Justin Bishop's "Ditch Your Vision" Interview
Photos by Saeed Rahbaran
By Michael Burnett
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name’s Justin Bishop and I’m 32 years old. I’ve been skateboarding since I was eight and I’ve been diagnosed with my condition since I was about the same age. It’s a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa. Actually, me and Dan Mancina have the same eye condition. I lost my driver’s license at the age of 20 and I lost a majority of my eyesight at the age of 25. At 25 I kind of stopped skateboarding ‘cause I was losing all my tricks and it kind of hurt me to stop progressing like that. Then a couple years later, I work at a place with a skatepark and I picked skateboarding back up. I didn’t care how bad I sucked, I just loved being on the board and learning how to progress from that.
Here’s a question I’m sure you get a lot—how blind are you?
So, I am fully blind in my left eye and in my right eye I have no central vision. I have macular degeneration in that eye. So my central vision went out and I’m in the process of the retina detaching so I have shadows out of the corner of my eye. So there’s a little bit, but it’s more of just I can see—I know the sun’s up, I know when the sun’s up and if someone’s standing right next to me but nothing directly in front of my face. So I keep the sunglasses on and stuff like that because my eyes drift and do weird shit.
So how did this effect your skating as your eyesight gradually degenerated?
It was a rough time for that because being a skate rat I’d be at the park every day and just lose tricks daily and lose certain abilities. So it was something that took me years to stack up, I was losing everyday. It was a bad time. It was really rapid, the progression loss. But now, the way I relearned how to skateboard and just loving skateboarding, I started progressing again and slowly trying to skateboard to the best of my ability.
Casper flip? Holy shit!
Forget about skateboarding, how did you adjust to be able to simply get around?
So when I stopped skating I took time to learn my cane skills and learned how to be blind. For about a year I didn’t do anything; I didn’t leave the house; I was struggling with depression. But I have some buddies who work at a bar here in Vegas called Big Bertha and they kind of knew what I was going through so they would give me incentive to get out of the house. They’re, like, “You take a Lyft out here, you travel on your own and you can drink all night for free on us.” And so that would kind of get me out of the house—my friends pushing me out and getting me out of my comfort zone. That’s just pretty much the story of my life—I have friends that push me. Even when I didn’t want to skate I had a buddy Jericho Smith, he’s on ATM, and he’s just, like, “Drop in, see if you can still do it.” After doing that muscle memory, I started falling in love with it again and whatnot with skateboarding. My friends just pushed me.
What kind of job do you do now?
I work at Sport Social; it’s a facility; I am an ABA therapist. I teach kids on the spectrum how to have motor and social skills through skateboarding and other sports. But because of my passion I push a lot of skateboarding. It’s run by a really cool skater dude and we’ve had a lot of skaters come out of there. It’s a good safety net because when anybody wants to chase their dream the facility just gives them the time and the things they need and whenever they want to come back they can come back. Like Frankie Dekker came out of here from Frog, and like I said Jericho Smith. It’s just a pillar of the skateboarding community here in Vegas.
So it’s not just for kids on the spectrum or it is?
We’re all licensed to work with kids on the spectrum. We teach all abilities but our specialty is kids on the spectrum.
Do kids on the spectrum do better on skateboards or do they go about it in a different way than other kids?
The max we usually get is teaching them to drop in or roll in or stuff like that. But it just gives them the skateboard culture. Everyone gets stoked in skateboarding when you reach your max ability and these kids get to see that so they push themselves the best they can and it really does help their motor skills. If they can drop in or go down a bank or something like that and do a little kickturn, usually they’re walking straighter, their mobility is just a lot better. Then just being in the atmosphere of the skate culture they’re friendlier, you know, you cheer for your friends when they’re skating and it’s pretty cool to see them evolve when they come to us.
Ollie in above 110-degree concrete
I found out about you through a friend who deals with this Not Impossible group. What’s that all about and how did you come in contact with them?
