‘What's a blind guy from Canada going to tell NASA?’: B.C. writer asks
Vancouver travel writer and Capilano University instructor is heading to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center this week.
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Ryan Knighton, a creative writing instructor at North Vancouver’s Capilano University, truly never expected being enlisted by NASA.
But the travel writer and author of Cockeyed — a memoir about his experience of becoming blind as an adult — is headed to the U.S. to speak before space agency staff next Tuesday.
"It struck me as incredibly funny,” Knighton, 44, told Metro, laughing. “Like, what is a blind guy from Canada going to tell NASA?
"I have nothing to do with space.”
The invitation to lecture researchers and other staff at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center lifted off thanks to his 2012 appearance on the immensely popular This American Life podcast.
On the episode, Knighton recounted a distinctly North Vancouver experience: nearly having a run-in with a bear on campus. Except he was a blind man carrying his young daughter on his back. (It turned out she was yelling, “Bear!” about a teddy bear she’d dropped).
“It was a story ultimately about being a blind dad raising my daughter, and she had to learn that I couldn't see,” he recalled. “It's an interesting moment learning the consciousness of another person — imagining the world from another point of view."
The Goddard is NASA's most important research facility. It's in charge of the famous Hubble Space Telescope, and has nearly completed its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope ever created. It's also behind the instruments aboard the Curiosity Rover currently exploring Mars, and the first spacecraft to explore Pluto. And its scientists are global experts on climate change here on Earth, as well.
But the organizer of Maryland-based Goddard’s leadership colloquium speaker series told him there was no need to relate his talk to space, science, or exploration in any way. They were particularly interested in the importance of workplace diversity.
“'Just do what you do,’” the NASA staffer told him. “‘You don't need to try to speak to the space-like people.'”
She even sent him a detailed breakdown of Goddard’s own demographics, and he was surprised that seven per cent of employees identified as disabled. He decided he’d share his ideas on different points of view.
“We typically think of diversity issues in the workplace as accommodation — how to accommodate people with physical differences and other very practical concerns — but we don't want to erase the differences of points of view,” he mused. “In some ways, the friction of differences is where a lot of interesting stuff happens.”
As a frequent travel writer, he explained, his unique point of view as a blind man mean that run-of-the-mill vacations can turn into wondrous, thrilling or terrifying adventures.
The East Vancouver resident was recently sent by a magazine on a safari in Zimbabwe, where he ended up walking through the bush — “the scariest thing I’ve ever done” — and hearing one of the “rarest sounds on the planet,” a brawl between a pack of hyenas and a pack of African wild dogs.
“It sounded like an alien war,” he quipped.
Other speakers in the Goddard Exploring Leadership colloquia series include a thinker on gender and technology, a symphony conductor, and an IMAX cinematographer.
“They're not even necessarily tailoring the talks to subjects that seem relevant to NASA in an obvious way,” Knighton said, “which I think is a testimony to their curiosity.
“I make my career as a writer out of trying to figure out where I am. And I think that's probably one of the most fundamental questions NASA asks about where we are in the universe and what's out there.”