Sacramento Bee, California.
Saturday, September 09, 2006.
CBS News featured him on Katie Couric's second day in the anchor chair. Geraldo's people called. The folks from "The Montel Williams Show" pursued him. Ellen DeGeneres invited him to Los Angeles, and People magazine sent him to San Diego.
Benjamin Underwood, who finds his way in the world using a technique generally seen only in bats and dolphins, is a wanted man. In New York. In Great Britain. Even in Japan.
"It's gone crazy," said his mother, Aquanetta Gordon, with a laugh.
Ben is 14 years old, completely blind and absolutely remarkable. He plays video games. He skates. He rides a bike. He practices karate.
In May, The Bee published a story about the Elk Grove teenager's ability to identify objects by clicking his tongue and listening for sound waves, a skill known as echolocation. Since then, he has become something of a celebrity.
He has been featured on three network news programs. His People magazine profile, titled "The Boy Who Sees With Sound," went on for five pages. A TV crew from the British Broadcasting Corp. wants to spend time with him. Some Japanese journalists have proposed doing a documentary about him.
When Couric introduced her audience to Ben, she gushed that his story would "knock your socks off!"
In addition to mainstream media, Ben is big on the Internet. He has been the object of blogs and Web chats, and stories about him have appeared on sites like Unexplained-Mysteries.com.
A video of him even showed up on YouTube.
Gordon said she has always known that Ben, one of five siblings, was pretty special. But she never thought much about how the rest of the world would receive him.
"Everyone calls him amazing," she said, "and he is a neat person. But to me, he's just Ben."
Ben lost both his eyes to cancer when he was 3 years old, but he has never had a big problem with that. As a toddler, he taught himself to safely get from Point A to Point B by counting steps and using his keen senses of hearing, smell and touch. Gordon enrolled her son in mainstream schools, insisted that he be treated just like other kids, and encouraged him to take risks.
When Ben got older, he began making clicking sounds with his tongue. He discovered that the clicks created sound pulses, which he used to identify certain objects.
Without any outside help, Ben has mastered it. Clicking his way down the street or through the mall or in the hallways at Sheldon High School, he can tell whether he is approaching a door or concrete wall or a wooden post, and wend his way around most obstacles. Ben is a whiz at complex computer games, and zips through his neighborhood on inline skates. Despite concern from some of his teachers, who worry about his safety, Ben refuses to use a white cane that would identify him to the world as blind. He swims and wrestles, and is working on a book on his Braille laptop. His eye doctors and teachers have said they have never encountered anyone quite like him.
"I'm not sure what Ben's calling will be, but I know he's gonna be great," said his mother.
Reflecting on the reaction to his story, Ben mused, "I might want to be an actor some day."
He certainly has achieved more than his requisite 15 minutes of fame.
The highlight of his media experience so far, Ben said, has to be his trip to San Diego's Sea World, courtesy of People. There, he frolicked with dolphins. They swam and clicked all around him, and he recognized them as his animal soulmates.
"They click from inside of their heads," Ben explained, "but I can hear it.
"It was so much fun. It was something I always wanted to do."
Although he has enjoyed the public attention showered upon him in recent months, Ben has expressed little interest in listening to the TV shows or magazine stories about him, his mother said.
"I asked him whether he wanted me to read the People article to him, and he said, 'No, not really,' " she said. He's too busy with school and friends and other interviews.
"Most of the time it's cool," Ben said of his newfound fame. "Everyone has been really nice."
But like many media stars, he has learned to covet his free time.
"Sometimes I'll be on the phone or whatever when the TV cameras show up, and I want to do my own thing at that moment," he said. "I wish they would go away and come back another time."
About the writer:
The Bee's Cynthia Hubert can be reached at (916)321-1082 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAPTION: Benjamin Underwood, 14, laughs with friend Marbella Diaz, also 14, at their middle school in May. The teen's story has brought him plenty of media attention, along with a trip to San Diego to swim with dolphins. Sacramento Bee/Kevin German
End of article.
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