Daniel Kish’s blindness began at an early age. The California native lost both eyes to a form of cancer called retinoblastoma when he was a baby. But as far as Kish is concerned, he can see. And now he is lighting the way for others.
Kish was born with retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer which attacks the retina. He lost his right eye when he was just seven months old. And when he was 13 months old his other eye was removed in order to save his life.
However, Kish demonstrated his strong spirit even at an early age. During a Ted Talk in 2015, he described clambering out of his cot after the surgery to remove his second eye. Despite not being able to see, he toddled around the unit, probably, he joked, “looking for the [person] who did this to me.”
Kish’s desire to explore continued once he got home. He remembers leaving the house at night on one occasion and even climbing over a neighbor’s fence aged just two. “I was in the habit of exploring whatever I sensed around me,” he wrote in his journal.
Incredibly, at that age Kish had started to make clicking sounds with his tongue that were unique to him. And although he didn’t know what he was doing then, he now understands that he had come up with a way of interpreting his environment.
It was nearly a decade later that one of Kish’s friends pinpointed what he was doing. Through the noises he made, he was listening to the echoes made as his clicks bounced off various surfaces. Different objects sent back different noises. So the reflected sound helped Kish to create a mental image of what was around him.
The technique is called echolocation and it’s the same process used by bats and dolphins. “You send out a sound or a call and sound waves are physical waves – they bounce back from physical surfaces,” Kish told the BBC in 2012.
“So if a person is clicking and they’re listening to surfaces around them they do get an instantaneous sense of the positioning of these surfaces.”
Echolocation was first noted in animals, but there is evidence that is has long existed among humans too. There are reports from as far back as the 1700s that suggest some people could identify objects they could not see with their eyes.
Kish has been labelled Batman because of his fascinating skill, although he insists there is nothing superhuman about what he does. As far as he is concerned, he is just a man who has adapted so that he can navigate a path through his world. “Anyone could do it, sighted or blind. It’s not rocket science,” he said in a 2013 interview in The Guardian.
For many years Kish avoided carrying a white stick, preferring not to identify himself as visually impaired. He has prosthetic eyes, which he regularly removes to clean as they get “gummy.” But it’s his echolocation technique that allows him to blend in with the world around him. Kish confirms as much in his biography on the website Visioneers. “Blindness… should be understood – by both the blind and the sighted – as nothing more than an inconvenience,” he writes.
Kish’s advanced knowledge of echolocation allows him to do things like hike and even ride a bike. He also remained in regular schools, where he excelled academically. At middle school he was even named “best brain.”
After finishing school, Kish went on to study at a number of universities. These included the University of California Riverside, California State University San Bernadino, and CSU LA. He achieved two master’s degrees, in special education and developmental psychology. Kish planned to be a psychologist, but gradually he starting thinking about using his form of echolocation – which he calls flashsonar – to help others. And in 2000 he landed on an idea.
That year, Kish founded the non-profit organization World Access For The Blind. Through education, psychology and training, it says that its mission is to teach “blind [people] to see in a new way.”
But Kish’s charity faced financial troubles as he was launching his organization. With the U.S. economy rocked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, funding was thin on the ground. “Without meaning to sound dramatic, my cupboards were bare,” he told Success magazine in 2015.
Things evidently picked up as Kish and his coaches have now helped thousands of people with their method of mobility and advanced orientation. The organization has taught more than 10,000 blind people and others in the blind community, across 40 countries. And Kish has become an inspiration along the way.
One of World Access For The Blind’s former students told Success that Kish had woken him up to the possibilities for blind people. After losing his sight at 14, Brian Bushway revealed he spent months “marooned on a couch listening to books on tape.” But things changed when he met Kish.
Bushway, who is now one of Kish’s coaches, continued, “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.”
Another grateful recipient of Kish’s training said he changed her life in just eight days. Julee-anne Bell, who was born blind, told SBS that Kish jetted all the way to Australia to help her master flash sonar. “[Those eight days] quite literally changed my life,” she said.
While much of Kish’s work focuses on helping people with the practical side of life, he believes his method also allows seasoned users to further interpret the world around them. “The sense of imagery is very rich for an experienced user,” he said in his BBC interview. “One can get a sense of beauty or starkness or whatever – from sound as well as echo.”
Kish’s overall message is one of huge positivity. He embodies the guiding philosophy of his organization, “Blind not broken, no limits and no difference.” Kish succinctly summed up his thoughts during his Ted Talk. “It’s not up to society to predefine limits for someone else – I tend to assume that the sky’s the limit.”