Bob Groeneveld/Special to the Langley Advance
Don’t assume that the guy with the white cane is lost.
If he is Ryan Knighton, he is totally blind… and more than likely completely in control.
His 10-year-old daughter understands. She has more difficulty with people’s perception of her father’s “disability” than with his blindness.
“You know, when we take the bus to and from schools, there are always people desperate to help me,” said Ryan, “and she finds it all very puzzling, because she doesn’t see me as somebody who’s completely incapable.”’
Ryan became totally blind over the period of a decade or so, after he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa around the time he graduated from Langley Secondary School.
The diagnosis was literally life-changing. It set him on a course dramatically different from what he had previously envisioned for himself.
The Hollywood screenwriter who works from his Vancouver home noted, “I don’t think I’d be a writer if I hadn’t lost my sight. That wasn’t the path I was headed down. I was driving forklifts poorly in a warehouse when I came out of high school.”
He decided on post secondary education because, “I felt I had to do something, to find something that didn’t require physical labour.”
Retinitis pigmentosa is slow, but relentless.
“It starts by losing your night vision,” Ryan explained, “so if you’re in a dark room and there’s two candles, I could see the flames of the candles but they wouldn’t illuminate anything. They’d just be two distinct points of light. It’s not very functional.”
In the daytime, peripheral vision narrows and disappears: “Think of it like bull’s-eye rings start closing in and tunnelling.”
At university, he could see three or four letters at a time. “I would see ‘hen’ and then realize I was looking at the word ‘then.’”
“That’s why I started to read poetry,” he explained, “because you don’t want to read Dickens when you read like that. So I studied a very short list of poets, and it got me through.”
From his diagnosis at 18, it took about four years before he picked up a white cane. “But I would say I really stopped seeing by the time I was in my early 30s.”
Things seemed to work out for him in a lot of different ways.
“I think I just encountered the right people at the right time,” he recalled. “I still marvel that when I found out I was going blind and I decided to go to university and study poetry, my parents never balked at that at all. I think of that now, as a parent, that that takes a lot of courage, to say, ‘Yeah, you go do that.’”
“A shout-out to my parents – good on them!” he added.
One of Ryan’s professors had a great influence on his life, not only steering him into writing – “you know, he made me feel like I was actually pretty good at it” – but also set him on a path to deal with his blindness.
George Bowering saw Ryan walking outside, “and he pointed to me and said, ‘You’ve got retinitis pigmentosa, haven’t you?’”
Ryan had told no one about his problem yet, but Bowering recognized it in his walk.
“There’s a very specific shuffle you can develop from the tunnel vision,” Ryan explained, and Bowering had a friend from childhood who had it.
“I was pretty lucky,” said Ryan, “because [Bowering] taught me about literature, and his friend, Willy, taught me about going blind. He didn’t make it seem so frightening.”
“He was one of the big figures, if I look back over my career,” said Ryan of his professor who later was named Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate, “because he definitely put me in a direction. I had never thought of becoming a writer, but I really admired him, and I loved his take on the world. I loved the way he talked, the way his mind worked. When you’re young, you’re looking for models like that.”
“Sometimes,” Ryan noted, “you have to stumble across the right person at the right moment.”
A creative writing and English instructor at Capilano University, Ryan has been working at writing screenplays for the past seven or eight years. “I’ve sold maybe 10 features and three TV show pilots.”
It started with a adaptation of one of his own books. “Then I went to the Sundance Lab, and that’s how I got connected with Jodi Foster. And that opened a lot of doors for me.”
He’s still waiting for the big break – he’s making a short film of a comedy pilot, a “proof of concept.”
But other than that, “All the movies I’ve written – it’s all sort of research and development in Hollywood, there’s lots of people writing and maybe one per cent get their stuff made – all my stuff has yet to be made.”
Meanwhile, there are other projects.
He has been invited to lecture for NASA, and he recently wrote a travel feature about being blind on a safari adventure in Africa.
Another travel magazine assignment got him into surfing at Tofino, with a deaf friend. They thought it would make a good story, with “a blind guy and a deaf guy yelling, ‘Where are you?’ and, ‘What?’ at each other.”
It didn’t turn out as funny as expected, but he’s still surfing. His daughter Tess and his wife Tracey, whom he met in his university days at SFU, got him a bright yellow T-shirt that says, “Caution! Blind man.”
“My daughter was convinced that people wouldn’t get the joke, so in parentheses underneath it [I added] ‘(For real).’”
He’s pretty sure that it was the Langley Advance that published his first piece – long before he had an inkling that he might become a writer.
“I think it was Grade 4 or 5. We had a field trip to the paper and as a class we got to make an insert supplement for the paper. I did a profile of my grandfather’s music repair shop, Knighton Music, which was down by the Langley Mall for many years.
“It might have been one of ‘those moments’ for me. I remember my article was quite big, and I took it very seriously. It was cool. Let’s just say that’s when I started [writing].”
He still comes to Langley to visit his parents. But he’s noticed a lot of changes: “Langley is like an alien landscape to me now.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s lost.
“People try to be kind and all that stuff, but I usually don’t need help,” he said. Nevertheless, he tries to “indulge it kindly… there’s always that thing where the next blind guy may need it more than me.”
“It’s funny though how often people can be almost aggressively Good Samaritan about these things,” he added. “Even when I say I don’t want help, I’ll often get hands on my elbow, getting dragged to who knows where.
“It’s just part of the wear and tear of the day you have when you’re a blind guy. People just want to help you all the time.”
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