The Boy Who Sees with Sound

Blind since age 3, Ben Underwood skateboards and plays video games. How does he do it? Just like dolphins

There was the time a fifth grader thought it would be funny to punch the blind kid and run. So he snuck up on Ben Underwood and hit him in the face. That’s when Ben started his clicking thing. “I chased him, clicking until I got to him, then I socked him a good one,” says Ben, a skinny 14-year-old. “He didn’t reckon on me going after him. But I can hear walls, parked cars, you name it. I’m a master at this game.”

[people_legacy_video id=1]Ask people about Ben Underwood and you’ll hear dozens of stories like this – about the amazing boy who doesn’t seem to know he’s blind. There’s Ben zooming around on his skateboard outside his home in Sacramento; there he is playing kickball with his buddies. To see him speed down hallways and make sharp turns around corners is to observe a typical teen – except, that is, for the clicking. Completely blind since the age of 3, after retinal cancer claimed both his eyes (he now wears two prostheses), Ben has learned to perceive and locate objects by making a steady stream of sounds with his tongue, then listening for the echoes as they bounce off the surfaces around him. About as loud as the snapping of fingers, Ben’s clicks tell him what’s ahead: the echoes they produce can be soft (indicating metals), dense (wood) or sharp (glass). Judging by how loud or faint they are, Ben has learned to gauge distances.

The technique is called echolocation, and many species, most notably bats and dolphins, use it to get around. But a 14-year-old boy from Sacramento? While many blind people listen for echoes to some degree, Ben’s ability to navigate in his sightless world is, say experts, extraordinary. “His skills are rare,” says Dan Kish, a blind psychologist and leading teacher of echomobility among the blind. “Ben pushes the limits of human perception.”

Kish has taught echolocation to scores of blind people as a supplement to more traditional methods, such as walking with a cane or a guide dog, but only a handful of people in the world use echolocation alone to get around, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. A big part of the reason Ben has succeeded is his mother, who made the decision long ago never to coddle her son. “I always told him, ‘Your name is Benjamin Underwood, and you can do anything,’ ” says Aquanetta Gordon, 42, a utilities-company employee. “He can learn to fly an airplane if he wants to.”

Ben plays basketball with his pals, rides horses at camp and dances with girls at school events. He excels at PlayStation games by memorizing the sounds that characters and movements make. “People ask me if I’m lonely,” he says. “I’m not, because someone’s always around or I’ve got my cell phone and I’m always talking to friends. Being blind is not that different from not being blind.”

[people_legacy_video id=1]Ben was just 2 years old when doctors discovered his retinal cancer. Ben’s first Braille teacher, Barbara Haase, believes the boy’s ability to see during his first two years helped him develop “a sort of map of the physical world,” she says. Growing up, Ben got help from his brothers Joe, now 23, and Derius, 19, and sister Tiffany, 18. (His father, Stephen, died in 2002.) “They taught him how to find the seams on his clothes so he puts them on right side out, stuff like that,” says Aquanetta. “But they didn’t overdo it.”

Aquanetta sent Ben to mainstream schools, where professionals on staff gave him individual attention and taught him to overlook taunts from classmates who waved their hands in his face or snatched food off his tray. “The hardest thing for me to accept is rejection,” says Ben, who starts ninth grade in the fall. “I can tell when someone rejects me in some way.” At home his mother let him play with no restrictions. “If he fell, she would just say, ‘Oh, he fell,’ and he’d get up and try again,” says his kindergarten teacher Ann Akiyama. “I’ve seen him run full speed into the edge of a big brick column and get back up. He was fearless.”

Ben learned how to read Braille and walk with a cane, but when he was 3, he also began teaching himself echolocation, something he picked up by tossing objects and making clicking sounds to find them. His sense of hearing, teachers noticed, was exceptional. “One time a CD fell off his desk and I was reaching for it when he said, ‘Nah, I got it,'” says Kalli Carvalho, his language arts instructor. “He went right to it. Didn’t feel around. He just knew where it was because he heard where it hit.” Haase took walks with Ben to help him practice locating objects. “I said, ‘Okay, my car is the third car parked down the street. Tell me when we get there,’ ” she says. “As we pass the first vehicle, he says, ‘There’s the first car. Actually, a truck.’ And it was a pickup. He could tell the difference.”

Ben was 6 when he decided he wasn’t going to use a cane – he calls it a stick – to get around. “You go to school and you’re the only one with a stick, what’s the first thing some kid’s going to do? Break it in two,” he says. “And then where are you? You’re helpless.” At times he was even able to come to the aid of people with normal sight. “I remember taking him to the park with my son, sister and my nieces, and it got dark,” says Akiyama. “But Ben had figured out the park’s layout, and he led the way out. He was in his element.”

[people_legacy_video id=1]Still, Ben’s zone of maximum comfort remains his family’s three-bedroom stucco home – where he lives with his mom and brother Isaiah, 11 – and the quiet streets around it. Some professionals who work with Ben worry that his near-complete reliance on echolocation could hurt him when he finds himself in unfamiliar settings. Haase wishes he would use a cane to help him gauge, for instance, the depth of a hole. But Ben is sticking to his guns. “He’s a rebellious traveler,” says Kish, who despite teaching echolocation around the world still occasionally uses a cane. “Ben puts himself at risk.”

Others believe Ben’s remarkable abilities will make it easier for him to face new challenges and conquer new surroundings. “The world is not going to change for these kids; they need to adapt to it,” says Ben’s eye doctor James Ruben, a Kaiser Permanente ophthalmologist. “His mother understood that plenty of sighted people have miserable lives and plenty of unsighted people have happy lives.”

Last month Ben widened his horizons even further. “The thing I’m most scared of is water,” he says. “But if I had eyes, it’s what I’d most like to see.” So on June 25 he took a trip to San Diego’s SeaWorld Adventure Park to swim with dolphins and hear how they use echolocation. Waist-deep in a saltwater pool, he immersed one ear as Sandy, a bottle-nosed dolphin, swam toward him. “Man,” he said, “she clicks fast!” Ben spent 45 minutes playing with Sandy, touching her teeth and stroking her dorsal fin. Bob McMains, supervisor of SeaWorld’s dolphin program, says that in his 23 years there, few people have listened so intently to the sounds the dolphins make. “He’s got a gift with dolphins; he’s truly unique,” says McMains. “I told him, once he’s 18 he’s got a job here anytime.”

McMains can get in line. Ben’s world may be dark, but the most amazing surprises are just a click away. He might become a math teacher or a pro skateboarder – or, as his mother believes, just about anything. And wouldn’t that make for a truly amazing Ben Underwood story? “I tell people I’m not blind,” he says. “I just can’t see.”

• By Alex Tresniowski. Ron Arias in Sacramento

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