The Boy Who Sees with Sound

By | July 19, 2006

The Boy Who Sees with SoundHere’s a local story that is world class amazing.

“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.”… on June 25 he took a trip to San Diego’s SeaWorld Adventure Park to swim with dolphins and hear how they use echolocation. Waist-deep in a saltwater pool, he immersed one ear as Sandy, a bottle-nosed dolphin, swam toward him. “Man,” he said, “she clicks fast!”… Bob McMains, supervisor of SeaWorld’s dolphin program, says that in his 23 years there, few people have listened so intently to the sounds the dolphins make. “He’s got a gift with dolphins; he’s truly unique,” says McMains. “I told him, once he’s 18 he’s got a job here anytime.” – peoplemagazine

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