The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See
Credit: Steve Pyke
It was never Kish's goal to run a foundation dedicated to the blind. He planned to be a psychologist. But he could not ignore the fact that few blind people enjoyed anything close to his freedom of movement, and he had grown weary of society's attitude toward the blind. "I am belittled, patronized, disrespected, invaded, restricted, and presumed weak, vulnerable, or otherwise incapacitated," he wrote in his journal. It still drives him crazy when he's congratulated for simply crossing the street or preparing dinner.

In a letter he posted on his website a few years ago, Kish responded to a public school program in New Jersey called Kindness Beats Blindness, in which hundreds of middle school students were blindfolded while others led them around, to develop sympathy for the blind. "I have felt beaten and pummeled by many things," he wrote, "misplaced kindness foremost among them." When I asked Kish about the letter he said, "I have a reputation for being a pain in the ass." One of his closest friends sometimes refers to him as "the bridge burner."

Young people, says Kish, are especially hard-hit. "Most blind kids hear a lot of negative talk. 'Don't do this, don't do that, don't move. No, here, let me help you.' The message you get, if you're blind, is you're intellectually deficient, you're emotionally deficient, you're in all ways deficient." A few sighted people have commented to Kish that they'd rather be dead than blind.

So in 2001 he started World Access for the Blind. One of its missions is to counter every no that blind people hear. Blindness, Kish says, should be understood – by both the blind and the sighted – as nothing more than an inconvenience. "Most of my life," he writes, "I never even thought of myself as blind. In fact, I saw myself as smarter, more agile, stronger, and generally more capable than most other boys my age."

World Access operates on what Kish calls "an annual budget of silliness" – less than $200,000 a year. (Kish himself makes only "a survival wage.") He depends on the "blind vine," the chattery network of the visually impaired, to spread the word. When a potential student, or a parent of a student, agrees to hire World Access, either Kish or one of three other World Access teachers – all blind or visually impaired – will pay a visit, whether it's on the other side of Los Angeles or the other side of the world.

Lessons can consist of private meetings a few times a month, or an intensive week of training for students farther afield. He's visited a group of blind students in northern Mexico three times and traveled to Scotland eight times. In all, Kish has taught in 14 countries, including Armenia, South Africa, Switzerland, and Ukraine. Blind students or organizations in more than a dozen other nations, from Afghanistan to Guatemala, are now on his waiting list. The chief focus of World Access classes is setting students on the path to complete autonomy. Echolocation is an essential element of what Kish terms "a holistic approach" that also includes lessons on comfortable social interactions, confident self-image, and nonvisual conversational cues (a head turn can be noted by the sound of hair swishing; arm gestures by the whisper of skin brushing against clothing; the shift of someone's body by the creaking of furniture).

World Access doesn't turn anyone away for lack of resources. But there are a couple of reasons why the organization hasn't trained more students. The first is Kish's general ethos about how blind children should be raised. "Running into a pole is a drag, but never being allowed to run into a pole is a disaster," he writes. "Pain is part of the price of freedom." This attitude is not wildly popular, especially in a safety-first nation like the United States. Also, echolocation is not easy to master. Kish compares it with piano lessons – anyone can learn basics; very few will make it to Carnegie Hall. Only about 10 percent of the people who learn echolocation, he admits, find their abilities immediately enriched.

And then there is resistance from mainstream organizations. The National Federation of the Blind, the largest blind organization in America, does not endorse Kish's work. "Let's just say he's unique," says John Paré, the federation's executive director for strategic initiatives, clearly straining to be polite. Paré believes that for most people, echolocation is not worth the tremendous effort required to grasp it. "We urge people to learn how to use a long white cane," he says. According to Kish, a colleague once overheard members of the federation refer to him as Clicker Boy. "The blindness field is firmly based in tradition and dogma and is very slow to evolve," says Kish. "It's been traditionally dominated by sighted people who feel the need to tell blind people what to do."

The same afternoon I first visit Kish, I also meet Brian Bushway and Juan Ruiz. Bushway became blind at age 14 due to a genetic condition known as optic nerve atrophy and was introduced to Kish soon after. Ruiz was born blind and was one of Kish's first students; Kish began working with him while preparing his echolocation thesis. They both told me, individually, that Kish's teaching transformed them, allowing them to feel at peace with their blindness and at one with the world.

Bushway and Ruiz are now in their late 20s and have become instructors with World Access. They often hang out at Kish's home, forming a foul-mouthed and funny little gang. (Bushway: "You know why echolocators get all the girls? 'Cause they're skilled with their tongues and comfortable in the dark.") They've become so adept at echolocation that, in many ways, they have surpassed their teacher – at least in terms of fearlessness, sociability, and willingness to run into poles. They're the next generation of echolocators, ready to take Kish's work and see how far they can push it.