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the boy who can see without his eyes, using sonar.

the boy who can see without his eyes, using sonar.

Human Echo Location

eyes cancer
Blind Ben

Ben Underwood is blind. Both eyes were removed when he was just three years old, leaving him with no vision at all. So how on earth does he play basketball, rollerblade and cycle his bike? Ben lost his eyes to retinal cancer but, unbelievably, he’s taught himself to see; with sound.

Ben Underwood and his family live in Sacramento, the state capital of California. It’s an old city with roots in the Wild West, but Ben and his family live in the new, outlying suburbs.

Ben uses many common aids for the blind, like speaking software for his computer so he can jot down his rap lyrics. He’s also written a book and does his schoolwork on a hi-tech Braille writer. But what’s unusual, what’s totally unique, is what he doesn’t use. Ben has no guide dog and never uses a white cane. He doesn’t even use his hands. Instead he sees with sound, he makes a sharp click, with his tongue, which bounces back off nearby objects. Amazingly, Ben’s ears pick up the echoes and he can precisely locate where things are. Ben is the only person in the world who sees using nothing but echolocation.

Ben’s echolocation is so good, that at home his mum, Aquanetta Gordon, and his brother make no allowance for his blindness at all. Aquanetta has refused to allow the loss of Ben’s eyes to overshadow their lives.

Blind but active
Ben Underwood

Ben was born perfectly healthy, with dark eyes like his mum. But, when he was two she looked into his eyes and saw something was terribly wrong. In Ben’s eye was a rapidly-growing, malignant tumour; a retinoblastoma. This is a rare infant eye cancer that affects only one in every six million. Dr James Ruben, Ben’s paediatric eye surgeon, explains “If left to it’s own devices it would be lethal. It would spread along his optic nerve and into his brain”.

In an attempt to save his sight, doctors immediately began intense chemo and radio therapy, but after ten months there was still some scattered tumour. Aquanetta had to make a critical, heart-rending decision; try to save his eyes or try to save his life.

To this day, Aquanetta describes the world to him so that Ben can experience life to the full. He is currently on his fourth set of prosthetic eyes and Aquanetta still treasures the ones he had as a little boy.

Aquanetta Gordon
Aquanetta Gordon

Just one year after the operation to remove his eyes, Ben astonished his mum when he performed what seemed like a miracle. While in the car he asked his mum what the big building was that they were passing. Ben’s ears were picking up the sounds of the city traffic reflecting from the building’s surfaces.

Seeing with sound transformed Ben’s life. His mum let him play in the street because his sound pictures seemed to make him more aware of danger than his sighted friends. Ben’s super-sense amazed everyone, but this was just the beginning. When he was seven, Ben discovered a new power, he began to click. Ben learned to bounce his clicks off objects around him, giving him an even clearer picture of his surroundings. Over the years Ben has developed his clicking into such a fine art, that he can skate freely. He has the confidence and fluidity of movement through space other blind people can only dream of.

There’s nothing his friends can do, that Ben wont attempt, and conquer.

Doctors suspect that Ben has developed super-hearing to compensate for his loss of sight. However, tests reveal he has only normal hearing. So, has Ben’s brain learned to translate the sound he hears into visual information?

Sonar uses echo location to detect underwater objects. In water, even a small noise can be heard for many miles. In air, echoes are much harder to detect. They’re so faint it’s a miracle Ben can echo locate at all.

Scientists at the University of California in Santa Barbara want to see and study how Ben navigates with such a faint signal. They test him to see how small an object he can detect and how well he can differentiate the shape of different objects. He excels by detecting a thin upright tube and correctly identifying two like objects from four placed on the table in front of him.

echo location cyclingCycling is a breeze to blind Ben

School hasn’t always been a happy experience for Ben. Three years ago, Aquanetta was advised to send him to a residential school for the blind. She was told it would be good for Ben to mix with other blind kids. As soon as he arrived he knew it was a big mistake. He recalls “I didn’t like the blind school because it was like a school full of handicapped kids. I don’t belong here, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with me”. Many of the students, as it turned out, had multiple disabilities. With so many vulnerable students around, staff were naturally protective, but Ben wanted to run around and play games, just as he did at home.

daniel kish
Dan Kish

Ben is a typical teenager; he thinks he knows it all. Aquanetta knows there is only one man he might listen to. Daniel Kish is a unique mobility instructor; like Ben he lost his eyes to cancer as a baby, he also discovered clicking as a child. Unlike Ben he’s perfected a mobility system that combines echolocation and the cane. He has Ben’s no-limits philosophy too, taking students hiking and mountain biking. For Daniel, “The Blind Leading The Blind” is a campaigning vision.

Of Ben he says “In terms of echolocation he’s probably one of the finest, if not the finest, I’ve ever come across. But he could achieve so much more if he would swallow his pride and learn to use the cane”. Ben is the best self-taught echo locator in the world.

Daniel has experience of travelling quickly and safely all over the world; alone. Just the sort of independence he wants to teach Ben. A need he forcibly demonstrates when he let’s Ben get completely lost on a walk in the local park.

CREDITS: The above came from the UK Channel 5 “Extraordinary People” documentary series.