The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See
Credit: Steve Pyke
Kish does not go around clicking like a madman. He uses his click sparingly and, depending on his location, varies the volume. When he's outside, he'll throw a loud click. In good conditions, he can hear a building 1,000 feet away, a tree from 30 feet, a person from six feet. Up close, he can echolocate a one-inch diameter pole. He can tell the difference between a pickup truck, a passenger car, and an SUV. He can locate trail signs in the forest, then run his finger across the engraved letters and determine which path to take. Every house, he explains, has its own acoustic signature.

He can hear the variation between a wall and a bush and a chain-link fence. Bounce a tennis ball off a wall, Kish says, then off a bush. Different response. So too with sound. Given a bit of time, he can echolocate something as small as a golf ball. Sometimes, in a parking garage, he can echolocate the exit faster than a sighted person can find it.

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.

What people do notice about Kish is his long white cane. His blind person's cane. Using echolocation, Kish could get around without one. For most of his youth, in fact, he never carried a cane, seeking to avoid the stigma attached to it. Now, as he approaches middle age, he's come to believe that whatever can conveniently provide him with more information about his environment he will use. Echolocation's chief liability is that it is not good at detecting holes in the ground, or small dropoffs, which a cane can do. There are also some figure-ground issues with echolocation – a park bench can "disappear" when it's directly in front of a stone wall – and a cane, in essence, increases the length of your arm by as much as five feet.

Kish also keeps aware, during the day, of where the sun is striking him – a good way to determine direction – and how the cracks between sidewalk blocks line up; if you remain steadily perpendicular to them, you're not veering.

When it's all put together, says Kish, he has very rich, very detailed pictures in his head.

"In color?" I ask.

"No," he says. "I've never seen color, so there's no color. It's more like a sonar, like on the Titanic."