Blind World Magazine

Seeing with sound.

Sacramento Bee, California.
Sunday, May 07, 2006.

At 14, Ben Underwood has mastered blindness in a chorus of clicks known as echolocation

The Big Man on Campus is sashaying to math class in his size 14 Nikes, smiling and slapping high fives as he turns a corner and passes through a crowded courtyard.

"Hey, Ben!"

"What's up, Ben?"

"Ben! How you doing, Ben?"

"Fine," Ben says, between clicks of his tongue. "Good, man. I'm doing great." Click, click, click.

Benjamin Underwood tilts his head, and the sun lights up his deeply set eyes. They are the color of milk chocolate, and they are only for show. Cancer took Ben's real eyes when he was a toddler, more than a decade ago.

But at 14, Ben has his own vision of the world, and he is a master navigator. Using echolocation, a skill common in dolphins and bats but rarely documented in humans, Ben creates sounds that bounce off of objects and allow him to decipher obstacles in his path. That talent, combined with his superbly refined senses of hearing, smell and touch, allows Ben to "see" remarkably well. Just ask his mother, Aquanetta Gordon, or his teachers at Smedberg Middle School in Sacramento, or his many, many friends.

"Ben hears every bird in the trees, and every sound in the orchestra," says Gordon. "He can do incredible things. We can all learn something from Ben."

Much to the chagrin of his Braille instructors, Ben refuses to use a white cane. By clicking his tongue and listening for sound waves, he can tell whether he is facing a brick wall or a metal car or a wooden fence, and wend his way around them. He is a whiz at computer games and an expert inline skater. He rides a bike, wrestles and dances. On his Braille laptop, he has written a novel about an extraordinary boy. It is somewhat autobiographical.

"I'm extremely talented!" Ben brags, stretching out his long arms and shrugging his shoulders.

It's true, says John Cox, who teaches visually impaired students in the Elk Grove Unified School District. He has never seen anyone quite like Ben.

"He really is awesome," Cox says.

It is easy to forget that Ben is blind when he is zipping down his neighborhood streets on inline skates or whipping an opponent, one with perfect vision, at the video game Dragon Ball. Ben cannot fully explain how he does these things. "It's something I taught myself when I was little, and I just got better," he says.

Studies have shown that many blind people have superior senses of hearing and smell, particularly if they lost their sight when they were very young. Ben says he can identify people by their scents, and can hear cars and voices from blocks away. He plays video games by memorizing scenarios and identifying sounds that characters make before they move or strike.

He also uses echolocation, a skill that scientists know little about in humans.

Several species of animals, including bats and dolphins, use echolocation to identify things, according to scientists from Harvard University. The creatures make noises that create high-frequency sound "pulses" that the animals can accurately interpret, the researchers found in a recent study.

But "much remains to be learned" about whether people can use this technique effectively, scientists write.

Perhaps Ben could teach them.

"When I was about 10, I started making noises, clicking," he says on a recent evening, standing in his front yard with his mother and younger brother Isaiah. "I found out it did stuff for me."

He clicks his tongue. "I can hear those parked cars," he says, pointing toward the street. "That's a big echo, much bigger than a trash can or a pole." Metal, he says, makes a "pinging" sound, while wood sounds more muted. Human beings are harder to detect, but "I can hear y'all standing there," Ben says.

Then he takes off on his Rollerblades, performing figure eights in the street, artfully dodging idle cars, greeting kids on scooters.

Ben is so skilled at alternative ways of "seeing" the world that his doctor, pediatric ophthalmologist James Ruben, mistook him for a sighted person during a recent office visit.

"I hadn't seen Ben in five or six years," says Ruben, who works for Kaiser Permanente. "I walk into the exam room and there's this kid, hunched over a Game Boy and playing feverishly. I look at the kid, look at the chart, look at the kid again. I'm thinking, 'This can't be right.' I thought something was wrong with the chart."

No, it was just Ben being Ben.

"In 15 years of practice, I have never seen anything like it," Ruben says. "You hand him something, and he just reaches out and grabs it. I don't know how in the heck he does what he does."

