Yesterday I was listening to an episode of the public radio program “This American Life.” The episode is called “Batman,” because it is about a man who has been blind since his first year of life who taught himself to use clicking sounds (echolocation) to move around, just like bats. I don’t mean “move around” such as from chair to chair or bed to bathroom. This man rides bikes, hikes on rugged trails that run along ridges and involve narrow foot bridges—all without the guidance of a normally sighted person.
Daniel Kish, AKA Batman, is a remarkable human being, though in his view it’s a bit demeaning to see him that way. He believes that we expect too little of visually impaired people, so in his view he is not exceptional. He demonstrates through his non-profit, World Access for the Blind: Our Vision is Sound, that echolocation can be taught to others, allowing thousands to live lives of freedom to hike, bike, skateboard, and do all sorts of things that might stretch the limits of what we expect of them.
Scientists looking at the brains of people like Daniel can see that the visual cortex (the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information) is the area that is activated by echolocation. As Daniel says, their brains “see” without the help of physical eyes.
The main idea that grabbed me and kept me listening for the full hour had to do with expectations. Does this defy your expectations of what someone without eyes might be able to accomplish? You can watch Daniel giving a talk to the PopTech conference in 2011 to see him for yourself. See what you think. He called his talk “Blind Vision.”
Daniel believes he has accomplished so much because his mother and his teachers allowed him to stretch, explore, even hurt himself as he learned to get around in the world in the way that worked best for him. That doesn’t mean they weren’t afraid for him and didn’t feel anguish when he was injured (as he reportedly was on numerous occasions). They made the decision to allow him to live his life fully as he chose. He never even met another blind person until he was in fifth grade. His was a radically different upbringing from that of a child educated to be blind in the world.
Daniel’s story led me to think about the role of expectations in ADHD. Do we expect enough of ourselves or do we expect too much? If we’ve been challenged and unable to keep up with peers, does it help more to be compassionate towards ourselves because our brains work differently, or is it better to set higher goals and push to do more?
Many people with ADHD have grown up in the knowledge that some things were more difficult for them than for most of their peers. They may have been made to feel less intelligent, even though ADHD has nothing to do with intelligence. But to push these folks to do better with the traditional “you can do it,” or “just try a little harder and you’ll make it,” can result in lower feelings of self worth if the environment doesn’t change, because they don’t flourish in a typical learning or working environment. They need opportunities to function in ways that meet the needs of their particular brain types.
If the world comes to a clearer understanding of neurodiversity and grows to accept that each of us has a unique brain, then each child (or adult) will be nourished in an environment that best stimulates his/her unique brain wiring. If a visual cortex can “see” in the absence of physical eyes, who knows what is possible! Differences should be recognized as just that – differences – rather than deficits. Imagine a world in which each individual is supported throughout life in ways that encourage him/her to grow to full potential!