The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See
Credit: Steve Pyke
If you happen to be blind and want to live a bold, stereotype-smashing life, there will be blood. I witness this firsthand when I spend a day mountain biking with Bushway and Ruiz. (Kish, acceding to the realities of near–middle age, stays home.) We ride on a roller-coastery ridgetop trail in the Santa Ana Mountains, above the town of Mission Viejo. Clipped to the rear fork of each of our bikes is a plastic zip tie, attached so that the end flicks through our spokes, creating a constant snapping sound that lets Bushway and Ruiz know where the other bikes are. But to determine where the trail is going, and where the bushes and rocks and fence posts and trees are, the boys rely on echolocation.

Bushway is a fearless biker. He often flies down the dirt trail in aerodynamic form, hands off the brakes, clicking as fast and as loud as he can. "Your brain is on overload," he says to me during a water break. "You feel like you can hear every bush, every tree. Your body is hyperaware." I try and warn them when the trail presents a serious consequence, like a long drop-off on one side or a cactus jutting out. But mostly I'm just along for the ride. It's difficult to believe, even though it's happening right in front of me. It's incredible.

And then, suddenly, it's not. When I look behind me and see that Ruiz has drifted back, I stop and wait for him. I'm just standing there, silently, and before I realize what's happening, he is bearing down on me. I shout, and he pulls the brakes, but it's too late. He smashes into me and crushes his left hand between his handlebar and the back of my seat post. He falls off his bike and rolls about in pain, clutching his hand. There's a trickle of blood, though nothing seems broken. I feel terrible, but Ruiz says it's his fault – he should have echolocated my bike, even if I wasn't moving. We finish the ride, with Ruiz using only one hand.

The next day I join Kish and Bushway as they teach Sebastian Mancipe, who is 15 and has been working with World Access for three years. When he started, he rarely came out of his bedroom. He had little interaction with the outside world. He developed infant glaucoma and was blind by age three months. His parents moved from Colombia to the United States to give him a chance at a better life. His mother, Viviana, saw a brief appearance by Kish on the Ripley's Believe It or Not television show, and soon hired World Access to work with Sebastian.

He now rides a skateboard. He ice-skates. He's popular at school, stocked with friends and a busy social life. I follow as Kish and Bushway stroll around Sebastian's neighborhood, in a busy section of Burbank. He'd obviously mastered the echolocation basics – the pot lid, the pillow, general shapes. Kish and Bushway encourage him to push his skills further. "A tree," says Kish, clicking a couple of times, "is like a bush on a pole." They walk on. "A tree without a bush on top is probably a telephone pole." They pass a parking lot. "A large object that starts out low at one end, rises in the middle, and drops off again at the other end – that's a parked car."

Back at home, I ask Sebastian's mother about the impact World Access has had on her son. "It was an awakening," she says. "He believes he can do anything. To see Sebastian as a normal child..." She can't complete the sentence before the tears come.