Blind skateboarder shares how the sport has made him stronger: ‘I love how hard it is’

Let 32-year-old skateboarder Justin Bishop teach you how to fall.

The Las Vegas native has skateboarded for 20 years, five of them without sight. Bishop has a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that causes loss of vision over time.

The athlete became legally blind at age 20, before losing much of the vision he had left over the course of a single week when he was 25.

Bishop spoke with In The Know about the art of falling and getting back up.

“One of my favorite things about skating is the trial and error,” Bishop said. “I love the falls. I love how hard it is. When you finally get it, it’s this happiness, this satisfaction that no drug — no any other thing — could ever compare to.”

The joy is palpable when you watch Bishop skate up a half pipe on Instagram, then fall with a smile on his face. Imperfection is a part of the experience for any skateboarder, but Bishop appears to embrace it with open arms. 

However, this state of mind wasn’t necessarily Bishop’s first instinct when he initially lost his vision. 

“When I was 25, my retinals took a dramatic turn. Over a week, I lost a majority of my sight and all of my skills on a skateboard,” Bishop said. “My brain couldn’t comprehend how fast my sight loss happened. I want to be brave and say I didn’t let that stop me, but I did. I wasn’t ready for skateboarding to hurt my feelings or lose everything I gained. So I stopped. I kind of went into a depression and partied hard.”

But after the difficult year, Bishop said he “learned how to be blind.” 

“I took some massively multiplayer online game (MMO) classes [and] got some mobility training,” he said. “I learned braille, learned how to use voiceover. That’s how I communicate with people via text. So I had to learn all of that.”

At 29, Bishop snagged a job with Sport-Social, an organization that teaches kids on the spectrum social and motor skills via skateboarding and other activities. 

“Being around the kids after I hadn’t touched a skateboard in five years, I had to get on a skateboard and show them how to do it. And that’s how I got back into it,” he said. 

Bishop has since developed his own way of skateboarding. 

“I have my skate cane — it has a rolling ball tip at the end,” he said. “I use sound a lot. I use it to guide me, to keep me straight, as like an audible marker. I have like 30 feet of rope that I can tie to stuff so I can guide myself to rails.” 

But there’s another appeal to skateboarding. Bishop may stand out online as the blind skateboarder, but at the skate park, he’s just with his peers.

“Any time I go skateboarding, any time I’m around other skaters, it’s nothing but love and respect because we have a shared passion,” Bishop said. “At a skatepark, if I fall, skaters just yell, ‘Are you good?’ and you go ‘Yep’ and they go ‘Cool.’ And it’s a nice feeling when you’re blind to have that independence and no one treating you like a baby.”

The 32-year-old believes that when it comes to adults and kids with disabilities, skateboarding can be cathartic. 

“Skateboarding is for everyone,” he said. “Parents of kids who are picking up skateboarding or are interested in skateboarding and especially parents of visually impaired or blind children, let them skateboard. Let them get hurt. Let them find this trial and error because it will make them stronger in the future.”

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