Learning to See

Daniel Kish has been blind for as long as he can remember. He was born able to see but developed eye cancer as a baby. The doctors took out one eye when Daniel was just seven months old. His second eye was removed a few weeks after his first birthday.

This disease, called retinoblastoma, is a rare form of cancer. It develops in the immature cells of a retina. This means, it is almost always found in young children.

Daniel grew up without his eyes, but he doesn’t consider himself blind. “Many people regard blindness as a tragedy,” Daniel says. “But it doesn’t need to be.”

“Close your eyes,” Daniel says. “Now, imagine that when you try to open your eyes — they don’t open. They won’t open. Ever again. What are you going to do?”

Many people who go blind feel stuck. They feel like they are trapped because they can’t see.

“Eventually you’ll need to get up, go somewhere, do something.” Daniel says, “What if you are handed a stick? You have taken the first step toward freedom.”

Most blind people learn to use a cane to see the world around them by taping and scanning the ground in front of them as they walk. Daniel uses a long cane because it gives him a good picture of what’s coming up.

Some blind people take the arm of someone else and let them do the seeing. Daniel didn’t like to do that, even as a boy. “If you grab on to someone, you might just not let go,” he says. He decided to learn to find his own way through the world.

When he was a young boy, a friend loaned Daniel a small bike. He learned to ride it in the hallway of his house. He got very good at riding the small bike. So, his parents bought him a bigger one of his own. It took time to learn to ride the bigger bike, but soon Daniel was riding up and down the street and through the park like any other boy.

“But, how?!” I can hear you say, “He couldn’t see!”

Well, yes he could. Daniel taught himself to see with his ears. Believe it or not, that’s what he learned to do.

Those of us with two good ears can tell where sound is coming from. If someone calls your name, or even makes a noise, you can point at them with your eyes closed.

Daniel took this hearing ability a step further. He noticed, when he made a certain noise — a clicking sound — he could hear it reflecting back to him. But the sound that returned to him sounded different than the click he had sent out.

Some click-echoes came back fast. That object was close.

Some click-echoes came bake slow. That object was farther away.

Some click-echoes came back sharp and clear. That object has a solid smooth surface — maybe a door, window, wall — something you can’t go through.

Some click-echoes came back muffled and quiet. That object is absorbent or soft — maybe a tree covered in bark, a person, a bush — something else to avoid.

And sometimes, the sound doesn’t come back. That means open space — a place to ride!

Daniel learned to see the way a bat sees in the dark, using echolocation. Every echo told him something. Every click Daniel would send out would return from a thousand directions. Daniel calls it ‘flash sonar.’

Today, as an adult, Daniel teaches blind people how to see. He teaches them how to use a long cane. He teaches them how to click and hear the reflection of that sound so they can see a 3D soundscape of the world.

Brain doctors have discovered something amazing about Daniel’s brain. Using an MRI machine, they have recorded Daniel’s brain as he uses flash sonar. Amazingly, Daniel uses the same part of his brain to ‘see’ with his ears as people who see with their eyes. Other people Daniel has taught to echolocate have also been studied by these doctors. They also use their visual processing centre to ‘see’ the world around them. Their brains have learned to see using their ears.

Daniel is the president of World Access for the Blind. They teach people to see life in new ways. “The brain is like a muscle,” Daniel says. “Strength comes from use. We train the brain to access the visual centres through reflected sound instead of reflected light.”

While Daniel doesn’t see himself as amazing, he does see the people he trains as courageous. Many of his students have been holding on to someone’s arm for years. It is very hard to let go and navigate the world on your own when you have always believed you could not.

These people are the true heroes, in Daniel’s eyes. They have the courage to try. For nearly 20 years, Daniel’s organisation has been helping people learn to see in new ways. Daniel doesn’t limit this new sight to people who are physically blind.

“What we hope,” Daniel says, “is to help everyone see more clearly to greater freedom!” Some people are afraid to be brave and face problems in their lives. If you can see, Daniel puts a blind fold on you and teaches you to click and use flash sonar. When people realise they can learn to see without their eyes, they become more courageous in other areas of their lives and try to see those problems in new ways.

One of Daniel’s first students was a boy born blind named Juan Ruiz. Juan had already learned to do many things — like play soccer with a ball in a bag. The ball made lots of noise because of the bag. He could find the bag and kick it. When he learned flash sonar, Juan was able to learn to ride a bike. He loved the confidence and freedom that echolocation gave him. Daniel asked Juan to come work with him teaching echolocation to people around the world.

Juan had an idea of how to get their message out to more people. Go on Television and do something amazing. So, he decided he would break a world record. “Fastest 10 obstacle slalom on bicycle — blindfolded” was his goal. On April 8, 2011 he set the record — 48.34 seconds. Then, two years later he broke his record nearly in half — 25.43 seconds.

Juan says the most important part of the event wasn’t the records, it was the message he gave in his speech. “This obstacle course is not just poles; it represents a goal, and the bigger our goals, the more obstacles we will face. And, if you should fail, you just pick yourself up and try again. But, at the end we will experience victory!”

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