Shredding After Dark
When Justin Bishop went blind, his skateboarding career's second act took on new clarity
Justin Bishop’s skate gear goes well beyond the usual stuff like his board, pads, and shoes. “My skate backpack is just insane,” he says. “It has so many different tools to help me get whatever trick I want.” Tools such as “beeper boxes” that alert him to curbs and ramp edges, and a cane with a ball-bearing tip. “That way, my cane is constantly touching the ground,” the native Las Vegan explains. “When you’re skateboarding, even a millisecond that you lose contact with the ground, you don’t know what’s in front of you.”
Such specialized tools are indispensable to the 35-year-old skateboarder, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 8, a degenerative condition that eventually causes blindness. But Bishop’s most indispensable tool is also the most intangible: His determination to continue skateboarding after he became fully sightless when he was 25. Today you can catch videos of him shredding at parks and on ramps on videos from The New Yorker and Thrasher Magazine — not to mention inspiring other kids with disabilities to pursue the growing sport of adaptive skateboarding.
But it was not an easy ride. When Bishop’s vision went away, it went fast and hit him hard. “I stopped skating. I stopped everything,” he recalls. He now considers it almost advantageous that his sight went as quickly as it did. “It was almost like all my usable sight was gone within a week. I finally got to grieve for what I lost and hit depression.”
For the next few years, Bishop focused on becoming independent again. He learned how to read Braille, how to use VoiceOver screenreaders to stay connected with technology, and he worked on orientation and mobility training. But it seemed that skateboarding was a thing of the past for the athlete who had garnered his first pro sponsorships as a teenager. Not only that, he couldn’t find any job that would hire him. Bishop vented his frustrations to his friend, Andrew Devitt, the founder of Sport-Social, a local organization that aims to develop the social and behavioral skills of special needs children through music, art, and sports. Devitt hired Bishop as a therapist to teach motor skills development through skateboarding. For the first few months, the boards often didn’t even have wheels as Bishop instructed the students on balance and stance. As the students progressed, Bishop had to as well. “It wasn’t until they started to have to stand on the skateboard and I had to show them how to do it. When they would stand on it, I’d feel their feet and where the placements are. That’s how it slowly got me back on the board.”
Eventually, Bishop dropped in at a friend’s quarter pipe. The moment was seminal. Bishop recalls, “I dropped down, and I’m so happy. I come up to the other side and actually hang up on the other side and it slams me down to the ground. It was everything that skateboarding involves happened in that 10 seconds — success, failure, pain. I missed all of it.”
Bishop came back to the sport with a vengeance. He practiced in his garage, with the doors closed. He bought a balance board to retrain his muscles inside his house. Regularly finishing in the top two of adaptive skate competitions, now a regular event on the Dew Tour, last year Bishop was the overall points leader in the field. It took him this long to get back, but he thinks finally hit a groove.
Longtime friend Michael J. Herbert remembers the moment when he realized that Bishop was bound for greatness in his new career as an adaptive skateboarder. Bishop was contracted through Zappos to do a gig at The Smith Center at which the company built a half-pipe for him to perform his tricks.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Holy shit. He’s not only a blind skateboarder, but he’s amazing at it,’” Herbert recalls. “Just watching him on stage with a crowd of people cheering him brought a tear to my eye.”
“When you first start skateboarding, it’s a lot about recklessly hoping for the best,” Bishop says. “After you do it for long enough and things start making sense, then it’s about controlling the chaos. For the second time in my life, it’s been feeling like that. I’m actually controlling the chaos instead of recklessly hoping for the best that the trick happens. I can make it happen now. It feels great.”
The world has certainly taken notice: His sponsors include Nike SB and Element, and he’s featured in a Ruffles commercial with LeBron James.
He’s also been working with USA Skateboarding to get adaptive skateboarding in the Summer Paralympics in 2028, which take place in Los Angeles, where skateboarding first became huge in the 1970s and 1980s.
However, Bishop doesn’t want to win the ’28 Paralympics competition. In fact, he doesn’t even want to compete. “By then, I’ll be 42, so I’ll be able to check out the youth I inspired. Hopefully they’ll be skating in it. My goal is to not be able to qualify for it. I want other blind kids to beat me out. If they can beat me out, then I did good.” Φ