Take Daniel Kish, who kindly agreed to talk to me. Completely blind for most of his life, yet he thinks nothing of riding a bike on busy streets, navigating through woods or scaling mountains on his own. Nor should we. Given the freedom to explore as a young child, he quickly discovered that your only limitations are those imposed on yourself. The worst excuse he's ever heard? "I can't see."
1. You've been totally blind since the age of one, please tell us how you learned how to "see" with echolocation (using a series of tongue clicks that create sound waves as they bounce off objects to identify what lies in your surroundings).
I just learned by moving around, which I was free to do without a lot of busybodies interfering very much. My mother was fierce about my independence. I was held to strict standards, but also allowed a lot of liberty, liberty to learn from consequences.
2. Despite being given a pretty big excuse to sit everything out, you instead decide to go out and explore, is there anything you think you wouldn't try?
I guess blindness might be seen as a big excuse for whatever, but I have never considered it such. I didn't even know I was blind until I was 5 or 6. And I was every bit as active as the other boys, and very competitive. I have no desire to sky dive. I have no doubt I would jump out of a plane without much hesitation if I had to, but see no reason to jump out of a perfectly good plane.
3. Everyone has their bad days, how do you motivate yourself to carry on through these?
When it comes to braving the weather, I will brave almost any kind of storm. Storms don't seem to bother me much. I do not hide from most storms – I don't hide from much of anything...I do push against many things that push back. I think what allows me to do this is that I have a knack for being able to see things from a bird's eye view. I can usually catch a glimpse of the other side of the storm, and what lies there waiting. It's usually a positive thing, and being able to maintain my awareness of it keeps me moving forward.
In the end, I guess I have decided that the concrete details and drudgeries of life can be hard enough without compounding them with abstract worries. So, I guess I try to balance myself by planning for the future, while attending to the present. That may sound loftier than it really is. What I'm really trying to say is that I just try to screw up as little as possible, and do my best to recognize and fix the screw ups that happen anyway.
4. Through World Access for the Blind, you encourage other visually impaired people to achieve things they previously thought were impossible. How do you go about pushing them out of their comfort zones?
Most blind people have allowed themselves to become conditioned to depend on others to navigate for them, manage activities around them, and foster their capacity to function in the world. We do the following things with our students:
- Explain that our brains lose what isn't used. If we are guided around or things done for us, then those mechanisms in our brains that govern freedom of movement atrophy.
- Sighted guide is suspended for the duration of our training. If we want to go through life as someone else's passenger, then we will never learn to drive our own mobility.
- Get them a proper length cane with more effective training. The canes of most of our students are too short, which doesn't provide them sufficient preview of their environment. It is this lack of preview that often keeps people dependent and apprehensive.
- We discourage tactual dependence on physical surfaces – trailing walls and such, which are commonly taught to excess. These things have their place on occasion, but mostly they're restrictive. Most of the world is made up of open space. Yet, most blind people are tied to physical boundaries, which keeps them bound as well.
- We undertake a very specific process of socialization so that blind people can resume their interactions with people in a normalized manner that isn't marginalizing and isolating.
- We teach FlashSonar to awaken the brain's ability to see through sound.
5. You've had a few bumps and broken bones from jumping rocks, climbing trees and riding your mountain bike solo. Would anything make you stop?
Yeah! Age and wisdom.
6. Do you have any new activities you'd like to try or challenges planned for the next year?
Well, within the next year, I will be taking the stage at TED 2015 in March. I will also be completing a text book on FlashSonar, and submitting a life story book proposal to a major publisher.
In the following year, in commemoration of my turning half a century, I'd like to try my hand at Solo, unguided hang gliding, but that will take some planning and resources. I'll be looking for sponsors. (Did I say something about age and wisdom?)