So I came in contact with Not Impossible because, like I said, at Sport Social, we have a skatepark in there so I skate with my friends just in this warehouse with their mini ramp. And I use this thing that’s called a BeeperBox which is an audible marker so I don’t go over the coping or off the side of the ramp. My buddy Jovan, he works at Zappos and they had a speaker at one of their crazy meetings—it was Mick from Not Impossible so he kind of suggested this idea to him, like, “I have this buddy who skates but he’s kind of stagnant right now with his skating. Is there a way we can kind of advance his skateboarding or make it more comfortable outside of the warehouse in other environments?” So Zappos and Not Impossible teamed up and made this speaker that I use to street skate or skate parks that I’m unfamiliar with.
Yeah, how does it work? I saw it in the video, but break it down.
So I’m gonna do my best to describe it. It’s a speaker and I guess it has a lot of speakers on it and those speakers cancel one another out and create a beam of sound. Imagine you can see a line—I can hear a line with this thing. So I usually set it up, if I want to pop an ollie I can set it up on the coping so I know the whole coping. Just use it as a more precise marker and it’s just been making my skateboarding progress kind of rapidly.
Decked? You know it!
Wow. So you kind of use it to know where the hard edges are, right?
Yep. So I’ll usually put it six-to-ten inches before the stairs and I’ll hear it and I pop right when I hear it. You know, just like skateboarding there’s adjustments and stuff, but yeah, it’s my line. I’ve been using it when I skate unfamiliar stuff.
How many of these sound boxes do you need to be able to skate?
Right now I’m maxed out at three. So depending on the obstacle usually just one or maybe two. Like at the Breeze, I used to be able to carve the snake run but when I have more than three it kind of messes with my ears, there’s too much going on. So the max I can usually set up is three.
Justin with his magic speaker box
Can you cruise into the park and start going or do you need your friends to kind of help set things up?
Right now I need my friends to help. Not Impossible just made a prototype that is not accessible for me, you kind of need eyes to use it. It’s made of wood and so I need some help to set it up. But when I go skating alone I’ll just take a Lyft to a skatepark that I’m familiar with and just kind of skate with my cane and stuff and not do crazy stuff. But if I’m trying harder stuff I’ll usually make sure a friend comes so I’m skating with a crew.
Yeah. So explain how you use the cane too.
I use the cane to let me know exactly what’s in front of me. I love carving, I love riding bowls and stuff like that. So I have this big ball at the end of my cane and it has a bearing inside of it and it rolls around as I’m carving around. So it will let me know where pockets are, lets me know the steepness of the bowls or things like that or if I’m skating a ledge I’ll run it against the ledge and I’ll have my line and it will just be in the crack of the ledge and the ground. So I use my cane a lot and that’s what I was using before the audible sound. So it’s just as much information that I can get and receive makes my skateboarding better.
I saw in your video you drop in on the big red bank in Vegas. I feel like there’s no amount of cane or sound or anything, you’re just saying fuck it, right?
Yeah, that one I didn’t use my cane. I had the soundbox up but I was going too fast for it to work. So I think if you notice in the video I actually switch hands as I’m going down and the cane hits the ground before I do. So I go to pop up but all that was instinct. I don’t remember. Honestly, my adrenaline was rushing so much that I really don’t remember doing it.
Heavy tail drop
Can you still drop in on vert?
Yeah, I love dropping in on vert. It’s my favorite thing. I love dropping in on anything I can.
Have you learned any new tricks since you lost your sight or are you just trying to get back your old ones?
It’s a lot of getting back my old ones. My new stuff that I’ve learned is—when I had vision I wasn’t that technical on mini ramps, I just liked carving the bowl and going fast and getting my slashes and slides in, but now I learned new stuff in the mini ramp confidently. It wasn’t my thing when I had vision but now I have time and it’s just more the way I skate. So getting more technical on the mini ramp is definitely where all my new stuff comes from. That’s the gimmick because a lot of flip tricks I really can’t do anymore; it’s like guessing. A lot of my muscle memory for that does kick in but I don’t catch stuff. Rails are gone. I can do ledges, but rails are gone because my cane goes through it. I just kind of make up what I don’t have, so I learned a new side of skateboarding.
What about hills? Do you like hills?
I used to love doing hills but I probably could only do a hill now if it was completely empty and I had a buddy in front of me to help me do it.
