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Justin Bishop from Las Vegas knows how it feels to lose everything you’ve worked hard for, and discover that this does not have to mean the end; in fact, it can be the beginning of amazing opportunities. Being told he’d go blind when he was a child led Justin to push himself hard to be the best he could be before sight loss took hold. After a journey through depression, feelings of failure and dreams lost, Justin’s determination has led him back to his original destination. Justin’s inspiring story proves that anything is possible if you follow your dreams…
Imagine sitting in a doctor’s office being told you have a genetic disease that causes blindness. Now imagine being eight years old and being told you will be blind one day. It is pretty hard as an eight year old to think about adulthood and the consequences of a genetic decease. They might as well have told a kid they would also have a mortgage and must pay taxes. Well, that is what happened to me. Twenty-five years ago I was told I had Retinitis Pigmentosa and it would change my life forever. As a child I was ignorant of what that would mean for me. That ignorance would turn into denial. That denial eventually turned into acceptance, then depression, and then back to a realization that I could have a normal life. My name is Justin Bishop, and today I am a blind amateur skateboarder.
When I was diagnosed with RP it really meant nothing to me. I understood it was important, and it was always in the back of my head, but just did not affect me. This ignorance allowed me to have a pretty normal childhood. In my preteens I found my passion for skateboarding and it consumed my life from that point on.
The first time RP started to affect me was years later when I was seventeen and driving home from work one late night. I realized I could not see very well in the dark anymore. My drive home was stressful, terrifying, and downright dangerous. One of the first things RP effects, is night blindness, which is your ability to have your eyes adjust in the dark. Up until this point, I had been ignorant of my condition. This ignorance quickly turned into denial. I spent another year driving home in the dark, when I should not have. All because, I was not ready to admit I was becoming visually impaired.
When I was eighteen, I admitted to myself, my family, and my work that I could not drive at night anymore. I realized one day soon I would be blind. Those words I heard ten years ago, were coming true. I will be blind. I knew I was in a race for time, so I doubled down on skateboarding and what I loved so I could have as much of it whilst I could see.
Around this time in my life, I was a mad man when it came to skateboarding. This sport consumed my every waking hour. If I wasn’t working, I was on my board. I picked up some local sponsors, won some competitions, and made my Dad proud. Fulfilling my dream of being a skateboarder before I lost my sight was really important to me.
When I was twenty, another major loss happened to my sight. I lost my drivers license because a milky gloss started to happen to my eyes, and I was no longer able to pass the DMV eye exam. Everything I was looking at started to look as if I was looking through a dirty window. It was blurry, and nothing was defined. Even though I lost my license, I could still see enough to skateboard. Not being able to drive, and now not being able to work, I went harder on my skateboarding. At this point, I was spending every hour skateboarding and focusing. I was good too. That is, until I was twenty-five. I remember this week vividly, because it was such a dramatic loss in such a short time. Usually with RP, it is a short loss over a long period of time. You don’t notice what you can’t see until your next eye exam or test. In one week, I lost most my sight, independence, and what felt like most of my life.
It was a summer day in Las Vegas. Nice and hot at the skatepark. I was there just skating, and practicing, and I realized my skateboard was getting blurrier. I couldn’t really tell where the top of the board was when I flipped it. I remember telling myself to shake it off and get some sleep. The next day I was there, and I realized I couldn’t see the ramp or rails directly in front of me. I could only see them out of the corner of my eyes. My board was gone, the park was disappearing, and it hit me. My skating days were over. Everything I worked fifteen years to gain was all gone in a matter of 48 hours. I was too blind to see what I was doing.
With an eye exam, I found out I no longer had central vision. The RP started to fully affect my central sight. I could only see out of the corner of my eyes. It hit me all at once. This has happened, I am blind now. I wish at this point I could tell you I was strong, picked myself right back up, and learned how to be blind, but that is not true. When a human loses anything they grieve, and I went into a depression.
I had no confidence during this depression. I stayed this way for months, until my Dad sat down and talked to me man to man. He told me something very important. He said that it was ok to be sad. What happened was a big deal. But I had been sad long enough. I needed to realize I was not the first person to go blind. That statement woke me up. It made me realize life if not over and I had to keep going. The next day I did everything in my power to start learning how to be blind. From getting my first cane, to taking mobility training, and learning how to make technology more accessible. Most importantly I learned how to live an independent lifestyle. This process did not happen overnight, but after two years I was a confident blind individual.
Although I retained my confidence and some independence, I still struggled with being fulfilled. I wanted to contribute and get a job. Trying to obtain a job for someone blind or visually impaired is one of the hardest obstacles I have encountered. Either you are over qualified for tasks they would trust a blind person with, or you are flatly denied an opportunity of trying a position just because you are holding a white cane. After months of being denied work, even washing dishes at a bar, I finally had my luck turn around. I came across a job opening for an ABA therapist in the autism community. They were looking for someone to teach kids on the spectrum how to skateboard. A skill I had spent much of my life honing. Obviously, this seemed like a dream job for me with my background. I applied and was fortunate to get an interview. I wish more blind people could have interviewed with the owner I have had the privilege to work for. He was understanding, and instead of turning me away, he gave me an opportunity to prove I could do the job. A chance to show that my sight did not stop me from teaching.
I was doing my dream job teaching children how to skateboard, at an amazing company, that supported me by making what I needed accessible. I had joined a community that fully accepted me. Even though I was working around skateboarding, I still did not get back on the board. Emotionally I was too hurt on how much I had lost when I lost my sight. That all changed when one day at work a friend asked me if I could still drop in on a halfpipe. I told him, no, probably not. If I can’t see the ground, I can’t see where I am going. I knew skateboarding was over for me. Him also having a passion for skateboarding, he would not accept no for an answer, no matter how many times I said it. So, I tried to drop in. I remember grabbing the skateboard, setting the tail on the coping to drop in, and standing up on top of the board ready to drop in with so much fear. Not fear that I would get hurt, but the fear of looking stupid in front of everyone. I shook it off and went for it. I dropped in for the first time in years, and I landed it. A flood of ecstasy hit me at the same time I realized the other side of the halfpipe was coming up. So, I quickly prepared to do a rock and roll on the other side of the coping. When I got there, I got into the rock and roll, but I got hung up and fell straight to the bottom of the halfpipe. Everyone rushed to me to make sure I was ok, just to find me with tears streaking my cheeks and a huge smile on my face. Laughing and crying at the realization of how much I loved skateboarding. I love the successes, and even the failures of getting hurt. I was laughing because I was so happy I had found my love of skateboarding again and crying because I was so angry for ever having let it go. So angry that my biggest fear was looking stupid in front of other people. From that day on, I was like a sixteen year old kid again, skateboarding every day. Relearning tricks I had already mastered, now having to use timing and pure luck. This is the part of my life that I realized how lucky I am. Most people only get to learn how to skateboard once, and I got to learn twice. With all the same joy and excitement, I had as a young boy.
From this point on I started skating with my friends again. Getting out of the house and making skate videos and reconnecting with the skate community. Before I knew it, I had companies reaching out wanting to sponsor me. A friend did an article about my skating, and that sparked an interest from Zappos, Electric sunglasses, Nixon, Element Skateboards, Nike SB, Independent Trucks, and many more. Now I am an Amateur Skateboarder getting to travel the world doing what I love. If I can pass one thing on from my story it is to just keep moving forward. You never know what possibility you might be missing due to your fear holding you back.
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