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kottke.org posts about Daniel Kish

The blind man who can see

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2011

Daniel Kish had both eyes removed as an infant but uses echolocation to see the world around him with remarkable detail.

I accompanied Kish on several occasions as he cruised the busy streets of Long Beach. The outside world is an absolute cacophony. Every car, person, dog, stroller, and bicycle makes a sound. So do gusts of wind, bits of blowing garbage, and rustling leaves. Doors open and close. Change jangles. People talk. Then there are the silent obstacles - what Kish calls urban furniture: benches, traffic signs, telephone poles, postal boxes, fire hydrants, light posts, parked vehicles. Kish hears the sonic reflections from his click even in a place teeming with ambient noise. “It’s like recognizing a familiar voice in a crowd,” he says. The load upon his mind is undoubtedly immense. Yet he casually processes everything, constructing and memorizing a mental map of his route, all while maintaining an intricate conversation with me. It’s so extraordinary that it seems to border on the magical.

When we walk into a restaurant - never a simple choice with Kish, since he’s a strict vegan - he makes a much quieter click. Kish describes the images he receives as akin to a brief flick of the lights in a dark room; you get enough essential information - tables here, stairway there, support pillars here - to navigate your way through. “It becomes as ridiculous for blind people to run into a wall as it is for sighted people,” he once wrote in his FlashSonar manual. He strolls casually across the restaurant, making one or two more clicks as we approach our table, then sits down. It’s both smooth and subtle. Kish says that it is rare a sighted person even notices he’s making an unusual noise. Almost all blind people instantly do.