By Kim Constantinesco
When Daniel Kish wants to ride his bike through a busy intersection, he calls upon his tongue, not his eyes, to decipher whether it’s safe to pedal through.
With rapid-fire loud sharp clicks of his tongue, he scans his environment and updates his brain as he goes, much like a bat or a dolphin does.
Kish, 49, lost his vision at 13 months old to retinoblastoma, an aggressive form of cancer, but he uses human echolocation, or flash sonar, to navigate the world.
Echolocation means that Kish knows how to interpret sound waves that are reflected off of objects, and can determine their location and size. His range of detection is up to several hundred meters depending on the circumstances. In other words, using his highly-skilled click, he can tell the difference between a compact car and an SUV at said intersection, and whether there is another car approaching from blocks away.
Many blind people use this type of feedback to orient themselves to their surroundings, but Kish is the first person to document the learning process and figure out how to teach it to others. He’s the go-to expert on the “language” and he has taught over 1,000 people all over the world how to use the skill. That includes many talented athletes, who happen to be blind as well.
Challenges Become Puzzles
Kish began using echolocation at 15 months old. A large contributor to Kish’s success with it comes as a result of the way he was raised.
“I was raised with the expectation that I would be able to get around and not struggle to do so,” Kish said. “I can say that I taught myself, but really it has to do with the kind of attitude that my parents instilled in me.”
Kish’s parents didn’t think of him as remarkable or amazing. His activities and achievements weren’t celebrated, but simply accepted and nurtured to enable him to enjoy freedoms and responsibilities.
One of the most important things that Kish learned from his parents was that they would not fix things or make them alright. He had to put in the work himself.
“For instance, if I misplaced something, my parents would not go get it, nor would they necessarily show me where it was,” Kish said. “They would show me how to find it, and how to keep track of it in the future.”
That’s not to say that he had an easy upbringing. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother left when he was six years old. His younger brother also had retinoblastoma. Doctor’s were able to preserve some of his vision, but he’s still classified as legally blind.
Kish had a deep drive to explore the world around him. He would sneak out of his house to explore neighbors’ yards in the middle of the night. He took his bike out and launched himself down steep hills. He went hiking by himself in the woods. He did the things that his heart called him to do.
Kish went to mainstream schools and excelled in gifted classes. He earned close to a 4.0 GPA in high school, and went on to earn two masters degrees; one in developmental psychology from Cal State San Bernardino and one in special education from Cal State L.A.
You can say that his ability to adapt to most environments and circumstances has been a pathway to his success. In fact, Kish will tell you that being blind has allowed him to conquer fear.
“If you adapt to your blindness, it means that you have opened your awareness enough to be very comfortable in your environment,” Kish said. “You don’t really have fear, or you don’t experience fear in the same way that a lot of other people do. I think man’s most primal fear is fear of the unknown, or fear of the dark. If you’re blind, and you’ve adapted to your blindness, you have become very comfortable with the unknown, so you’ve kind of conquered one of man’s most primal fears. If you don’t fear the unknown anymore, then challenges just become puzzles.”
Acquiring a New Language
Kish is teaching other blind people how to turn challenges into puzzles. In 2000, he founded World Access for the Blind, a non-profit that aims to “improve the quality of interaction between blind and sighted people by facilitating equal access to the world’s resources and opportunities.” Primarily, they’re focused on teaching the skill of echolocation in order to enhance personal freedoms.
Kish and his team of two fully trained instructors travel all over the world to spend 2-3 days with those individuals who want to learn the skill. About 20-30 hours of instruction are applied to help someone develop a foundation. Then, it’s up to that person to apply the skill.
“You have to be motivated and willing to commit to the process,” Kish said. “In order to learn it, you have to apply it. It would be a bit like, under what conditions is someone prepared to learn an additional language? In order to learn an additional language, you have to want to and then you have to apply the process, but echolocation is much easier to learn than a second language.”
With the help of Kish and World Access for the Blind, those who learn echolocation are able to engage in a wider range of activities with greater comfort and confidence. Whether that’s playing the piano, painting, or playing sports, the choice of pursuits are highly variable.
Ben Underwood was diagnosed with retinal cancer at 2 years old, and had to have both of his eyes removed at 3 years old. Before the cancer came back and attacked his brain and spinal cord claiming his life at 16, Kish helped Underwood with echolocation as he pursued athletics.
“Ben used to be able to click off the backboard. That was his target,” Kish said. “He couldn’t actually detect the basket itself, but he could infer where the basket was based on where the backboard was.”
Kish’s team also trained Nathan Russell, the first blind Gracie jiu-jitsu instructor.
“When he’s fighting or teaching others, he uses it to not only keep track of his opponent, but to keep track of himself and to keep track of his own orientation in the environment around him,” Kish said.
Then there was the boy from Mexico, who had a passion for soccer. He went blind at 6 years old and his interest in the sport waned. After Kish’s team got to him, his enthusiasm for soccer returned and he became one of the best players on his team.
Clicking on Trails and in Everyday Life
Perhaps the biggest athletic name to use echolocation is Erik Weihenmayer, the well-rounded adventurer who is the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest. Most recently, he solo kayaked 277 miles of the Grand Canyon.
Kish traveled to Weihenmayer’s home in Golden, Colorado to teach him how to click more effectively, and today he uses the skill while climbing mountains and running trails.
“I’m still a work in progress. I was walking through the woods the other day, and I’m clicking away, and then BAM! I smacked my forehead right into a really skinny tree,” Weihenmayer admitted.
When Kish spent a few days with Weihenmayer, it wasn’t all about using the technique to navigate rocky ledges, however.
Walking home from a nearby park on a bike path, there was a place where Weihenmayer could cut through to get home quicker.
“There’s nothing on the bike trail that tells you where to cut off. It’s not like there’s something I can touch or feel,” Weihenmayer said. “It’s all grass, but Daniel worked with me and we determined that it was after the third grove of trees where I turn to get to my house. By using that skill, I can get up to my house using a little shortcut, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s more about me being more aware of my environment. It affects every area of your life.”
A Path to Freedom
Kish’s ultimate goal is to provide others with the keys to drive to their own avenue of freedom whether that comes in the form of shooting basketballs, climbing mountains, or walking to the mailbox by themselves.
“Freedom is kind of interesting because it’s a very basic right and human need that often goes overlooked,” Kish said. “What we often don’t talk about is a very basic human right to movement. Freedom of movement, freedom of personal action, and freedom to be able to have a desire, and to be able to exercise that desire; a lot of people in general struggle with that.”
Kish is providing people with a form of sight so that they can steer themselves toward their own personal desires, and ultimately, live by faith — faith in themselves and in the world around them, one click at a time.