Daniel Kish was born in March, 1966 in Montebello, California. Diagnosed with retinoblastoma, which is an aggressive cancer of the retina, he lost one eye and then the other by the age of 13 months. His younger brother Keith was also born with retinoblastoma – which is genetic – despite the fact that neither of their parents had the disease. This time, doctors were able to save Keith’s sight, and he went on to become a middle school teacher.
As Michael Finkel wrote in his Men’s Journal a profile of Daniel, “Kish can hardly remember a time when he didn’t click. He came to it on his own, intuitively, at age two, about a year after his second eye was removed. Many blind children make noises in order to get feedback – foot stomping, finger snapping, hand clapping, tongue clicking. These behaviors are the beginnings of echolocation, but they’re almost invariably deemed asocial by parents or caretakers and swiftly extinguished.
Daniel Kish was fortunate that his mother never tried to dissuade him from clicking. “That tongue click was everything to me,” he says. He went to mainstream schools and relied almost exclusively on echolocation to orient himself, though at the time neither he nor his mom had any concept of what he was doing. “There was no one to explain it, there was no one to help me enhance it, and we all just kind of took it for granted,” he says. “My family and friends were like, ‘Yeah, he does this funny click thing and he gets around.’” They called it his radar. Navigating new places, he says, was like solving a puzzle.
Kish was raised with almost no dispensation for his blindness. “My upbringing was all about total self-reliance,” he writes, “of being able to go after anything I desired.” His career interests, as a boy, included policeman, fireman, pilot, and doctor.
He was a celebrated singer and voracious consumer of braille books. He could take anything apart and put it back together – a skill he retains. He was named “best brain” in middle school and graduated high school with a GPA close to 4.0. He was voted “most likely to succeed.”
Daniel Kish attended the University of California Riverside, then earned two master’s degrees – one in developmental psychology, one in special education. He wrote a thesis on the history and science of human echolocation, and as part of that devised one of the first echolocation training programs.
The ability of some blind individuals to perceive objects well before they could touch them was noted as early as 1749 by French philosopher Denis Diderot. He theorised it had something to do with vibrations against the skin of the face.
In the early 1800s, a blind man from England named James Holman journeyed around the world – he may have been the most prolific traveller in history up to that point, Magellan and Marco Polo included – relying on the echoes from the click of his cane. Not until the 1940s, in Karl Dallenbach‘s lab at Cornell University, was it irrefutably proven that humans could echolocate.
The thesis was the first time Daniel Kish really studied what he’d been doing all his life; it was the beginning, as he put it, of “unlocking my own brain.” He then became the first totally blind person in the United States (and likely the world) to be fully certified as an orientation and mobility specialist – that is, someone hired by the visually impaired to learn how to get around.
It was never Kish’s goal to run a foundation dedicated to the blind. He planned to be a psychologist. But he could not ignore the fact that few blind people enjoyed anything close to his freedom of movement, and he had grown weary of society’s attitude toward the blind.
So in 2000, he started World Access for the Blind. One of its missions is to counter every ‘no’ that blind people hear. Kish says, “Blindness, should be understood – by both the blind and the sighted – as nothing more than an inconvenience.”
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