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American Daniel Kish is an expert in human echolocation. Having lost his vision when he was 13 months old as a result of a rare cancer called retinoblastoma, he has been travelling the environment with the help of his ears. The 46-year-old ‘Batman’, lives alone in California, travels alone across countries and conducts workshops on echolocation and does everything a normal man can do. Through his organization, ‘World Access for the Blind’, he trains many visually challenged people across the globe in Echolocation, with a vision to make them all completely independent.

In a chat with Behindwoods, the ‘real life batman’ talks about echolocation and his ‘Thaandavam’ experience.

You are able to exactly guess the size, shape and distance of objects near and far... How?

Well, it’s usually more approximate. There are many factors that come into play when being able to gather information acoustically from an object. The resolution of echolocation is much lower than vision. This is more like educated guess work. The important thing is the kind of information one can receive. That can govern one’s ability to gather more information about an object. So, for example, the minute I walk into a strange building I can immediately tell the size of the rooms, the orientation, their shapes, which way the hall opens up, the objects that are on the way. So I can navigate in between the objects or around the objects. If I concentrate harder, then I can begin to get information about objects- whether they are solid, like a support column, or sparser like a house flat or a book shelf or a fence. But if someone just holds an object in front of me without context, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to identify the object. I might be able to describe it and its approximate shape and size. But unless I’m already familiar with it and knew what it was I wouldn’t be able to recognize it. If I don’t really have a context to understand what it is, then what I would do is, describe it, but not necessarily identify it.

How and when did you realize that what you were practicing was echolocation?

I used it for most of my life, but I was really unaware of how and what I was doing. So I took it for granted and didn’t think much about it. Most sighted people don’t think about how they see and certainly most don’t remember learning to see. So, it was the same with me. I began learning about echolocation in my mid twenties, when I began researching echolocation. I researched it for my master’s thesis in college and so I began learning about it then, I did a comprehensive literature review of the subject and then I developed teaching protocols and I began teaching it. So, I would say, it was perhaps 25 years ago when I began to understand the process of echolocation that I was using and then developed methods of teaching it.

Psychologically, what is the difference between a blind person with no knowledge of echolocation and one who is an exponent?

I think one of the biggest differences that you tend to see is his confidence from a psychological stand point. It’s a bit like a sighted person being confronted with complete darkness. People don’t know what to do with that. They don’t know how to function, they don’t know where they are, they don’t know where things are. Whereas when someone is able to use flashes of light, match light or star light or moon light, it doesn’t matter where the light is coming from, as long as you have even a little light to shine into your environment, that makes a complete difference in terms of one’s ability to feel confident about interacting with and approaching the environment. So, any sighted person who’s been confronted by complete darkness and who then has access to even little light knows the difference. And that I think is one of the crucial differences between someone who is an active user of echolocation versus one who has relatively little experience using echolocation.

It’s like a sighted person being confronted with complete darkness

How do you interact with the environment?

I use many, many techniques and echolocation is one of them. I obviously have my cane here, which I use. That’s for short range detection. Detection of ground level obstacles and for long range, I use echolocation. So I click my tongue (clicks) and that sends out a flash of sound that reflects from the surfaces throughout the environment and returns to me with information, which I can then interpret to construct images of my environment.

When you click, what are the questions you ask the environment?

There are basically two questions that I’m asking the environment- where are you and what are you? So the process of active echolocation or flash SONAR, as we call it, is essentially a type of a conversation one is holding with his environment, a way of communicating with one’s environment in an active fashion. There are scanning involved in the clicks and their strategic use and there are certain ways to use one’s clicks basically to ask the question- where are you? The environment answers back with the position of various objects and items. “What are you?” answers back with shapes, contours, textures and densities of various objects throughout the environment.

You ride bicycles... How difficult is it for you to ride one in a chaotic city like Chennai?

I think Chennai would not be conducive to ride a bicycle using echolocation. I think it’s perfectly okay to walk in and navigate in. Someone who is an active user of echolocation wouldn’t have a problem with Chennai from that perspective. But the environment needs to be a bit friendlier if you are moving at a higher speed and if you are riding a bicycle. Probably, it would make more sense to bicycle in streets that are less noisy. And I should point out, it’s not the traffic itself that’s necessarily the danger, it’s the noise level too. With noise levels this high, if you are moving at high speed, you have to have enough details about the distance to navigate. The noise levels in a city like this aren’t conducive to being able to echolocate those distances without the necessary degree of details. So a person who is bicycling using echolocation probably prefers much quieter places than the city here.

It’s not the traffic that’s the danger but the noise level

About your organization- World Access for the Blind

World Access for the Blind is a non-profit charity organization in the US. It was founded 11 years ago. I helped it to establish. Its focus is to advance orientation and mobility techniques. Actually, we have developed a new process that we call perceptual mobility, which means mobility that is self directed based on their perceptual ability, based on the ability to know what is around them and to make choices based on that. From the beginning we committed ourselves to making the strategies and techniques that we are developing are available globally to individuals throughout the world.

