Daniel Kish has been blind since he was 13 months old. Both of his eyes had to be removed because he contracted a rare form of cancer. This devastating event was a life-changing experience for Daniel and his family. However, they did not let this become a negative life-changing event.
Hs mother refused to treat him differently from other children. He had a ‘normal’ childhood and he learned about the world this way. So, he did all the things a sighted child would do such as riding bikes and climbing trees. Naturally this also involved crashing bikes and falling out of trees. Daniel appreciates the way he grew up. He didn’t necessarily enjoy getting hurt he but knows how important it is to be allowed to make mistakes. He also knows that learning from mistakes is vital. As he explains “Running into a pole is a drag, but never being allowed to run into a pole is a disaster.”
Another amazing fact about Daniel is that he can actually see. He taught himself to navigate by clicking his tongue. He used the echoes that come back to him to see the world that is around him. This has been compared to the echo-location that bats use – this is why people call him the real-life batman. Scientists wanted to see what happens in his brain when he echo-locates. So they conducted brain scans on Daniel and other echo-locating blind people. The scientists found that the part of the brain that the blind echo-locators use is also the same part that sighted people use to see.
Santani Teng studies brain plasticity and he thinks that the echo-locators’ sight is similar to the peripheral vision that sighted people have. As an example, he asks us to imagine walking down a street looking at the screen on our smart phones. While we are looking at the screen we are also aware of objects around us such as cars, people, trees and signs. However, could not read the sign.
There are many stories about Daniel on the internet, including his TED talks and many videos on You Tube. My favourite is from a podcast called This American Life. (The podcast also has a transcript, so you can read as you listen). This fascinating podcast goes into much more detail about Daniel, his life and the issues around blindness and attitudes to blind people.
Daniel now teaches his echo-location technique to other blind people around the world. His story is one that embodies many of our lifelong learning characteristics and he certainly has a growth mindset. He embraces and enjoys challenge: he has overcome great obstacles; he knows that success comes from effort and persistence; and he clearly has a thirst for life and knowledge. Also he seems to take great pleasure in helping others and enjoying their success.
Instructor in the School of Languages at Sabanci University, Istanbul.