During a rest stop near Vail on the Bicycle Tour of Colorado in 1997, I did a double take as I saw a spandex-clad man in sunglasses use a white cane to navigate among the throng of cyclists and clutter of bikes. He was dressed as a participant in that seven-day, 440-mile ride. But he was obviously blind.
It turned out that he was the “stoker,” the person occupying the rear seat on a tandem bicycle piloted by a sighted rider. And the blind man’s participation in that grueling ride, now in its 17th year, drove home to me that people with “handicaps” can do some pretty amazing things.
Now consider the case of Daniel Kish.
Kish likes to hike, write, read and make music. He’s also an avid cyclist. But he’s completely blind.
So how does Kish ride a bicycle if he can’t see? Guy Raz of National Public Radio posed that question in a March 13 report about Kish’s extraordinary talent on NPR’s afternoon news program “All Things Considered.”
The answer is “echolocation,” or, as Kish calls it, “flash sonar.”
“As he speeds along on his bike, he makes clicking sounds,” said the NPR report. “As the clicks bounce back to him, he creates a mental image of the space around him. He’s kind of like a human bat.”
Raz, weekend host of “All Things Considered,” accompanied Kish on a bicycle ride at NPR West, National Public Radio’s production center in Culver City, Calif. Throughout the ride, Kish made clicking sounds with his tongue and their echoes guided him along the route.
“It’s the same process that bats use,” Kish told Raz. “And it is literally a process of seeing with sound. So bats emit flashes of sound and those flashes go out as flashes of light would, and they return to the listener. And humans can do the same sort of thing by emitting flashes of sound and receive enough reflection of sound to be able to construct images based on the pattern of those reflections.”
Kish, who lost his sight as an infant, says he has been clicking to find his way as far back as he can remember. And he is teaching echolocation to blind children through his nonprofit foundation, World Access For the Blind, based in Encino, Calif.
But he told NPR that his work, ultimately, isn’t just about teaching echolocation or learning spatial awareness.
“It’s about a philosophy,” he says, “that we call no-limits philosophy, which challenges us to challenge what we think we know. To challenge every boundary, every box, every limitation that we’ve either put up ourselves or allow ourselves to be conditioned to accept.”