World Access for the Blind is a non-profit charity organization in

How do you inter-relate blindness and freedom?

Freedom basically means the ability to make one’s own choices and to act upon it. We call it self-direction. So freedom is the ability to direct one’s own life, achievements and purpose in the world. Freedom really transcends conditions of race, nationality, religion, social status or ability. It has to do with how one adapts and applies oneself to accessing resources. The most important thing to know about freedom is that it isn’t something that’s given from external forces. It isn’t something that is granted; it’s something that one takes responsibility to find and claim. So if freedom is granted, it isn’t freedom, because it is only granted with considerations and restrictions. In order to have freedom one must claim one’s own freedom. The biggest problem that blind people struggle with throughout the world is that they tend to wait for society to grant them their freedom. That will never happen, because society is in no position nor has any interest in granting blind people freedom. Blind people need to take responsibility to reach for their freedom and claim their freedom.

Freedom is not something that is granted, it’s something that one takes responsibility to find and claim

You are called ‘The real life batman’… How did you get that name?

It’s a bit ironic because as a kid growing up, Batman was certainly one of my favorite characters and I even designed my own utility belt. I was quite a brawler as a child. So I fought other kids like batman fights his foes.

I certainly didn’t claim the name Batman. It was never a name that I applied to myself. The name ‘Batman’ was first used in ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’ in 2001 and the name seems to have stuck from that point. They called that episode ‘Batman’ and then in 2004, one of the biggest magazines in Europe called me with the same name. And the Dutch took it up, Discovery used the term ‘real life Batman’ and the Swiss also took it up. So, everyone started using the term batman and it seems to have stuck.

The name ‘Batman’ was first used in ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’

Now, you have turned an actor… How was it working in Thaandavam?

Wow! Actually, my job was very easy, because I was acting myself. I didn’t have the challenge of being someone I’m not. They basically asked me to portray myself. So, all I had to do was to be myself. Fortunately, the director and the crew of the film gave me the latitude and support to be myself. For example, if they handed me a script, which contains dialogues that do not sound like me, they allowed me to rewrite the script in a manner I would think. That allowed me to be very comfortable and natural in expressing who I’m and portraying our work at the World Access for the Blind effectively and genuinely in the film.

The director and the crew of the film gave me the latitude and support to be myself

Vijay spent a couple of days with you in America. What did he want to learn?

We met at my home and we talked long about my life. He asked me a lot of questions. And then we went to various places in the community that I would go. The park near where I live, the places I eat, and other places I frequently visit. He wanted to know about how I live my life. So I took him to a few places and showed him how I do things. I own a house in Long Beach, California. I showed him how I live my life in a natural and relaxed way.

Vijay wanted to know about how I live my life

Your students and solitude top your favorites list. Please elaborate

I’ve thought long and hard about what really drives me in life, what is my purpose in life and what is my goal in life. I’ve had a lot of crisis around that and I’ve had a lot of questions to answer. Things haven’t come easily to me. And I do find answers to the hard questions in solitude. I go to the mountains and I fast for days and days. I’d be quiet and it would be me and my silence. The birds and the trees, which are very conducive to calling upon the energies that we sometimes need to, answer the hard and deep questions. So solitude for me is as important as food and sleep. It is nourishment to me, mind, and consciousness and even to my body. What I discovered in the solitude is that the thing that seems to drive me the most really is freedom. Not just freedom for myself, but also freedom for others, because freedom to oneself but not to others is not freedom. Freedom cannot be gained at the price of restrictions. So, freedom facilitates freedom. And there is nothing more rewarding to me than to help someone find more freedom in their lives. That seems to be really the most powerful driving force in my life.

Things haven’t come easily to me

How well was Vikram able to adapt to your teachings?

He picked it up very well. He certainly understood the concept. He’d already got the clicking down, before I even began working with him. He’d done his homework as well. I had sent him some videos that he could use to train himself. He used those videos very well. He was a very efficient actor and student in that sense. I’ve worked with other actors. I’ve never participated in a feature film, but I have participated as technical adviser to other films. A good actor has the capacity to absorb characteristics from others into themselves. And Vikram was able to do that very well. He was able to absorb some of my characteristics and also of Brian Bushway, who is one of our mobility coaches, who lost his vision at 14. In that sense, Brian had more in common, with Vikram’s character Kenny than I did, because I’ve been blind for as long as I can remember. And yet Kenny lost his vision much later in life as did Brian. So, I actually had Vikram study Brian, in terms of how to move, how to address and interact with the environment. I just helped Vikram develop the specifics of echolocation and he responded very well.

Vikram was a very efficient actor and student

Has Vikram done justice to the role?

I imagine he has; I haven’t seen the film. So I can’t honestly answer that question. But based on my experience with Vikram and his reputation, which certainly precedes him, I would imagine he has.

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