Asking Big Questions and Raising the Bar

  • Daniel Kish

Daniel Kish clicks and canes his way quickly down the hallway of the Canyons Resort, leading me to the elevator and up to the third floor. He’s agreed to sit and talk to me about his work with World Access For the Blind, his ideas and philosophies about perceptual navigation and mobility, and other subjects, including “waking up the brain.”

Kish, blind since he was just a year old due to the aggressive cancer retinoblastoma, developed the technique he calls “flash sonar”— a form of echolocation using sharp tongue clicks, and also clapping, to send out sound signals and listen to their echoes in order to interpret, or in a sense “see,” the world around him through sound. He can ride a mountain bike, skateboard, climb trees, and even navigate mountain trails alone. He is the co-founder and president of World Access For the Blind, a non-profit organization that, among other things, helps blind persons “discover a new way of seeing through sound.”

“We bring a perspective,” he says, which is consistent with the No Barriers perspective in many ways. It’s up to each individual to discover our own limits and strengths, and not allow those to be imposed on us by others.”

Kish asks big but simple questions of the students who come to him for instruction in perceptual navigation and mobility. He asks people,

“How much freedom do you want in your life? How much freedom do you want for yourself, and what are you willing to do to obtain that degree of freedom?”

Finally, he asks them, “How much control do you want over your own capacity to achieve? And, what, in truth, allows us to be truly free?”

Based on the students’ answers, desires, and needs, Kish and his instructors apply the techniques they’ve customized and taught in dozens of different countries and cultures. These include tongue clicking, clapping, and refined cane technique, typically using a longer cane. “The click is important,” he says, “But we don’t obsess over it. A good click should be sharp, focused, brief, bright in timbre, and the energy of the click focused out into the environment. The practiced combination of all the techniques combined is providing levels of freedom to blind people long believed impossible.

“It’s about using your perceptual awareness, with a bit of strategy, to maximize your interaction with your environment. For some blind people, this means choosing to go for a hike, to learn to ride a mountain bike on their own, or even to climb a mountain. For others, it’s making the choice to simply leave their house and go outside into the world. We simply offer those choices; but it’s all about having those choices in the first place.”

Kish and his instructors help blind people, those who so desire, move gracefully, confidently, and independently through the world. “Movement-wise,” says Kish, “I try to make it clear through how I conduct myself that I know what I’m doing. I try to move with a sense of poise and a sense of confidence, and that sense of confidence inspires confidence in others.”

Echolocation DemonstrationKish is also deeply aware of the potential social stigma that comes with clicking and clapping and caning one’s way around—he admits to falling prey to social stigma himself, and he confesses that he didn’t use a cane until he was in his 20s. But now he insists that the clicking or clapping need not be that obtrusive or even noticeable. “The click is tailored to the environment and the activity,” he says. “We place a value on self-efficacy. So, what do we need to do to increase our operability and functionality in the environment? All of us do what we must. It doesn’t matter what it is—if you have to wear glasses, you wear glasses, if you have to wear hearing aids, you might choose to wear hearing aids—whatever it is. If people fall prey to social stigma and self-consciousness, what they are really doing is essentially giving control over their lives to someone else.”

One discovery that Kish has made is that pushing one’s boundaries dramatically improves the more mundane tasks of everyday life. His instruction includes sports training, hiking, ball play—anything that extends and expands upon one’s perceptual abilities. As a perceptual psychologist, he’s learned that in order to improve anything we do, we have to challenge ourselves; we have to raise the bar. As an example, he says, “Nothing throws cane training or usage into better shape than a good rigorous hike over rough terrain. After navigating a rocky trail, then walking down the hallway, or a sidewalk, becomes that much easier. You are stretching your neural muscles.”

He points out that many blind people—either through social conventions, aides and instructors, and even parents—suffer from a lifetime of being guided by someone else. And as a result, the navigational brain centers, the very neural structures that govern navigation, have in effect atrophied through disuse.

“It’s as simple as ‘use it or lose it,’” he says. “Many blind people have actually lost the brain structures needed to self-navigate. So when we come along, and we are asking them to self-navigate, what we are really asking them to do is wake up their brains!”

At the No Barriers Summit, two of Kish’s instructors (Brian and Juan) got out mountain biking with some of the staff from the National Abilities Center. Juan, incidentally, owns the Guinness Book of World Records for blind bicycling! Kish is pleased to have been approached at the conclusion of the Summit by the No Barriers Youth staff about providing some training in his Perceptual-Navigation approach to hiking and wilderness travel for their Leading the Way program.

Kish concludes by saying that his No Barriers Summit experience has been terrific, and his goals met.

“When we put on clinics,” he says, “we hope and expect that people will walk away with an expanded perspective about blindness, and about themselves.”

I most certainly have.

Buddy Levy is a book author and journalist from Idaho. He is currently working on a book entitled No Barriers, which he’s co-authoring with Erik Weihenmayer.
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