The Boy Who Sees with Sound
07/14/2006 AT 06:00 AM EDT
Ask people about Ben Underwood and you'll hear dozens of stories like this – about the amazing boy who doesn't seem to know he's blind. There's Ben zooming around on his skateboard outside his home in Sacramento; there he is playing kickball with his buddies. To see him speed down hallways and make sharp turns around corners is to observe a typical teen – except, that is, for the clicking. Completely blind since the age of 3, after retinal cancer claimed both his eyes (he now wears two prostheses), Ben has learned to perceive and locate objects by making a steady stream of sounds with his tongue, then listening for the echoes as they bounce off the surfaces around him. About as loud as the snapping of fingers, Ben's clicks tell him what's ahead: the echoes they produce can be soft (indicating metals), dense (wood) or sharp (glass). Judging by how loud or faint they are, Ben has learned to gauge distances.
The technique is called echolocation, and many species, most notably bats and dolphins, use it to get around. But a 14-year-old boy from Sacramento? While many blind people listen for echoes to some degree, Ben's ability to navigate in his sightless world is, say experts, extraordinary. "His skills are rare," says Dan Kish, a blind psychologist and leading teacher of echomobility among the blind. "Ben pushes the limits of human perception."
Kish has taught echolocation to scores of blind people as a supplement to more traditional methods, such as walking with a cane or a guide dog, but only a handful of people in the world use echolocation alone to get around, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. A big part of the reason Ben has succeeded is his mother, who made the decision long ago never to coddle her son. "I always told him, 'Your name is Benjamin Underwood, and you can do anything,' " says Aquanetta Gordon, 42, a utilities-company employee. "He can learn to fly an airplane if he wants to."