Blind B.C. writer to speak to NASA about diversity in the workplace

Vancouver-based author Ryan Knighton says although he rarely thinks about the stars, he has been asked to give a keynote speech at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre next week.

Knighton was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa on his 18th birthday but never let being blind get in the way of his appetite for life.

He now teaches creative writing at Capilano University and has written several books about travelling, parenting and life.

Knighton said, at first, he didn't think he could contribute anything to NASA as a writer with little interest in space.

But NASA gave him a demographic breakdown of the audience he will be addressing, he told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn, and he was surprised to learn that seven per cent identify as having a disability.

'Value in the differences between people'

His speech will address diversity in the workplace and the fine line between assimilation and accommodation. 

"One of the things that I've learned over the years is that the rhetoric of diversity has really changed," Knighton said.

"We thought for a lot of years about diversity as an issue of accommodation."

But, he said, there is so much more to diversity than simply trying to minimise the differences between people.

"We're in a place now where we're starting to recognize that there is a lot of value in the differences between people and you don't want to take all the edges off," Knighton said.

A different perspective 

In his case, Knighton said, blindness can add rather than subtract from his work.

"It took me a long time to embrace that I have a point of view, that blindness isn't an absence of a point of view — it is one," he said.

As an example, Knighton referenced the time he was in Cairo right after the Arab Spring. The political upheavals weren't his main concern — traffic conditions and crossing the road were.

"As a travel writer, you can send me to almost any well-covered terrain and suddenly there is a completely different perspective on it," he said.

The big message he hopes to share is that you can never know until you try, he said.

'It's just a different world'

In his teaching career, Knighton didn't know what he was going to do as his eyesight diminished and he struggled to read his students' essays.

But technology changed and his students now email him assignments, which he reads with a voice synthesizer and types back comments.  

"You come into something thinking 'I can't do this job,' but 30 years down the road, it's just a different world," he said.

The unpredictability of the future is something for employers to keep in mind too, he said.

"I think that is very similar with hiring people with diverse backgrounds and physical capabilities," he said.

"You just don't know what you're going to yield from it unless you have that at your disposal."   

With files from On The Coast.