Close your eyes. Now take a moment to consider a route you’ve probably taken thousands of times. In this instance, let’s say the path between your bedroom and your living room. It isn’t a particularly harrowing journey. You probably need to navigate around the sharp corner of a table, and a narrowing hallway, but it’s a far cry from having to attempt this journey on a city street filled with careless people, impediments on the ground, and of course, speeding cars. Despite the relative safety of one’s home, chances are that you lose faith, and you open your eyes.
Dan Mancina doesn’t have that same luxury. He was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa — a degenerative eye condition that affects 1 in 3,500 people in the United States — when he was just 13 years old. The timing was particularly cruel. The medical condition coincided with his newfound love for skateboarding which was spurned after a move from Detroit to Livonia, Michigan. The condition didn’t rob Mancina of his vision immediately, but it was in the back of his mind. It stands to reason that he could have given up skateboarding before he even experienced the thrills and slams that the sport provides. Undeterred, Mancina kept with his four-wheel journey. There’s something to be said for the power of muscle memory. Yes, you skateboard with your eyes. But more so, it’s about a feeling. And just like the mundane journey from the bedroom to the living room, Mancina made it look effortless.
As Mancina got older, his condition worsened. When he was 22, 90 percent of his sight was gone. The remaining vision was just ambient light and shadows. For all intents and purposes, he was blind. At least, that’s how the world viewed him, and how Mancina viewed himself.
“I felt like the same person, and wanted the same things, you know?” Mancina says.
According to a three-year study, the estimated prevalence of depression was 10.7 percent among adults with presenting visual acuity impairment, compared with 6.8 percent among adults with normal vision. At the time, Mancina felt isolated from the world, and he hated the feeling of having to rely on other people for tasks that were once mundane for him.
When someone is robbed of their vision, they tend to rethink their place in the world, often asking, “what does a blind person do?” The list of “don’t’s” is much longer than the “do’s”, and skateboarding definitely fell in the former category for Mancina. As a result, he abandoned the sport all together for two full years.
“One of the hardest parts for me to grasp [was] the idea that people viewed me differently or treated me differently,” Mancina says. “That was the most challenging thing for me to get over. For a while, I bought into it, low expectations and stuff like that.”
As he adjusted to his new life, he began filming random Instagram videos that somewhat poked fun at his condition, while also making a point that visually impaired people don’t cease being human beings just because they can no longer see. This line of thinking led Mancina back down the path towards skateboarding.
He first built a bench to see if he could film a trick. This was a major turning point in his life. But how exactly would he skate it without being able to see the skateboard, or gauge the height of the obstacle? The vision that he had did allow him to make out the shadow emanating from the bench. At least that was something.
Mancina strategically set the box up on a tennis court. He then placed it a few feet from a crack which would cue him when to ollie. Finally, his cane would aid him in reconnecting to his muscle memory. After a bit of trial and error, Mancina was skateboarding again.
“It’s really the same feeling — the same motivation — that I had being sighted, and now being blind,” he says. “But, it’s so similar and so different at the same time. It’s like I have to change the things that I skate to match my blindness. I don’t do the things I used to — which is frustrating — but at the same time, the goal is always to find the spot that meets my personality or my vibe or whatever I’m into.”
Like with anything that occurs in the Internet age, there’s always cynicism. What Mancina was accomplishing was inspiring to many, but also presented an added layer of complexity when it comes to the disabled community. There have been papers published about what a phenomenon that has been labeled “super cripple.” People like Stephen Hawking and Christy Brown are often referenced as examples of people with physical limitations who have gone on to live extraordinaire lives. Mancina acknowledges that his own story could be similarly categorized. and recognizes that parents of children with disabilities could place unneeded pressure on them as a result.
“Not everybody wants to skateboard — or whether it’s Erik Weihenmayer — who climbed Everest as a blind person, not everybody wants to do that,” he admits. “That’s really the only negative. I haven’t witnessed that necessarily, but I know that that is a thing within our [disabled] culture.”
It poses an existential question I’ve thought a lot about after interviewing Dan over the phone in February. Perhaps it’s why it has taken me so long to finish this profile. I had known about him for years, and had even tried tracking him down through an adidas contact. But that never panned out until I received a pitch over email: “Dan Mancina – Blind Skater Helps Other Youth Get On A Board.” It has all the makings of a good story, but it also feels a bit exploitative. For me, Dan Mancina’s story is less about him going blind, and more about him continuing to be himself.
“Really, I’m just skating, and I’m doing what I love, and hopefully other people do the same thing,” he says. “The expectations are always lower for the disabled community. You get praise and applause for doing basic and simple things. But, it’s kind of a double edge sword. On one end, you get applause for these basic things you do, but then I guess you get more applause for doing something spectacular. It actually has the power to inspire and motivate other people. And that’s kind of the side I try to focus on.”
For now, Mancina has two goals on the horizon. The first is to finish his master’s degree, and the second is to complete a skatepark for people who are not only visually impaired, but have any other forms of limitations. He imagines amenities like white floors with dark objects to aid in creating contrast, and audio speakers overhead to help with orientation in the park. In addition to the skateboarding, Mancina also wants to add elements relating to overall life skills. Skateboarding doesn’t last forever for 99 percent of population — regardless of one’s own physical limitations — but Mancina sees it as good path forward.
“There’s not many places I can go where I get the love like I do in the skateboarding culture,” he says. “It’s honestly the best, I don’t want to be anywhere else, you know, except skateboarding with the homies, and stuff like that. It’s what it’s all about.”