Blindness No Obstacle To Those With Sharp Ears

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Daniel Kish leads All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz on a bike ride in Culver City, Los Angeles, Ca. i

Daniel Kish leads All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz on a bike ride in Culver City, Los Angeles, Ca. NPR hide caption

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Daniel Kish leads All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz on a bike ride in Culver City, Los Angeles, Ca.

Daniel Kish leads All Things Considered weekend host Guy Raz on a bike ride in Culver City, Los Angeles, Ca.

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Meet Daniel Kish. He's a man of many talents. He likes to hike, make music and write. He enjoys children and loves nature. He's an avid biker.

He's also completely blind.

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How can Kish bike if he can't see? The method is called echolocation — Kish calls it "flash sonar." As he speeds along on his bike, he makes clicking sounds. As the clicks bounce back to him, he creates a mental image of the space around him. He's kind of like a human bat.

"It is literally a process of seeing with sound," he says.

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To demonstrate, Kish clicks and "hears" a building to his right. "When I walk into a new area, the first thing I do is I take stock of the most prominent features," he says. "So in this particular area, the three most prominent features would be that building, the umbrella in the middle of this table, and the tree behind me."

Noting the differences in the aural reflections from the buildings around him, Kish can tell what angles they're standing at and even a few features, like balconies or columns.

"Those are the kinds of patterns that catch my attention," he says. "Those are the kinds of patterns of reflections that give richness to the images that are possible from sonar."

Kish has been clicking to find his way around as far back as he can remember. Through his nonprofit foundation, World Access For the Blind, he helps blind children to explore their world through echolocation.

"It's the overall process of being willing to reach out into the environment and discover what is around them," he says. He encourages parents to get out of the way — their natural instinct might be to protect their child from harm — even if it means they might get hurt.

"When a sighted child gets hurt we consider it to be unfortunate," Kish says. "When a blind child gets hurt, we consider it to be tragic." It's a double standard that disadvantages a blind child, he says.

But ultimately, Kish's work isn't just about teaching echolocation or learning spatial awareness. It's about a philosophy, he says — a "no-limits philosophy, which challenges us to challenge what we think we know," he says.

"To challenge every boundary, every box, every limitation that we've either put up ourselves or allow ourselves to be conditioned to accept."

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