Ben Underwood, the Boy Who Could See with Sound

by jdroth on 15 April 2011

Ben Underwood was your average teenager. He liked to goof around with his friends, skate in the street, and waste time playing videogames. The only difference? Underwood was blind.

In July 2006, People magazine published a profile of Underwood, the boy who saw with sound. The opening paragraph is awesome:

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.”

Ben couldn’t see with his eyes, but he could see with his ears. He used a technique called echolocation, which allowed him to detect objects around him by the echoes they made. Some animals do this, of course — notably bats and dolphins — but it’s rare that a human can.

How did Underwood master this skill? As a young boy, he lost his sight to cancer. Nobody’s sure exactly how he learned to see with sound, but it happened fairly quickly. He discovered that when he clicked his tongue, he could tell the shape of and distance to various objects by the echoes they made. He could even detect movement.

At Underwood’s site, his mother writes:

I believe Ben started clicking probably right away. He was playing video games, riding bikes, skating, climbing trees, and doing everything he always did as if he never lost his sight. I treated him as though he could see and spoke visual. I don’t know if I was in denial, but I made sure he saw everything.

I’d put his hand on the road and say, “Look at this, the road is more rough and the side walk is smooth.” You name it, I’ve probably put his had on it.

Ben says he practiced to see how far his echo would go so he’d echo down the middle of the street. I’d say, well how far did it go. He’d say “I don’t know it just went away.” He practiced on hearing his environment without echoing, so he could hear a trash can on the floor, almost anything around that’s stationary.

I say whatever works for him, do it. I’m not in a blind person’s shoes, so I’m not going to judge.

Underwood could run, play basketball, rollerblade, play foosball, and skateboard. The comic-book geeks out there might recognize him as a real-life Daredevil (but without the red tights).

After the People magazine story was published, Underwood was visited by John Blackstone from CBS News. Blackstone filed this report:

“His mom ought to be teaching a course on raising a kid that can’t see well,” says ophthalmologist James Ruben in this video clip. “I think the real story here is not his talents, but his attitude. Attitude is really what it’s about.”

This awesome boy was raised by an awesome mother.

On 19 January 2009, the same cancer that had taken his sight took Ben Underwood’s life. He died seven days shy of his seventeenth birthday.

“I’m not blind — I just can’t see.” — Ben Underwood

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 imelda April 15, 2011 at 18:28

Man, that is incredible, and wrenching, and heartbreaking. It’s amazing how much we – or I – figure that there’s not a lot left to surprise us in this world. And then you read a story like this. Human possibility… it never ceases to amaze, and expand.

This is a terrific website, JD.


2 Lis April 30, 2011 at 21:58

What a fantastic story! It makes me feel ashamed for not using my time to the fullest. None of us know how long we have.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: