Disability Q&As Vision & Hearing Loss

Sightless Seeing

This blind travel writer featured on This American Life says the world gets smaller for him when he travels, not bigger.

On Ryan Knighton’s 18th birthday, his doctor told him he had retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a progressive genetic disease that leads to night blindness, tunnel vision, and eventually total blindness. At the time, he was working in a warehouse driving forklifts (poorly), trying to save money to go backpacking in Europe.

The diagnosis drop-kicked Knighton onto an entirely different path. Suddenly forced to think about his future, he enrolled in college, where he discovered a knack for writing and professors who encouraged him to tell his story. This eventually led to his first memoir, Cockeyed, which describes his transformation from secretly seeing-impaired (covert strategies included hiding his blind stumbling among the expected calamity of punk clubs) to openly blind man.

At 43, he is now a memoirist twice over, a journalist, and screenwriter. He’s reported on the world’s largest rattlesnake roundup, learned to surf from a deaf friend, and gotten lost in a hotel room. His most recent screenplay is an adaption of Lisa Genova’s latest book, Inside the O’Briens, about a father with Huntington’s disease. He’s been interviewed by Ira Glass on This American Life, and Ryan Reynolds is currently attached to direct the film version of Cockeyed. We spoke with Knighton about eating insects, the unexpected pleasure of being taunted by a Mexican grandma, and the unique perspective his blindness affords him.

What did you think your future was going to be like before your diagnosis?

My plan at that point was none. I was a shit student. I had just come out of high school with C- and B-minuses. I didn’t have any kind of stellar path in front of me. I realized I’m not going to be able to work with my body, so I’m going to have to go to school. If you have to go blind, I recommend doing it at that age because you haven’t made any wrong choices yet. It’s not like you’ve committed yourself to a life of being an electrician.

If I hadn’t gone blind, I wouldn’t have become a writer. There’s absolutely no way that would have happened. I don’t know what I would have been, but I know I wouldn’t have been this.

How much does being blind influence you as a writer?

It is me as a writer. Early on some older writers told me, “You should write about it, but write about it as a point of view, not as a subject.” That always stuck with me. I’ve really been trying to do writing where blindness is taken on as an accepted point of view not as the focus.

Blindness sort of defamiliarizes the world. It’s primed to be satire for that reason, because you are the satirical point of view. You’re in the world that didn’t imagine you in it. Even in the most banal circumstances — like standing between urinals in a public washroom — there’s so much to write about. Are the urinals going to match your interpretation of the room? If you fixed my eyes, I don’t think I’d know how to write the same way anymore.

What is one of the hardest things about being blind?

My biggest issue is everybody else’s problem with it. All the issues everyone has with disability are always being projected on me, their fears or their sentimentality about it. I’m at a corner and eight people just suddenly grab me and carry me across the street. They rush to help me, even though I don’t want it or need it, because they get a kind of sickly good feeling from it. You’re kind of like a walking anti-depressant. I put on my socks and people applaud. I cut my meat in a restaurant, everybody cheers. Just being out in the public world, I’m constantly being infantilized.

All the issues everyone has with disability are always being projected on me, their fears or their sentimentality about it.

My wife and I were at this clothing store once. I was in the changing room, and she was outside. The guy who worked there said to her, “I just want to give you props for what you do for him, for being with him.” My wife was like, “What do you mean, like marrying him?” He’s like, “You know, it’s just so good what you’re doing. It’s just really great,” like it was some kind of civic duty.

What drew you to travel writing?

I think the job of the writer is to go where you’re not wanted or you’re not invited, and travel writing seemed incongruous with being blind in many ways. My mental map of my neighborhood in Vancouver’s Little Italy is so rich and detailed, that, ironically, when I travel, the world gets smaller, not bigger. When I’m on the street in another city, the thing next to me could be a mattress store or a bank. I don’t know. I move into a pencil sketch instead of a broader sense of the world by traveling.

There is no story if everything goes fine, but in my case sometimes very small things become big adventures. When my lawyer is doing my contract for editors, he loves to say, “Imagine getting off a plane and you can’t see. The airport is going to kill you. You’re going to be in the terminal and living there forever.” Everything feels like it could escalate at any moment into being a disaster of some kind. When I went to Cairo for AFAR, it wasn’t the revolution that terrified me; it was traffic. I couldn’t cross the street on my own. It was just insane.

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You seem to throw yourself into situations most people would run from. Have you always been so fearless?

No, and I’m actually not fearless. My first reaction to being told I was going to be blind was a very working-class reaction, which was, “How am I going to earn a living? Who’s going to hire me?” The next thing that crept in around the blindness, which I hadn’t really anticipated, was the danger of being safe. My life was very stable. I had my routines. I had the places I went. I’d carved out my trapline. Now suddenly you realize that the backhand of blindness is boredom, and securing yourself against embarrassment.

That kind of cloaking yourself in safety and stability is really crippling to me. It’s like, “What is the friction in my day anymore? Where is the surprise?” I find that a lot of this has been driven by me constantly hedging against the encroaching boredom that comes with being safe all the time.

What is one of your most embarrassing travel experiences?

Years ago, my wife and I went to Mexico and I wanted to have the Hemingway Old Man and the Sea moment. I wanted to catch a big fish and wrestle with the weight of something like that. We got on a boat with a couple of teenage guys who were taking me fishing. And as soon as the shoreline disappeared off the horizon, I became violently seasick.

My eyes have fluid in them. Think of a pond that you can see through and now imagine that somebody threw a bunch of sand in it. That’s what my eyes do with the fluid. It’s moving around, but there’s a sense of a straight line on the other side of it. That would be the horizon. As soon as that was gone, oh my god, I thought my head was going to implode on itself. The entire world just went liquid.

I kept twirling my finger, signaling up to them, “Turn around.” They thought it was the funniest thing on the planet. When we got off at the dock, I walked by this Mexican grandmother who had a booth selling trinkets, and she totally mocked me. She was like, “Oh, poor boy. Oh. Poor tourist. Oh, the boat.”

No extra sympathy for being blind in that case.

No, it was kind of nice to be treated as just another jerk tourist as opposed to my usual smothering and sympathy. There was no condescension. They lumped me in with all the other gringos, and that was fine.

It was kind of nice to be treated as just another jerk tourist as opposed to my usual smothering and sympathy.

What sort of experiences you do intentionally seek out as a blind travel writer?

I try to find trips where my point of view can add something to the conversation that might otherwise go unnoticed. It’s usually around the senses other than sightseeing. For example, when I did the rattlesnake roundup for VICE, I wanted to hear what 700 rattlesnakes sound like. It’s hard to find those experiences. You can’t just Google “cool smell” and find a trip.

Can you tell me about a trip that came your way because you’re blind?

I just did a travel piece for Popular Mechanics about a guy named Bun Lai. He plunked down beside me at the bar at Chicago’s Ideas Week and said, “You have to come out to my restaurant.” He’s an MMA fighter who is also a sushi chef in Connecticut. He only serves invasive and underused species, so it’s all like lionfish and weird weeds and stuff. There’s no tuna, no salmon. I’m like, “I totally want to, because I want to see what it’s like eating insects.”

In that situation it might be easier not to see.

Yeah. People are afraid of a lot of his food because it looks so different. His aesthetic was partly shaped by this young adult novel, Decay, which had a profound impact on him as a teenager. It was about a kid in World War II who was on a boat that gets torpedoed. He’s blinded and ends up washing ashore on a desert island. It’s all about him diving and foraging, and how he survives because his inhibitions are gone because he doesn’t see what he’s eating and what he’s doing.

Bun took me out skin diving for clams off the coast. Then we foraged for seaweed out in these little rocks way out in the ocean, and foraged in the forest and caught Asian shore crabs. It was fantastic.

A candid photo of Ryan Knighton.

A candid photo of Ryan Knighton.

Where are you headed next?

I’m going on a safari in Zimbabwe for AFAR. When the editor first called, she said, “Have you ever thought about going on a safari?” I said, “Fuck no.” That’s like asking me if I want to go to a drive-in movie. Why would I do that? I’m just going to be sitting in a car while somebody tells me the rumor of what’s going on out there. Then I realized it’s not about the animals for me. It’s about the guiding. I’ve been guided my entire life. I want to feel what it’s like to be guided in the most extraordinary sense and really think about the idea of guidance and what it means.

Most people focus on the animals in the safari, but there’s this interloper.  It’s that blind point of view — it amplifies things that everybody else turns the volume down on.

You mostly write screenplays now. What’s it like writing for such a visual medium?

I find that screenwriting ironically is the most comfortable fit for me. It’s endlessly surprising to me that screenwriting could be suitable to a blind person. But, when you think about it, a screenplay is basically a blind person’s document. You’re trying to describe a picture that nobody else can see.

When you think about it, a screenplay is basically a blind person’s document.

Nobody in Hollywood has really ever questioned that I can or can’t do this. Nobody has said, “Do you even watch movies?” In fact, I get a lot of compliments on how super visual my screenplays are. I think maybe sighted people think they have described things more visually than they have, because they’re not used to putting their mind’s eye into words the way I have to.

It’s sounds like the combination of being blind now and having been sighted in the past makes screenwriting a great fit.

When you go blind, your mind’s eye doesn’t go blind with you. You still want to see things sometimes. My wife has pointed out that my speech got more visual as I went blinder. I won’t say, “See you later.” I’ll say, “See you around the pool hall.” When my students are dead silent in front of me, I’ll say, “Are you guys giving me Easter Island stone face?” Part of it is just to amuse myself, but I think part of it is because I’m doodling on the world around me all the time. I’m trying to give things visual dimension, even if it’s cartoony and my own self-imposed picture.