One boy’s quest to conquer limitations
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.