Inian & Sudharsan | Camera : Xavier | Text - Sudharsan
| Video Editor: Jesi
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’
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
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.
It’s like a sighted person being
confronted with complete
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
when did you realize that what you were practicing was
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.
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.
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
World Access for the Blind is a
non-profit charity organization in
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
do you inter-relate blindness and 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
The name ‘Batman’ was first
used in ‘Ripley’s Believe it or
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.
you have turned an actor… How was it working
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 wanted to know about
how I live my life
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.
students and solitude top your favorites list.
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
Vikram was a very efficient actor
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.
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.