Faces Behind the Screen: Justin Bishop
“And around that time, I gave up skateboarding and learned how to be fully blind.”
Justin Bishop is a skateboarder through and through. Even when he lost his vision, he refused to give up his greatest passion: skateboarding. We had the opportunity to chat with Justin about what it’s like to skateboard blind. Check out part one of the interview below and stay tuned for more.
How do you identify in terms of your vision loss?
JUSTIN BISHOP: I’m almost fully blind. I have a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. I have no vision in my left eye, and then in my right eye, my retina has detached. So I have no central vision. It’s just black in front of me. Then on my peripheral, I can see some shapes and some shadows within like 10 feet or so – but it has to be high-contrast, really bright. If it’s dark, then there’s no way I can see the shadow. But that’s where I’m at right now.
Whenever I talk about it or identify, I say blind slash visually impaired. I do the slash because people don’t understand that there is a spectrum to being blind. So I lump them together so that you have to think about both aspects of it. I’ve been losing my vision since I was about 10, and I’ve always been low vision or visually impaired.
How did you first get into skateboarding and what has your journey been like coming back?
JUSTIN BISHOP: I got into skateboarding mainly because it was something I could do alone. With other sports, you have to have a meeting, you have to meet up with the team, you have to have a coach. It was just too much and too structured. As a kid, it was just easy to just pick up a skateboard and just go skate, whenever you want and how long you wanted. So it was more just about the independence of skateboarding when I got into it.
I would say the journey of losing my sight and skateboarding has been a roller coaster. When I had vision I was a high-performing skateboarder. Then from the age of 20 to 25, I lost a majority of my sight. So I was just losing all this skill and talent that I practiced and that I gained from 10 years of skateboarding. I just lost it, over the course of a year. Then losing my eyesight, too. It was kind of a depressing time.
Around that time, I gave up skateboarding and learned how to be fully blind – a lot of cane and mobility training, a lot of tactile training, and Braille grade 1 training, stuff like that. Then, when I had my life down as being blind, I just kind of picked up skateboarding again, and fell in love with it all over again. I fell in love with learning how to do it, and I didn’t care that I had to relearn everything. It was such a joy that it was worth relearning it twice.
What type of assistive devices do you use to help you while skating?
JUSTIN BISHOP: So right upfront, I use the white cane. I use [the white cane] every day. Pretty much the only time I don’t use it is in my own home. But besides that, it’s always in my hand. In my day-to-day, it just helps me get around a lot faster and more confidently.
When I’m skating, the white cane will tell me directly what’s in front of me. Then I also use something called a beeper box. It’s an audible beeping marker, and I found it because other blind sports use it. I realized that I can use this for skateboarding and that I can set it up at an obstacle to know where I’m at in the surrounding area. It’s just pretty much a little box that beeps that you can just turn on.
So I was using that to skate, and Zappos kind of saw one of my videos using it, and they do a program with Not Impossible Labs, and they actually made something called a phased array speaker system. It’s pretty much a beeper box on steroids. So I can actually change the direction of the sound. I can make a wall of sound. I can manipulate sound in all these crazy ways. So I’ve been using that a lot more to skate.
Is there a learning curve for you when you are going to a new skate park?
JUSTIN BISHOP: Yeah. If it’s a place I’ve never been to before, it usually takes me about 40 minutes before I can start skating. I’ll walk the course or walk the park with my cane, and kind of feel it out, feel what I want to do. That usually takes about 40 minutes. Then I’ll lay down my beeper boxes, or lay down one of them and skate an area, or kind of like work up from there. It usually takes a little bit for me to explore and get used to a park.
What is it like having vision loss in the skateboarding community?
JUSTIN BISHOP: Yeah, so right now, there’s two of us, like higher-performing blind skateboarders. The other guy, his name is Dan Mancina. He’s a really, really cool guy. We actually have the same condition, we’re the same age, and we love to skateboard. So it’s kind of crazy that we get to meet. We’ve met, and got to skate together.
As for the skateboard community, it’s the best community to be in. People are just loving, so kind, so caring. I honestly believe that if any other skateboarder lost their vision, they’d be doing what I do. They’d still be skateboarding. Because when you get into skateboarding, you just have a love for it. And you can pick up that love from other people, and you just know it. So I think definitely in the skateboarding community, they just see the passion, and they would know, yes, I’d be doing the same thing if I lost my sight. And I think that’s why it’s such a tight-knit and sharing community.
Part Three Coming Soon!
Faces Behind the Screen would like to thank Justin Bishop for participating in our storytelling project. If you’re interested in sharing your story with us, fill out our nomination form.
Faces Behind the Screen is a storytelling project focusing on members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community, as well as those who are blind and low vision.