One boy’s quest to con­quer lim­i­ta­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Jill Row­botham

BEN Un­der­wood’s mother had to choose be­tween her three- year- old’s life and his sight. She chose to have his eyes re­moved be­fore the re­cur­ring can­cer in them spread ir­re­triev­ably along his op­tic nerve to the brain.

And when Ben woke up af­ter the op­er­a­tion and told her he couldn’t see, she said: ‘‘ Yes you can, baby, you can see with your nose, can’t you smell me? You can see with your ears, can’t you hear me?’’

It set the tone for their life to­gether in a sub­ur­ban bun­ga­low in Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia, which they share with Ben’s brother and un­cle. Now 14, Ben is as in­de­pen­dent as he can be.

What makes his story amaz­ing is that he is adept at the use of echolo­ca­tion: by con­tin­u­ally mak­ing soft clicks with his tongue and lis­ten­ing to the sound bounce off the sur­faces around him, he can see walls, stairs, roads and cars. It is an abil­ity he dis­cov­ered and de­vel­oped while still a preschooler.

Oth­ers have used echo- lo­ca­tion, but rarely to such ef­fect, and it is ar­rest­ing to see him skat­ing and bik­erid­ing. He has stunned doc­tors and be­come fa­mous be­cause of it.

In this pro­gram, his mother, Aquanetta, is mus­ing over how to pre­pare him for high school. She de­cides to move house so he can be near enough to school to walk, a jour­ney that will in­clude a busy road.

It be­comes clear that even Ben can­not do this without a cane, that in­dis­pens­able sign to driv­ers that here is a pedes­trian who will not get out of the way in time.

But canes are for blind peo­ple and ado­les­cent Ben has an at­ti­tude about this. The cane is a hand­i­capped de­vice, I do not con­sider my­self

Ben Un­der­wood is a mas­ter of echo- lo­ca­tion

Oth­ers have used echo- lo­ca­tion, but rarely to such ef­fect

hand­i­capped,’’ he de­clares. What Aquanetta does next is what gives this show its fas­ci­nat­ing twist.

She ar­ranges for her feisty son to meet a man called Dan Kish, who runs a ser­vice called World Ac­cess for the Blind. He also lost his eyes to child­hood can­cer and is also a good echo- lo­ca­tor, but uses a cane to help him con­quer parts of the world that his click­ing can­not.

Dan likes tak­ing teams of

blind peo­ple hik­ing and moun­tain climb­ing. But Ben thinks Dan and his crew can only be se­ri­ously un­cool.

‘‘ I thought they were go­ing to be bor­ing, sit around like blind peo­ple. I was cru­elly mis­taken,’’ Ben says later.

Dan says of the stub­born boy: My heart aches for him. De­spite those con­ces­sions, the bat­tle of wills is just beginning.’’ It is a con­test well worth watch­ing.

Blind faith:

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