October 02, 2011

Bat Navigation Inspires Charity’s Method to Aid the Blind

Photograph by Volker Corell

Daniel Kish, founder of World Access for the Blind, leads students on a hiking trip.

Daniel Kish’s nonprofit takes literally the idea of the blind leading the blind. Mr. Kish, an avid outdoor enthusiast who lost his sight to cancer as an infant, says he has never let his condition set physical limits on him.

To help others do the same, in 2000 he founded World Access for the Blind, an Encino, Calif., charity that provides training in mobility and other skills to blind youths and adults.

The organization has helped more than 2,500 sight-impaired people in 18 countries around the world gain autonomy by learning how to find their own way in strange places rather than relying on someone else.

Mr. Kish, who earned his credentials as a psychologist, became certified as an orientation and mobility specialist four years before he started the group.

At the heart of the training his charity offers is an unconventional method he developed called “Flash Sonar.” It borrows a technique bats use to navigate with the help of sound waves. Students click their tongues to determine what is around them, listening for the way sound waves bounce off their surroundings.

What also sets World Access apart is that it encourages children as young as 18 months to learn how to use canes. In addition, it trains older students to participate in mountain biking, hiking, tree climbing, and other sports play.

“Our focus is being aware of what your options are,” Mr. Kish says. “Being aware that you have latitude to make your own decisions. That may sound fundamental and very basic, but it isn’t for some of our students.”

Nolan Darilek, a software developer from Austin, Tex., who has been blind since birth, contacted Mr. Kish to learn how to ride a bicycle. The group’s approach, Mr. Darilek says, allowed him to achieve his goal, and he says he wishes other organizations would take a cue from World Access.

“I’m used to blindness-related organizations and institutes that, to put it bluntly, patronize. They’re very focused on getting you functional and once you’re functional, they kind of are done with you,” Mr. Darilek says. By contrast, he says, Mr. Kish’s group “is pushing the limits of what we think is possible.”

The charity operates on an annual budget of about $200,000, almost entirely raised from individuals. Mr. Kish hopes that World Access for the Blind will develop its own certification process for perceptual mobility, obtain its own facility, and establish chapter organizations throughout the world.

He says, “The thing that I’m really most proud of is our ability to adapt and innovate according to what the students’ needs are, as defined by the students.”