This all sounds super cool—you’re out there getting back, you’re out skating, but what are your goals here? Are you really trying to have a skate career? I don’t know about you, but when I was 32 I pretty much knew I wasn’t getting sponsored. What’s going on?
I want to push skateboarding in the Paralympics. It made it to the Olympics. I’ll never be able to skate in it, by the time if it ever is possible I’ll be in my 40s but I want to show kids that you can and that skateboarding is made for the visually impaired and the blind. I want that really bad. And just to do any kind of competitive Para sport and just push skateboarding in that. That’s what I want really bad. Just to show kids that skateboarding is a thing even if you can’t see.
Front three at Desert Breeze. Where’s Baca?
Yeah, it sounds like that’s kind of an extension of what your straight job is anyway, right?
Yeah. I love kids, I love pushing yourself and I think I’m in a very lucky place with my skateboarding and I love pushing myself and I love competition too. I know that there are some Para skateboarding competitions coming up that I want to get involved in. But yeah, that’s it. I want kids to be able to feel what I feel when I skateboard. I get to go fast, I get to glide, I get to fall and no one runs over and picks me up. I want kids to feel that. Any blind kid now, they fall, they have 20 parents coming over and helping them up but at the skatepark everyone’s just like you good? And then you have to get up on your own.
I didn’t even think about that. I know you and Dan had a skate background before you lost your sight. Do you think it’s possible for a kid born blind to learn to skateboard?
Yep, 100 percent. I think that it’s all feel, it’s all touch. Once they feel it out, especially transition, it’s just made for it. If they have their cane skills down they can have their balance and make new tricks. ‘Cause all we have is what people have done before us and we’ve seen them do it. So I would be very curious to see what someone born blind does with skateboarding that they think is cool.
It’s just cool because there’s not rules of what makes a trick. All the tricks are just made up from what feels cool. So if it feels cool and it’s something to you then that’s a trick.
So that’s why I’d be curious to see people with no background. Because right now what’s kind of happening to me is I’m out of the world of skateboarding ‘cause I can’t watch skate videos anymore. I can’t enjoy what other people are doing so I just kind of have to get back to what’s cool or I guess what feels good.
Caning a crail, Mike V style!
Who was your favorite skater when you were younger?
When I was super young it was Mike Vallely ‘cause I loved his creative skateboarding. I loved how badass he was. He would do a boneless and people wouldn’t say anything, so I loved that he makes skateboarding just awesome. Then my favorite of all time is Chris Haslam because he’s so creative. His skating in that Cheese and Crackers video blew my mind growing up. I just love how creative that guy is.
Is this game of SKATE with Dan Mancina gonna happen?
We already did one. He’s really good. We just did flatground and my flip tricks are not where his are. He’s a really good flip skater. It was really cool skating with him and it was a lot of fun. But yeah, I would love to do another one using the whole park or something.
Take it to the mini ramp, Dan!
Yeah, but it was really cool meeting him and especially playing SKATE. He’s actually pushed me a lot with my street skills. I think if he can do it then I have no excuse so I have to learn how to do it. He’s definitely pushed my street ability.
Snappin’ em on The Strip
Can you still see in your dreams?
Yes, I can. I dream about skateboarding sighted. I have vivid sight dreams. I always have weird dreams where I can see and then in the middle of the trick or in the middle of what I’m doing everything goes black. But yeah, I have those kind of panic dreams where I go blind in the middle of seeing.
If you could communicate one thing to the Thrasher readers out there, what’s the most important thing you want to tell people?
Don’t let your friends stop skating. I think skateboarding can get people through the harder times if they love it. It’s not just my mission, it’s also my age and skateboarding at 32 is one of the funnest times of my life. That’s what my age group has. We don’t have basketball; we don’t have pickup games of softball. Me and my buddies in the same age group, we just hit up a mini ramp or skatepark and just talk and have fun. So if you have a friend that thinks they’re too old to skate or someone that’s going through what I went through with vision, just don’t give up on it. My friends didn’t give up on me and that makes me really happy.
Watch Justin’s documentary here:
6/21/2019He may have lost his sight but he didn’t lose his love for skating. This part will inspire even the deadest of hearts. No. Excuses. Ever!