come at a continuous clip.
He makes the sound more often when he’s a bit confused or comes to an intersection. Other times he’s silent as he walks with the help of a cane. Many blind children make noises in order to get feedback — foot stomping, finger snapping, hand clapping, tongue clicking. These behaviours 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.
Kish does not go around clicking like a madman. He uses his click sparingly and, depending on his location, varies the volume. When he’s outside, he’ll throw a loud click. In good conditions, he can hear a building 1,000 feet away, a tree from 30 feet, a person from six feet. Up close, he can echolocate a one-inch diameter pole. He can tell the difference between a pickup truck, a passenger car, and an SUV. He can locate trail signs in the forest, then run his finger across the engraved letters and determine which path to take. Every house, he explains, has its own acoustic signature.
He can hear the variation between a wall and a bush and a chain-link fence. Bounce a tennis ball off a wall, Kish says, then off a bush. Different response. So too with sound. Given a bit of time, he can echolocate something as small as a golf ball. Sometimes, in a parking garage, he can echolocate the exit faster than a sighted person can find it.
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.
“My parents did not limit me, they did not restrict me from anything. They were not at all concerned about my blindness, and raised me just like any other child,” he says.
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.
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 rode his bike with wild abandon. He said “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 neighbourhood 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 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.
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 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.
Daniel Kish has used clicking sounds to detect objects and to make his way around them. But it was only when he was around 18 that he found what he was doing was called “human echolocation”. He makes clicking noises with his mouth and uses the sound waves reflected by the surrounding objects to identify their location and size. This acoustic process is similar to what bats and dolphins do to navigate.
Human echolocation is the ability of humans to detect objects in their environment by sensing echoes from those objects. By actively creating sounds – for example, by tapping their canes, lightly stomping their foot or making clicking noises with their mouths – people trained to orientate with echolocation can interpret the sound waves reflected by nearby objects, accurately identifying their location and size. This ability is used by some blind people for acoustic way finding, or navigating within their environment using auditory rather than visual cues. It is similar in principle to active sonar and to the animal echolocation employed by some animals, including bats, dolphins and toothed whales.
Echolocation has been further developed by Daniel Kish, who works with the blind, leading blind teenagers hiking and mountain-biking through the wilderness and teaching them how to navigate new locations safely, with a technique that he calls “FlashSonar”,through the non-profit organization World Access for The Blind.
He now trains other blind people in the use of echolocation and in what he calls “Perceptual Mobility”.Though at first resistant to using a cane for mobility, seeing it as a “handicapped” device, and considering himself “not handicapped at all”, Kish developed a technique using his white cane combined with echolocation to further expand his mobility.
Daniel created the first systematic, comprehensive echolocation curriculum for advanced training. So advanced are the results of this training that Daniel has coined the term “Flash Sonar” to underscore the advantages to his specific approach to the advanced instruction and use of active echolocation in contrast to traditional approaches to echolocation, which he believes to be rudimentary by comparison.
Daniel and some of his students have applied FlashSonar combined with other techniques to riding bicycles independently at moderate speeds through unfamiliar environments, and to participate effectively and independently in other complex activities such as skating, ball play, and solo wilderness travel.
There are two reasons echolocation works. The first is that our ears, conveniently, are located on both sides of our head. When there’s a noise off to one side, the sound reaches the closer ear about a millisecond — a thousandth of a second before it reaches the farther ear. That’s enough of a gap for the auditory cortex of our brain to process the information. It’s rare that we turn the wrong way when someone calls our name. In fact, we’re able to process, with phenomenal accuracy, sounds just a few degrees off-center. Having two ears, like having two eyes, also gives us the auditory equivalent of depth perception. We hear in stereo 3-D. This allows us, using only our ears, to build a detailed map of our surroundings.
The second reason echolocation works is that humans, on average, have excellent hearing. We hear better than we see. Much better. On the light spectrum, human eyes can perceive only a small sliver of all the varieties of light — no ultraviolet, no infrared. Converting this to sound terminology, we can see less than one octave of frequency. We hear a range of 10 octaves.
We can also hear behind us; we can hear around corners. Sight can’t do this. Human hearing is so good that if you have decent hearing, you will never once in your life experience true silence. Even if you sit completely still in a soundproof room, you will detect the beating of your own heart.
Quotes of Daniel Kish
“I don’t remember when I started using echolocation, for I have been doing it ever since I was a child. But would credit my parents for inspiring me to discover it. They were not overprotective and did not treat me like someone who would not be able to achieve what they expected of him.I
“What I can do is not important. What is important is what I can teach others to help them.”
Make a point of regularly challenging what you think you know. Most of it is based on assumptions that have been programmed into us by a society which doesn’t necessarily have our best interests at heart. If we challenge what we think we know, there is a chance we can break out of that and begin to touch what is real.”“
By and large, Blind people are taught to be dependent on sighted people — in part because 99% of them, he said, are taught by people who can see. 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.”
Young people, says Kish, are especially hard-hit. “Most blind kids hear a lot of negative talk. ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t move. No, here, let me help you.’ The message you get, if you’re blind, is you’re intellectually deficient, you’re emotionally deficient, you’re in all ways deficient.”
Daniel asserts that the liberation of blind people depends upon the awareness that blindness bears no intrinsic shame or deficiency. Rather, the deficiency lies primarily in the quality of interaction between the world and the blind. Daniel is deeply dedicated to helping unlock the ability of blind people to challenge these limiting forces with personal assurance and strength, and to stand at last on their own merits in camaraderie and equality with sighted people.
Kish, is the first totally blind person to be a legally Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) and to hold a National Blindness Professional Certification (NOMC).
Daniel Kish is President of World Access for the Blind, a non-profit founded in 2000 to facilitate “the self-directed achievement of people with all forms of blindness” and increase public awareness about their strengths and capabilities.
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.
Visit website of World Access for the blind by clicking this link
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 milli meter 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.
Kish uses his ears to see. When he walks around unfamiliar places — he loves hiking — he clicks his tongue and then listens as that sound bounces off nearby objects. He says he’s trained his brain to turn these sounds into an image of sorts — an auditory map he follows with the help of a cane.
Kish has helped Vikram, who plays a RAW agent in A.L. Vijay’s Tamil feature film Thaandavam, play a visually challenged person. He has also planned to visit Chennai and train blind people in echolocation techniques.
Visit these links to view video of Daniel Kish in action.
Though Daniel Kish is suffering due to blindness from childhood, he has the vision to change the future of blind by popularising the concept of echolocation which helps blind people to lead an independent life without the support of others. His inspiring success story will definitely motivate many people to strive for success in an independent manner.