Ruben gives a lot of credit to Ben's mother, who has never allowed her son to use his blindness as an excuse for failure, insisted that he be treated like everyone else and encouraged him to take risks.

Ben was born in Riverside. When he was 2, his mother noticed something strange about his right eye. "His pupil was glowing, like glass," she recalls. Doctors diagnosed retinoblastoma, a malignant tumor that grows on the retina. By the time Ben was 3, he had lost both eyes.

"When he woke up after that second surgery, he was so scared," Gordon recalls. "He said, 'Mom, I can't see anymore. I can't see.'

"I took his hand and I put it up to my face and I said, 'Yes you can, baby, with your hands and your nose and your ears. You can see, just not like the rest of us.' "

For one night, Ben felt sorry for himself. Then he got down to business, his mother says. He taught himself to get from Point A to Point B safely by counting steps. He carefully caressed every object he could get his hands on. He began learning Braille. His mother enrolled him in mainstream schools and fought teachers and administrators to treat him like other students. No special privileges or altered assignments, she insisted. No allowing him to leave class ahead of others, before the bell rings. No preventing him from playing on the monkey bars or joining in a Four Square game.

"Yes, I was nervous at times, but I didn't want him to be cheated out of anything in life," says Gordon, who works as a field representative for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and has four other children, ages 10 to 23. "I didn't want him to miss anything."

Her approach impresses Ruben, the pediatric ophthalmologist.

"I always tell parents whose child is going blind that life doesn't end with the loss of sight," he says. "I think the biggest obstacle for these kids is overprotective parents. They become overwhelmed. But not this mom. She really has it wired."

At first, some of Ben's teachers at Smedberg wondered if they would be able to adapt their lessons for a blind boy.

"I was a little concerned, but the first time I met Ben, all my fears went away," says math teacher Steve Klein. With fingers as long and as nimble as a piano player's, Ben uses a Braille computer to tap out assignments. He has Braille textbooks that he stores behind his seat in the back of the classroom.

"I have modified zero assignments for Ben, and he's doing fantastic," says Klein. "He's a real good math student."

Ben's biggest liability, Klein and others say, is not his lack of sight but his gregarious nature and reluctance to do homework. He carries about a C average, but could do much better, according to his teachers.

"He's very social, a little too social," his mother agrees.

"I get that from you!" Ben taunts her.

At school, Ben seems to be everyone's best friend. Smedberg's principal, Keven MacDonald, greets him with hand slaps on campus and once answered Ben's challenge to an arm wrestling match in front of the entire student body. During breaks and at lunch, Ben is practically mobbed by other students who seem to feed off his energy. For $1, he is willing to pop out his false eyes, fascinating and horrifying the people around him.

"Did y'all know that in Africa they have spiders the size of dinner plates?" Ben asks a group of students sitting down to eat tacos and chips in the cafeteria on a recent day. "I'm serious, man. I'm serious." He tells fat jokes and complains dramatically about the taste of his peanut butter M&Ms. "I ordered peanut ones, not peanut butter!" he laments loudly, to a chorus of laughter.

Some believe that Ben would be better off if he stood out just a little bit more, by using a cane. Cox, the instructor for the visually impaired, says he admires the teenager's independence but worries about his safety. At school, Ben occasionally runs into people and trees and walls, Cox notes.

"He's developed some really good travel skills," Cox says. "His echolocation skills allow him a level of independence. But it would be much safer for him to use a cane. A cane would identify him as a blind person. Without it, a lot of people don't know that he's blind. It makes me feel very uneasy about his safety."

In more than 20 years of teaching blind people, Cox says, Ben is the only student he has had who has refused to use a cane. "At some point, he's going to have to do it," he says.

Ben thinks not.

"I want to get around just like everyone else," he says emphatically. "I don't want to feel different in any way."

Then he reaches into his pocket, fishes out his cell phone and engages in a typical teenage ritual.

"Tyrah," he punches out in a text message. "Where you at? Call me!"

About the writer:

The Bee's Cynthia Hubert can be reached at (916) 321-1082 or

End of article.

Any further reproduction or distribution of this article in a format other than a specialized format, may be an infringement of copyright.

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