Daniel Kish is a teacher, traveler, and a fierce champion of childhood independence…who went blind as a baby. Then he started making clicking sounds and listening to the echoes bouncing off objects – echolocating the way bats do. Hence his nickname:
Now Daniel, 55, is Managing Director of World Access for the Blind, and the first totally blind Orientation and Mobility Specialist. He has taught thousands of blind people around the world, guiding them toward ever more self-direction.
He works not just with the blind person – at whatever age they come to him – but also with the parents, making sure they don’t overprotect or underestimate their child.
In this, Daniel’s work sounds almost identical to Let Grow’s. We interviewed him to find out more about how to raise bold, brave young peope – blind or not:
LG: What, exactly, do you do when you start working with a family?
DK: Some people just think I’m going to come in and teach them echolocation and they’ll just be fixed. But it’s really about shifting the system around the student more than shifting the student.
What do the parents initially get wrong?
There’s this belief there’s a magic moment at 18 when [the child] will be able to cut their own food or travel to the mailbox. But there is no magic here. You have to feed into the system.
Same as with sighted kids! Parents have to keep gradually giving the kids more responsibility and independence. How is that different for parents of blind kids?
For your typical sighted kid – even if that kid never scrambled an egg, he might get it right, just by incidental learning, watching your mom do it. You know where the eggs are, where they keep the skillet. So you pull together what you remember and you’re probably 50% of the way there. A blind person? You don’t know what’s in the cabinet, or really — what does it mean to crack an egg? What are the motions for scrambling an egg in a skillet? All these things that a typical person would take for granted. But [for a blind kid] someone has put the sheet over the birdcage and never took it off.
I really hadn’t thought about how much sighted people learn just by watching.
Everything from tying your shoes to putting toothpaste on your toothbrush – if you’re not doing them as a blind person, you’re not taking in the information as other kids would. So that’s the first issue: doing WITH [your blind child] rather than FOR.
Actually, that translates pretty directly to the sighted world, too. It’s always easier to, say, put a kid’s shoes on for him than to let him do it. Faster, too.
[In the blind world] it’s often called “the good fairy system” – things just magically happen. Food just appears! The [blind kids] may understand that someone had to make it, but they don’t necessarily give it a whole lot of thought.
Well, you could say the same about me and my t-shirt. I don’t give much thought to who sewed it or how it got to America. But I get what you’re saying, the less a parent has their kid – especially a blind kid – do on his own, the less his world expands.
I think we’re of a mind there. You’ve got to step back to give your kids more lattitude and leeway to become who they are.
The goal is independence, right?
For sighted children the term “independence” may be appropriate. For blind children it is more about self-determination and strategic interdependence. A blind child must rely on adaptations and support to engage many activities.
You mean – they need some help but that doesn’t mean they’re helpless?
One way of putting it is to say that a blind child can bring a lot to the table through their own capacities and wherewithal…but they may need help finding the table.
Even Helen Keller had a lot of assistance – she was blind and deaf.
Right. Obviously someone had to hear what people were saying and translate it into sign language IN HER HAND. So I get it – she was not self-sufficient, but she was incredibly self-directed. How do we help more blind kids get there?
We need to just include. We need to stop thinking, “Oh, what are all the differences and distinctions?” and concentrate instead on all the similarities. That would be a monumental. Because the minute you start including, stuff works itself out.
Lets say we’re playing soccer – how do you include a blind kid? Maybe you do something to make the ball audible, something as simple as putting the ball into a plastic bag.
That is genius!
It was one of my 12-year-olds who figured that out.
Do you have another great story?
It’s extreme, but it’s the first one that comes to mind. I have a student, he had a lot of strikes against him. He was in a terrorist attack in Iraq — shot point blank in the face at two and a half years old. He lost his face, lost his eyes. They emergency evacuated him to the U.S. They found a foster family to care for him.
They couldn’t save the eyes and over a period of the next decade and a half they were reconstructing his face. So he was extremely disfigured and totally blind. And yet somehow he really excelled in school. He had friends and no one “over-adulted” him.
We began working with him when he was 8 – me and my instructors. He lived in Washington, so we saw him a couple times a year, and he was very sporty and physical, but also very academic and musical – a top band player, in gifted classes, and he was in sports. And somehow he convinced the football couch to let him play without support.
You mean, without an aide or something?
Right. He got support from his teammates — they just developed their own system of cueing hm. He was very strong and very fast. So there came a time on the field, I think he was 14, when he became aware of an opening. He was in the right place at the right time, he knew where his teammates were, he knew what the play was, and he had the ball. And he managed to dodge the people trying to take it away from him – I forget what position he played – he could just tell by the screaming audience which way to go, and he ran a 68-yard touchdown.
We have it on video.
That IS incredible. How is he doing now?
He just started as a freshman at University of California San Diego.
What is the big truth for all of us parents?
Pretty universally, kids will rise to a challenge. That’s what kids are built to do. Children from Day One are driven toward freedom. That’s something that we can support by providing more opportunities for that to happen.
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