RIP Ben Underwood: Echolocating Teen

There was a funeral today for Ben Underwood at Harvest Church in Elk Grove, not far from Sacramento where I happen to have grown up. Underwood went blind from cancer at age 3, but learned to get around using a fascinating skill: echolocation. Underwood taught himself how to make a series of clicking noises, not unlike a dolphin, to navigate his way through the world.

There’s a page about human echolocation on Ben’s website. Wikipedia informs me that human echolocation has been formally studied since the ’50s, and that it’s commonly used in varying degrees. Sight-impaired people who tap a cane, for instance, may partially be using echolocation. Others do it more formally, though it’s physically impossible for a human to use it as effectively as, say, a bat; because human voices are lower in frequency, a human using that technique can only perceive relatively large objects.

Some blind people, however, feel there’s almost a sixth sense involved, though not one that transcends the physical world. They can “sense” objects in an entirely different way than sighted people, insofar as an object may give off echo the blind person is not consciously aware of, but still perceives — therefore perceiving “pressure” from the object without knowing how, exactly, it is perceived. What made Underwood so unusual is that he used this skill to played basketball, skateboard, and rollerblade. He also played video games, though I haven’t the foggiest idea how.

Unfortunately, the same cancer that made Underwood blind returned and spread to his brain and spinal chord. He passed away January 19 at the age of 16. Since today would have been Underwood’s 17th birthday, Stevie Wonder sang ‘Happy Birthday’ at the service, which was attended by more than a thousand people. Wonder and Underwood had met at a conference on vision and technology.

Donations can be made at Ben’s website and will go directly to his mother, Aquanetta.

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