World Access Continued

Yesterday’s article continues…

In a letter he posted on his website a few years ago, Kish responded to a public school program in New Jersey called Kindness Beats Blindness, in which hundreds of middle school students were blindfolded while others led them around, to develop sympathy for the blind. “I have felt beaten and pummeled by many things,” he wrote, “misplaced kindness foremost among them.” When I asked Kish about the letter he said, “I have a reputation for being a pain in the ass.” One of his closest friends sometimes refers to him as “the bridge burner.”

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.” A few sighted people have commented to Kish that they’d rather be dead than blind.

So in 2001 he started World Access for the Blind. One of its missions is to counter every no that blind people hear. Blindness, Kish says, should be understood — by both the blind and the sighted — as nothing more than an inconvenience. “Most of my life,” he writes, “I never even thought of myself as blind. In fact, I saw myself as smarter, more agile, stronger, and generally more capable than most other boys my age.”

Blind kid playing soccer

Soccer kid – Blind

World Access operates on what Kish calls “an annual budget of silliness” — less than $200,000 a year. (Kish himself makes only “a survival wage.”) He depends on the “blind vine,” the chattery network of the visually impaired, to spread the word. When a potential student, or a parent of a student, agrees to hire World Access, either Kish or one of three other World Access teachers — all blind or visually impaired — will pay a visit, whether it’s on the other side of Los Angeles or the other side of the world.

Lessons can consist of private meetings a few times a month, or an intensive week of training for students farther afield. He’s visited a group of blind students in northern Mexico three times and traveled to Scotland eight times. In all, Kish has taught in 14 countries, including Armenia, South Africa, Switzerland, and Ukraine. Blind students or organizations in more than a dozen other nations, from Afghanistan to Guatemala, are now on his waiting list. The chief focus of World Access classes is setting students on the path to complete autonomy. Echolocation is an essential element of what Kish terms “a holistic approach” that also includes lessons on comfortable social interactions, confident self-image, and non-visual conversational cues (a head turn can be noted by the sound of hair swishing; arm gestures by the whisper of skin brushing against clothing; the shift of someone’s body by the creaking of furniture).

World Access doesn’t turn anyone away for lack of resources. But there are a couple of reasons why the organization hasn’t trained more students. The first is Kish’s general ethos about how blind children should be raised. “Running into a pole is a drag, but never being allowed to run into a pole is a disaster,” he writes. “Pain is part of the price of freedom.” This attitude is not wildly popular,

World Access through sound

World Access via sound

especially in a safety-first nation like the United States. Also, echolocation is not easy to master. Kish compares it with piano lessons — anyone can learn basics; very few will make it to Carnegie Hall. Only about 10 percent of the people who learn echolocation, he admits, find their abilities immediately enriched.

By Michael Finkel (Men’s Journal)

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World Access

In the next two entries we’ll be sharing the story of Daniel Kish the president of World Access for the Blind.

Kish was born with an aggressive form of cancer called retinoblastoma, which attacks the retinas. To save his life, both of his eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. Since his infancy — Kish is now 44 — he has been adapting to his blindness in such remarkable ways that some people have wondered if he’s playing a grand practical joke. But Kish… is completely blind.

He has trained himself to hear… slight echoes and to interpret their meaning. Standing on his front stoop, he could visualize, with an extraordinary degree of precision, the two pine trees on his front lawn, the curb at the edge of his street, and finally, a bit too far from that curb, my rental car. Kish has given a name to what he does — he calls it “FlashSonar” — but it’s more commonly known by its scientific term, echolocation.

Bats, of course, use echolocation. Beluga whales too. Dolphins. And Daniel Kish. 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 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.

This is not enough for him. Kish is seeking nothing less than a profound reordering of the way the world views blind people, and the way blind people view the world. He’s tired of being told that the blind are best served by staying close to home, sticking only to memorized routes, and depending on the unreliable benevolence of the sighted to do anything beyond the most routine of tasks.

He’s regarded by some in the blind community with deep veneration. Others,

Echolocation

Echolocation – sound sight

like a commenter on the National Federation of the Blind’s listserv, consider him “disgraceful” for promoting behavior such as tongue clicking that could be seen as off-putting and abnormal.

Kish and a handful of coworkers run a nonprofit organization called World Access for the Blind, headquartered in Kish’s home. 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.

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.

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. Many blind children make noises in order to get feedback — foot stomping, finger snapping, hand clapping, tongue clicking. These behaviors 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.

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. Once, when I was driving Kish to an appointment with a student, the

Echolocaters

Echolocaters. No Limits

GPS unit in my car stopped working. Kish examined the unit with his hands, instructed me from the passenger seat how to get to the nearest Radio Shack, and told me which part to buy (the jack on the power cord was faulty). He was named “best brain” in middle school and graduated high school with a GPA close to 4.0. He was voted “most likely to succeed.”

By Michael Finkel (Men’s Journal)