Ben Underwood:  the boy who could “see” with his ears

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What would happen if you ever lost your eyesight? Many would despair at the sudden bleak, empty void that has become their life. Many would turn bitter, blaming everyone around them for the sudden sickening lurch in the world as they had known it. Many would- but not Ben.

Ben Underwood was a remarkable teenager who loved to skateboard, ride his bicycle and play football, basketball and video games. For the most part, the Californian 14-year-old was just like other kids his age. What made Underwood remarkable was his ability to master these activities despite the fact that he was blind.

Underwood had both eyes removed after being diagnosed with retinal cancer at age two. To most people’s amazement upon meeting him, he seemed completely unfazed by his lack of sight, defying common stereotypes about blindness as a disability. So how did he do it? The answer is echolocation: the sonar navigation technique used by bats, dolphins, several other mammals and some birds. As Underwood moved about, he habitually made clicking noises with his tongue; these sounds bounced off surfaces and, with each return, added to Underwood’s perception of his surroundings. He was so good at it that he could tell the difference between a fire hydrant and a rubbish bin, distinguish between parked cars and trucks, and — if you took him to a house he had never been to before — he would tell you he could ‘see’ a staircase in that corner and a kitchen in the other. He could even distinguish between different materials.

An unflinching faith in God guided Ben and his mother during his last few months as cancer spread to Ben’s brain and spine. He eventually died on January 2009 at the age of 16.

But Ben had left his mark on the world before he left it. Inspiring the blind to continue living a healthy productive lifestyle despite the loss of their sight,  Ben has been on numerous radio talk shows, spoken to numerous classes and Senior centres, and has even been on The Ellen show and the Oprah. To Ben, one of the most important things in his life is to help someone else. Though he didn’t realise it, Ben not only touched the hearts of the blind; he touched the heart of the world. He forged forward despite his loss in sight, teaching himself how to swim, speak Japanese and write a book of science fiction.

Ben does not see one’s exterior. Instead, he sees within. Upon hearing someone saying anything negative towards another person, he says, “That’s what’s wrong with sighted people, you all look at one another and judge what you look like,” and this statement is immensely true. The most powerful part of it is that he cannot judge from looks, only from spirit. This world would be a much better place if we all couldn’t see. Ben is indeed an inspiration for all.

Chloe Wong (2L)

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